Chapter 5 of the Olympic charter states “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The ostensible purpose of that rule is to allow for the huge global sporting event to bring people together, without fear of discrimination or of political upset. The Olympics is meant to be a blank slate where all the participant countries are united as one.
That, at least, is the utopian view of what the Olympics is, and what its governing body aims for. In practice, the Olympics are an expensive, large scale exercise in distracting citizens from problems and atrocities they face back home. Olympic pride also helps governments assimilate people into becoming nationalists, rooting for their own country and vilifying others.
Indeed, the Olympics are one big political demonstration—but for the rulers of the respective countries, not their citizens. While leaders get to preen at sending delegations to compete, or hosting the games, they strip the athletes themselves from any political speech for the brief moment they appear on a global platform that millions of people around the world might see.
Roman satirical poet Juvenal first wrote about “panem et circenses”—translated as “bread and circuses”—around 100 AD. Centuries that have passed, though his message still resonates to this day.
He wrote with disdain about how citizens effectively gave up their political voices in exchange for cheap food and entertainment—to watch gladiator matches in the coliseum. Those matches effectively were a mass distraction from societal ills (pdf), whether poverty or impending wars. Thousands of years later, nothing has really changed.
“Rome is the mob. Conjure magic for them and they’ll be distracted. Take away their freedom and still they’ll roar. The beating heart of Rome is not the marble of the Senate, it’s the sand of the coliseum.”—says Gracchus, played by Derek Jacobi, to Falco in the film Gladiator.
While there have been times when countries have been banned from the Olympics, countries that aren’t banned earn a kind of implicit seal of approval; their internal politics are “good enough” to allow them on the world stage. In turn, those nations are able to boost their own internal and external propaganda, and deflect their citizens from the issues at home.
Over the years, we’ve seen country after country spend inordinate amounts of money on stadiums and ceremonies to send audiences around the world into a state of awe—and oblivion, to the huge problems those nations create for their citizens.
China, which has a long history of human rights abuses, hosted the Olympics in 2008, and despite the sharp increase of human rights violations that were directly related to preparations for the games, it was still able to freely present to the world the “modern yet ancient” image it created for itself. Indeed, China has won the 2022 Winter Olympics for Beijing—the first time the Winter and Summer games will be hosted by the same city. Brazil massively overspent on hosting the 2016 Olympics instead of investing in solving its problems with slums and poverty. And like China, Brazil violated a number of human rights when it came to preparing for the games. Let’s not forget about Russia—the country that hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics, despite its long and continual history of human rights violations. Russia, just one cycle removed from hosting the games in Sochi, has been banned from the Winter Olympics because of its doping cover-up—but not because of its prolific problems with human rights violations.
The Olympics allow participating nations to stand on a world stage, despite some of them being repressive authoritarian states that keep their citizens in check with fear and unchecked power. This year, for example, the Olympics allowed North Korea to again put forward athletes to compete. Apparently, the gross human rights violations committed by the North Korean government, such as enslavement, torture, imprisonment, rape, and forced abortion, were not enough to keep the International Olympic Committee (IOC) from pretending everything is ok. Though an argument can be made that denying North Korea the right to participate would amount to punishing its athletes for the atrocities of the regime, a stronger argument is that the regime needs to be called out for its crimes, which could, in the long run, bring about change that leads to quality of life improvements for all North Koreans.
Another nation that has successfully used to the Olympics to detract from internal human rights violations, and deliver propaganda that it is socially progressive, is Saudi Arabia. For the 2016 Olympics in Brazil, we saw the smiling faces of female Saudi athletes being able to participate in the games. But that doesn’t negate the fact that women are banned from actually participating in sports back at home—part of the country’s long history of discriminating against women in law and in practice.
Again, if you happen to be an athlete from one of these repressed nations and want to speak out against your country on the Olympic stage, you’re not allowed to. This is a state of affairs that goes back to at least 1936, when Nazi Germany was allowed to host the games despite discouraging (to say the least) participation by Jewish athletes and anyone other than whites. African American track star Jesse Owens showed up Hitler by winning four gold medals—but what might world history be if athletes had a voice at the games—or if the IOC had yanked the games from Germany due to rise of its murderous dictatorship? We’ll likely never know, since the Olympics will probably never allow such political speech. Indeed, the most famous political protest at the Olympics—Tommie Smith’s and John Carlos’s black power salute in 1968—brought about their expulsion, and a harsh rebuke from then IOC president Avery Brundage. (Earlier, Brundage, while leader of the US Olympic effort, successfully fought off an American boycott of Hitler’s games.)
So really, let’s not pretend that the Olympics are free of politics, or even a force for change or a global “coming together.” All the games do is allow countries and governments to have a world platform on which to promote the status quo, and distract from myriad problems that their citizens have to face in their daily lives.