The politics of the 2016 Olympic Games

On Friday 2 October 2009 the world watched as the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Jacques Rogge, opened the envelope and announced Rio de Janeiro as the host city for the Summer Olympic Games of 2016.
Rogge’s announcement brought tears to some and joy to others. Always given to celebration, the people of Brazil and of Rio de Janeiro in particular, greeted the announcement with a tremendous outpouring of merriment that extended well beyond the evening.
But the decision of the IOC to award the Games to Rio was not without the usual concern and curiosity.
Many hankered back to the scandal that struck at the very heart of the IOC when Salt Lake City was awarded the Winter Olympics of 2002 and wondered whether the organisation had finally risen above the corruption that was unearthed back then.
Despite the claims of having gone well beyond the Salt Lake City scandal, there remain many sceptics who believe that the politics in sport is far more destructive and sinister than what is characteristic of national politics in different countries around the world.
The Games, commercialisation and international politics
The founding fathers of the modern Olympic Games had insisted that they were to be a celebration of the youth of the world in friendly competition. One does not get the impression that they were ever intended to become something of a political tool responsive to the machinations of a select few.
Today’s reality however leaves many in doubt as to what has become of the modern Olympics.
It was in 1984 that for the very first time the Olympic Games changed. The Organising Committee of the Los Angeles Olympic Games in that year, led by Peter Uberroth, engaged a number of sponsors who were persuaded to enter into contracts with the International Olympic Committee for a sustained period during which time they would continue to provide funding in exchange for the rights to be associated with the Olympic Rings, the emblem of the International Olympic Committee. This arrangement with long- term sponsors eventually evolved into what is now The Olympic Programme (TOP) with some 10 sponsors involved all of whom are considered partners of the IOC. It was these same Games that saw the introduction of television rights and a slew of local sponsors.
The 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games can be seen as the commencement of the commercialisation of the modern Olympics.
There are some who would readily suggest that where there is money there is corruption. The Olympic Games are no different. No sooner had the Games been commercialised that there were signals that bidding cities could garner votes in their quest to host the Games over their rivals by offering benefits to individuals and organisations.
The Salt Lake City scandal emerged as a surprise only to those who seemed to have been all too eager to turn a blind eye to what was happening in the aftermath of the commercialisation of the Games.
The IOC, clearly embarrassed by the startling revelations surrounding the Salt Lake City scandal appears to have engaged in actions that at best sought to quickly remove itself from the negative international media limelight by the establishment of a perceived high powered investigating body, the disciplining of some of its officials and the creation of an Ethics Commission. This action was, for us in the Caribbean, a familiar strategy. In the days of colonialism it was the strategy of choice of the colonisers in response to crises in the colonies. Quickly establish a Commission of Inquiry and take on board some of its recommendations while the situation settles down to the point of being forgotten by the protagonists of change.
The IOC’s actions in the wake of the Salt Lake City scandal may well have appeased some but there remain many who are yet to be convinced that the situation has undergone any real change.
While pronouncing its continued commitment to capping the trend towards commercialisation of the modern Olympics, the IOC says precious little about the millions expended on the bidding process by cities desirous of hosting the prestigious event.
To some, the continued seeming hegemonic control of a few operating much like an archaic secret lodge rather than a modern democratic and open institution leaves much to be desired and leaves far more questions than answers to the casual observer.
The real politics within the IOC remains to this day its major blight.
The Obamas and 2016
There is much speculation as to why the US President thought it necessary for both he and his wife to journey to Copenhagen last week to add their voices to Chicago’s bid for the Summer Olympics of 2016. Whatever about the speculation the reality is that they are Chicagoans and committed themselves to the cause of the city in its quest for the Games.
Foolishly, critics and some otherwise influential media personnel saw the President’s presence at the IOC Session as an international referendum on his first year as president and consequently, the early exit of Chicago was perceived as a slap in the face for him.
One cannot believe that the Obamas could have been naïve enough to believe that their mere presence and brief speeches would have turned the Games in Chicago’s favour. They must have been apprised of the real politics that is the decision-making process for the selection of the host city for any edition of the modern Olympics.
