Graeme Menzies is a former director of communications for the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games.
No democratic country wants their best athletes used as props in a propaganda scheme, nor do they want to signal weakness on human rights. And yet it seems that is exactly what will happen when Beijing plays host to the Winter Olympic Games about a year from now.
China is determined to play host to the Games, which they were awarded in 2015; they even recently threatened to punish countries that refused to participate. British and U.S. lawmakers have called for a boycott over the Chinese Communist Party’s alleged human-rights violations in Xinjiang – just this week, Canada’s House of Commons voted to declare the government’s actions to be “genocide,” while two Canadians continue to sit in jail in China on bogus charges.
And so, we are stuck. Like a ski-jump athlete already on the ramp, there are very few options now for a peaceable Olympics.
The reasons for this mess are manifold. But the most fundamental one is the way in which the Olympics farms out the Games to host cities – a model that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) needs to end.
The warning signs around this model have been there for some time. In recent decades, cities playing host to the summer or winter Olympic Games have faced legitimate questions regarding their cost and the value returned to their communities. Some host cities have handled these issues well (Calgary in 1988 and Vancouver in 2010 come to mind), while others less so (Brazil spent billions of dollars on soccer stadiums for Rio’s 2016 Games that are already falling apart).
But Canada’s current struggle to reconcile its athletes’ participation on Chinese soil has only highlighted the fact that the Games themselves are increasingly being held hostage by governments that can afford to play host to them. Moving the Olympics from China is ultimately a non-starter because of the simple logistical fact that no other country can offer an alternative on such short notice.
When the modern Olympics began a century ago, the world was not the global village it is today – there was no television coverage of any sporting event, because there was no television at all. International travel was something only those with wealth, power and leisure time could experience. Community sport and leisure infrastructure was basic, at best. The world was dominated by monarchs, empires and tycoons. Diversity was found in a stock portfolio.
In that context, the original idea behind the host-city approach – that world peace could be facilitated through the medium of sport, that national pride and patriotism could be expressed on the field of play rather than at the Somme, and that holding the Games in different cities around the world would stimulate cross-cultural friendship and understanding – was truly inspired and unique. It was right for the times. But this is no longer the 20th century, and the IOC needs to upgrade the Games’ delivery model.
To begin its realignment with the present era, the IOC should build permanent summer and winter sport infrastructure at its home base in Switzerland. This would include core ceremonial and sport venues that can be used for training year-round, and on those special years when athletes from around the world are invited to compete in the Games. It would also include accommodation facilities, as well as a permanent media centre and broadcast venue. After all, with most people now viewing Olympic events from home on TV or online, it makes no difference if the swimming pool is in Lucerne or London, or whether the running track is in Bern or Berlin.
But the IOC can go further by unbundling the events within the Games and spreading some of those events around the world. It is entirely possible today to simultaneously hold an Olympic alpine ski race in St. Moritz, an Olympic biathlon in Whistler, and an Olympic ski jump event in Pyeongchang. Imagine getting up early in the morning to watch the Canadian alpine team compete live in Europe, next catching our biathlon team in North America, then over to the ski jump team in Asia. You could have live, global, non-stop Olympic entertainment virtually 24 hours a day.
Unbundling the Olympic Games would also enable the IOC to achieve something it has struggled to achieve in the past century: hosting participation from a broader number of countries. Under the current model, the Games are so massive and expensive that only wealthy countries are able to hold them. None of the 54 National Olympic Committees from Africa have ever hosted the Olympics. But if the Games were unbundled, Kenya could host a summer running event, for instance; Mauritius could host a summer fencing event, and so on. But why stop there? Argentina could run the summer equestrian event; India could be home to summer wrestling; Greenland would be ideal for winter biathlon; give Scotland winter curling. Global Olympics can exist and continue if reconfigured in this way – in fact, they could be even more international and inclusive than their current incarnation.
By creating permanent facilities in Switzerland and enhancing those core sporting venues with rotating spin-off events in other places around the globe, the IOC can craft Olympic Games that are in tune with the realities and opportunities of the 21st century. Not only that, but this new model would enable the Games to continue without the patronage of governments who might seek to abuse them – in contravention of the Olympic spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.
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