We need to confront the Olympic underworld to ensure humane games

We need to confront the Olympic underworld to ensure humane games
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For the first time in its history, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is engaging in two destructive and self-serving campaigns: the Summer Olympics of 2021 in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The IOC is determined to preserve its role as the world’s indispensable impresario of symbolic global harmony. It has waged its most recent Olympic promotional campaign while dismissing the dangers of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, it is ignoring the genocidal practices of the Chinese regime against Muslim Uyghurs, being carried out in the western province of Xinjiang.  

These decisions continue a long tradition that began with the 1936 Olympics staged in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin, a propaganda coup for the Nazi regime. The IOC has since formed partnerships with every authoritarian regime that has wanted to stage the games for its propagandistic purposes: Mexico in 1968; the Soviet Union in 1980; China in 2008 and 2022; and Russia in 2014. The 1988 Seoul Games were awarded in 1981 to a military regime that a year earlier had massacred hundreds of political demonstrators.  


The IOC justifies its partnerships with oppressive regimes by invoking the redemptive ambitions of its members. Their unique brand of show-business internationalism has been built on the appealing fantasy that the Olympic movement is a peace movement — that was their public relations gift to the Nazi regime.  

The mesmerizing ceremonies and competition of an Olympiad seduce their global audiences that seem to turn enormous stadiums into illusory cathedrals of “peace” and “harmony.” 

How does the IOC manage the contradiction between the commitment to human dignity and alliances with regimes that commit crimes against humanity? 

The ethos that shapes the power politics in global sports is best exemplified by Vladimir Putin, sponsor of both the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics and the elaborate doping scheme that produced many Russian medals before whistleblowers stepped forward.   

News outlets seem to have forgotten that the three Russian whistleblowers are currently under the protection of the U.S. Justice Department’s witness protection program. Also forgotten are the suspicious deaths of Nikita Kamaev and Vyacheslav Sinev, two officials of the Russian Anti-Doping Agency. 

Never before had global sports governance sunk to the level of anti-whistleblower terror and the assassinations of sports officials.  

Most alarming is the fact that neither the IOC nor the World Anti-Doping Agency has dared to make this an issue as they have “negotiated” with the Russians to get them back to officially participating in the 2021 Tokyo Games. In short, Putin has intimidated the world’s most powerful sports organizations that are supposed to set and enforce global standards of conduct. 

But the underbelly of global sports has long harbored criminals. The disgraced former FIFA president, Sepp Blatter, was an honorary IOC member for many years before he was suspended for his involvement in a huge corruption scandal. Gafur Rakhimov, the deposed president of the International Boxing Association, was described by the U.S. Treasury Department as a major international drug dealer. Tamás Gyárfás, once on the executive board of the International Swimming Federation, has been charged in Hungary with ordering the murder of a business rival. Lamine Diack, the longtime president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, took bribes from the Russians and is serving time in a French prison.  

The IOC is a rogue nongovernmental organization that maintains its power by partnering with governments whose agendas have nothing to do with human rights. Today, there is no authority that can regulate them apart from a powerful sovereign nation that perceives a national interest in disciplining the IOC’s sponsorship of authoritarian regimes.  

The good news is that Amnesty International and other groups are waging a global campaign to educate the world about how the games are subject to political exploitation. There is still enough time to catalyze a critical mass of international opinion that will shut down the disgraceful Beijing “festival” before the opening ceremony can launch its fireworks into the evening sky.  

John Hoberman is a professor of Germanic studies at The University of Texas at Austin.