The Olympic Games are in the midst of their biggest crisis in decades. With more than 80 percent of the population in Japan in staunch opposition to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and the winter Games arriving in less than eight months in China, an indisputable human rights violator in plain sight, you’d think the International Olympic C0mmittee might slow down and engage in a little introspection
Nope. Instead, the IOC is ramming ahead with the Tokyo Games during a global pandemic. The longest-serving IOC member, Richard Pound, recently stated that, “barring an Armageddon,” the Games would go on. When it comes to the 2022 Beijing Games, IOC President Thomas Bach gushed that the city’s Olympic preparations were “almost a miracle.”
Amid the political mayhem and self-serving puffery, power brokers at the IOC announced last week that they had fast-tracked Brisbane, Australia, to host the 2032 Summer Games. On the surface, this might appear to be a power play: showing a skeptical world that the Olympic train is still running just fine, despite all evidence to the contrary. In reality, it’s a desperate act committed by an ailing organization as well as perhaps the most opaque, under-the-table bid decision the IOC has ever rendered—and that’s really saying something.
Veteran Olympics investigative reporter Jens Weinreich described the Brisbane situation as “non-transparent, without competition, without comprehensible criteria.” The IOC’s pronouncement spits in the face of anyone who as agitated that its decisions need to be made in open democratic light and not in the shadows.
In announcing the Brisbane bid decision, Bach broke out all the cut-and-paste plaudits that Olympic mavens have come to expect. He praised Brisbane’s “clear vision for a sustainable and feasible Olympic Games” and nodded to “great support from the public and across the political spectrum.” After all, back in April, Australia’s right-wing Prime Minister Scott Morrison vowed that the federal government would pay for half the Games’ costs, with state and local governments also kicking in. So, the “public” would indeed be supporting the Games through paying taxes, even though it never had a meaningful chance to weigh in through a public vote or referendum.
The Brisbane decision still needs to be rubber-stamped by the entire IOC in July. But if the past is prologue, there is virtually zero chance that the compliant automatons at the IOC will push back on Bach’s vision. Last July, when Bach announced at a virtual IOC meeting that he’d be seeking another term as president, you would have thought from the reaction of other IOC members that he had discovered the cure for cancer. It was a “Dear Leader” moment for the ages. The normally buttoned-up Olympics specialty publication Inside the Games noted that “the IOC membership is seemingly more submissive virtually than in person, which takes some doing.” The German journalist Jens Weinreich went further, dubbing the scene a “personality cult.” He live-Tweeted “the submissive homage” that was “Thomas Bach’s second coronation.”
Coronation is the operative word. The Olympics have long suffered from a democratic deficit. Avery Brundage, the Chicago business tycoon who presided over the IOC from 1952 to 1972, was wary of the “disadvantages of democracy.” He even opined, “An intelligent, beneficent dictatorship is the most efficient form of government. Observe what happened in Germany for six or seven years in the 1930s.”
Thomas Bach has taken the torch from Brundage and run the IOC with an autocratic bent, forging tight ties with an inner circle that backs his whims and wishes. Weinreich writes, “Thomas Bach dominated the IOC almost more blatantly than any of his eight predecessors since 1894.”
The paradox is that the more Bach runs the organization like a fiefdom, the more frequently he is tripped up by actual outbursts of democracy. In recent years democratic action in the form of public referenda have kneecapped Olympic bids. Between 2013 and 2018 alone, 14 aspiring Olympic bids were scuppered by public votes, the threat of a public vote, or the rise of a politician elected on an anti-Olympics platform. Beijing ended up with the 2022 Winter Games in large part because so many other bidding cities—Oslo, Stockholm, Munich, Davos, Krakow, and Lviv (in Ukraine)—dropped out, leaving only Beijing and the Kazakhstan’s largest city, Almaty. In a battle of the authoritarians, Beijing beat Almaty 44 to 40.
Bach’s bromides make it seem like the IOC is acting out of a position of strength. Yet, the very opposite is the case: the decision to press ahead with Brisbane eleven years in advance of the Olympics is actually a sign of weakness in the Olympic machine. It also points to the corruption—if legal corruption—embedded in everyday life at the IOC. After all, at the center of the move to hand the Games on a silver platter to Brisbane is a walking, talking conflict of interest known as John Coates. Coates wears so many Olympic hats you’d think he was a one man haberdasher.. He is an IOC VP, the head of the Tokyo 2020 Coordination Commission, the head of the Australian Olympic Committee, the President of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and Chairman of the Australian Olympic Foundation. Plus, he is a prime architect of the plan to assign Olympic host cities many years in advance.
As New York Times writer Tariq Panja noted on Twitter, “Brisbane has somehow been gifted the 2032 Olympics without any other city having a chance. Reminder John Coates the IOC’s VP is also head of Australia’s Olympic Committee. He also designed the road map that led to Brisbane being picked. This is all normal.”
Coates has been the bête noire of Tokyo since he insisted that the Olympics could proceed there even if the city were under state-of-emergency orders. In the midst of Japan’s fourth wave of Covid-19, Coates quizzically concluded, “It is now clearer than ever, that these Games will be safe for everyone participating and for the Japanese people.” He is not exactly Mr. Popular in Beijing either: When he led the Sydney bid team that was aiming for the 2000 Olympics, he doled out $70,000 to two IOC members from Uganda and Kenya the day before Sydney edged out Beijing in a 45-43 vote. Coates once intimated that public referendums should be bricked into the Olympic bidding process. Not with Brisbane, though.
But beyond Coates, the selection of Brisbane to host the 2032 Summer Games is an exercise in distraction. Tokyo is hosting the games over—and on top of—the bodies of the Japanese people. China is already raising the hackles of defenders of human rights across the globe. Brisbane provided Bach and the IOC an opportunity to change the subject. But the very real events unfolding—and we can include the ongoing resistance to the 2028 Olympics in Los Angeles to Bach’s list of headaches—make the efforts to distract from Olympic calamity after calamity a fool’s errand. Athletes deserve better. Our cities deserve better. And the people who suffer under the Olympics weight of debt, displacement, and hyper-militarization deserve better as well.