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How the Olympic Games are inherently political

The Olympic flag flutters near the Cauldron at the Olympic Park during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.
Adrian Dennis
AFP/Getty Images
The Olympic flag flutters near the Cauldron at the Olympic Park during the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics.

The 2022 Winter Olympic Games are underway in Beijing, China. On the surface, people around the world are gearing up to cheer on the athletes from their home countries. But there is so much more happening underneath the pomp and circumstance of the Opening Ceremony, especially this year.

NHPR’s Hannah McCarthy recently dug into the politics behind the Olympic Games in a recent episode of Civics 101. She spoke with Morning Edition host Rick Ganley about what she found.


Rick Ganley: There's so much to get to here. But first, let's talk about the process for deciding who even gets to host the Games. In this episode, you talk about how the majority of residents and local cities across the world don't actually want to host the Games. Why the pushback?

Hannah McCarthy: There are a number of factors that contribute to why cities across the country really don't want the Games. The number one pushback item here is cost overruns. So let me just give you an example here. When Tokyo made a bid for the Olympics, the projected cost to the city of Tokyo was $7.3 billion. So that's nothing to sniff at. The ultimate cost for the Olympics in Tokyo was $30 billion. This is taxpayer money. Some of it is subsidized by the International Olympic Committee, but you always have citizens of cities looking at the ultimate cost of the Olympics and saying that's far too much. We don't want to be in the hole for hosting these Games.

There's another factor that's pretty important: the militarization of public space. You know, when you have a large amount of people descending on a single location, the security risk goes up, right? And then, of course, the Olympics have become a target of explicit terrorist attacks. This has been something that's been going on for the past couple of decades. So naturally, cities will use this as an opportunity to buy equipment for their police force that they wouldn't otherwise be able to get greenlit, let's say, in a vote or a ballot measure.

And then you have to build the Olympic Village somewhere. You have to build your venue somewhere. And often that results in the displacement of communities because you have to move them in order to build these places. And then the final factor that often gets a lot of pushback from activists in various cities is this notion of greenwashing. So a city may promise that the Olympics are going to result in big ecological gains for that city. We're going to invest a ton of money in making this a green functioning city. And then ultimately what is promised is very rarely delivered on. So when it comes to the cost to the citizens of a city, it's pretty high.

Rick Ganley: And of course, all of these things have implications for years after the fact. So who are the folks who are in favor of actually hosting games? How do they benefit?

Hannah McCarthy: If you are a mayor of a city and you put in an Olympic bid, first of all, what's happening is that you are very quickly shuttled up into this upper elite echelon of individuals who work for the International Olympic Committee, really big power players in the world. So you're hobnobbing with the wealthiest elite. I mean, the International Olympic Committee, it's got a lot of aristocrats, a lot of royals on the committee. It is a volunteer position, but it's certainly a pretty swanky one. And in addition to the networking that you get, you also get to say, hey, I brought the Olympics to my city.

Rick Ganley: Now I know the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles is sometimes referred to as a very successful year for the Games, but some folks who lived through it on the local level feel very differently. Can you tell us about that?

Hannah McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely. So what you'll hear from politicians who remember those Games is that, you know, there was a great swelling of public morale. The Games ultimately did not result in the city being in the red. But then if you ask communities of color, if you ask Latino communities, if you ask AfricanAmerican communities, what they remember from the 1984 Games are helicopters constantly hovering above their neighborhoods. They remember this militarization of their space. They remember feeling like their city was sort of being taken away from them. And so we've got the Olympics coming back to L.A., and you've got activists who have started a campaign called No Olympics Los Angeles. They are remembering how those Games went, and they are saying, hey, no, it wasn't so great for us, and you have to pay attention to the citizens who are affected by bringing these Olympic Games to my city.

Rick Ganley: Now Hannah, in this episode of Civics 101, you dig into the 1936 Olympics in Berlin and how that year really demonstrates the political power of the Games. What was the global impact of the '36 Games?

Hannah McCarthy: Well, what happened, Rick, is that you had individuals in the United States who were looking at Chancellor Hitler being in charge of Germany and about to host these Olympic Games. And you had activists saying, hey, we know that there is strong anti-Jewish sentiment in this nation. We don't want to go to these Games. So the United States sends a scout to Germany. Turns out this particular scout has a lot of anti-Semitic views. The scout comes back and says Chancellor Hitler is great. We should absolutely go to the games.

The entire world ends up going to these games in Berlin, and what happens is Chancellor Hitler gets rave reviews. You can watch the opening ceremonies for these games and see essentially representatives from around the world saluting Hitler. And what then happens is that Chancellor Hitler and Germany are given this platform of legitimacy. Very shortly thereafter, this legitimate nation begins invading. And so, these Games were used then and continue to be used by nations as a way to say, aren't we wonderful? Aren't we a part of the global community? Which doesn't necessarily reflect the true intentions of a nation.

Rick Ganley: Now, in the past, athletes themselves have used their time at the Olympics to make political statements. But the International Olympic Committee, they're not fans of individual athletes using those Games as a platform. Can you talk about how countries have the opportunity to use the Olympics for political gain, but there are barriers in place for athletes to advocate for change?

Hannah McCarthy: Yeah, absolutely. Well, these are global Games, right? They are a natural place for soft power being thrown around for diplomatic moments. If you look at the upcoming 2022 Winter Olympics, the United States is using that as a political opportunity. Because of accusations of human rights abuses in China, the United States is saying we are having a diplomatic boycott. That is so explicitly political. We will not be sending representatives to these Games, because we do not want to be seen as in any way condoning what is possibly happening in China right now.

Meanwhile, you've got a rule on the books of the International Olympic Committee that says sports are not remotely political. The Olympics are not remotely political and athletes are prohibited from having any sort of political demonstration, be it on the medal stand, which has happened in the past, or during the Games themselves. So there is a little bit of a disconnect there. While these Olympic Games are quite clearly a political event, we are saying that the athletes themselves must be sort of pure and above all of that, which of course ultimately doesn't really work out. These athletes will find ways to speak out to use their platform the same way that their host nation and their home nation are using that platform.

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