The Obamas may well have been persuaded to participate in the final salvo of Chicago in Copenhagen because it has almost become normative for the head of government of the bidding cities to not merely endorse the bid of one of their cities but to be present to give testimony to their commitment to the funding that is obviously required to facilitate the satisfaction of all of the promises enunciated in the Bid Document submitted to the IOC.
Chicago’s seemingly bland reformulation of the Obama campaign theme, “Yes we can’, did little to cut through the clutter of shenanigans that is the decision-making process at the IOC.
Chicago and Tokyo
Critical analysts of bidding cities for the Olympic Games of the modern era seem to have been impressed by the submission of Tokyo. Indeed the previous evaluation report on the bidding cities had Tokyo well ahead of its rivals. The Japanese city was considered to have prepared the most technically sound bid of the final four – Chicago, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro and Tokyo.
Going into the elections many thought that the only negative working against Tokyo would have been the protestations at home by those who felt strongly that greater attention needed to be paid to the national economy rather than seek to spend billions on the Olympic Games. But this should not have impacted the decision of the IOC members since there was far more global protest against granting the 2008 Olympics to Beijing, given that country’s poor human rights record and particularly the horrific legacy that is the massacre in Tiananmen Square.
Some believed that Chicago had what was required to steal the Games of 2016. They felt that despite the rough economic times that the US is facing the people of Chicago were committed lovers of sport enough to win the Games. After all, this was the city that agreed to the Chicago Bulls paying Michael Jordan’s high contracts because they loved him and what he did for the city through his magic on the Basketball court.
Chicago’s Bid Committee seemed to have believed that they had done enough to close the gap on Tokyo. The US media for became convinced that somehow, going into the final days before the IOC’s decision, Chicago has emerged as the favourite in the race to win the rights to host the 2016 Games.
When Chicago was thrown out of the race in the very first round, capturing only 18 of the 97 votes available, the shock sent ripples everywhere. The Bid Committee and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) were devastated and perhaps, even at the time of writing, may well not have recovered.
When Tokyo was thrown out in the second round of voting by the IOC, the pundits were surprised.
To many, something had gone wrong. They seemed shocked and turned their attention then to Rio as the new favourite.
Rio and the Games of 2016
The first chance for the Olympic Games to come to South America has eventually arrived. It emerged when the IOC, in the third and final round of voting elected Rio de Janeiro as the host of the Summer Olympics of 2016.
Once Tokyo and Chicago were out of the way in the earlier rounds of voting the obvious choice was Rio de Janeiro.
Many of the major international sports Federation have been seeking ways of ensuring that their best events find their way around the world rather than be cloistered in one or two parts of the world.
The strength of Rio’s bid seemed to have been vested in the fact that the Olympics have never been held in South America and that it was time that this travesty be corrected. This was eventually elevated into a very emotional Bid. There is no doubt that Rio is a most beautiful city and Brazil a major global economic power. Brazilians are avid sports fans who are fully supportive of their national teams regardless of the sport being contested. Indeed, during the 2007 Pan American Games, Brazilians watching track and field athletics could not contain their emotions when a Brazilian athlete was defeated. There was at least once instance where the crowd refused to stand up for the playing of the national anthem of the winner’s country because the local athlete lost. There were also occasions when the partisan crowd booed the opponents of the local hero in the competition.
Brazilian President, Lula Da Silva, epitomised the emotional nature of Rio’s Bid when he broke down in tears during the press conference held in Copenhagen following the announcement of the results of the final vote. He committed his government to the provision of all the facilities required to host the Games in 2016.
For many, Rio’s success now opens the way for South Africa to make its Bid, once more, for the Olympic Games, since Africa is now the only major continent that has not yet played host to the Olympic Games. FIFA has already capitulated to the same apparent philosophy and to many the IOC may well be amenable to going that route.
An African Bid for the Olympic Games would perhaps generate a much higher level of emotional support than Rio, given the extensive nature of the African Diaspora.
One wonders, however, whether the sport politics would play in favour of an African country’s bid for the Games in the near future.