Other than fuel corruption, make countries spend pointlessly and profligately, inflame nationalist sentiment, act as onanistic stand-ins for geopolitical tensions, and cloak authoritarian leaders in legitimacy, what have the Olympics ever done for us?
It is my real and very honest question every two years: What are the Olympics good for? Why do we continue to have them? Certainly for the athletes participating they can represent the pinnacle of a career’s worth of hard work—maybe even a life’s ambition realized. But for the rest of us, what is the point? Aside from the temporary flash of sumptuous spectacle, there’s little good that ever comes of the Games. If anything, they exacerbate some of the worst of human nature.
Nearly every time the Olympics come to a city, they remind us how little human life and dignity are worth compared to the hardware required to pull them off. In the run-up to the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing, some 1.5 million Beijingers lost their homes, by one count. By then, one study estimated, some two million people had been forcibly moved in 20 years in order to make room for Olympic structures around the world. In Vancouver, the build-up to the Olympics led to a housing squeeze, which, in turn, caused homelessness to spike in the years leading up to the 2010 Winter Games there. On top of the construction deaths in the run-up to the Sochi Olympics, thousands were displaced as the city made room for stadiums and rinks that would be used a handful of times.
Rarely are the Olympics a good investment for the host country. There are always cost overruns and they are always massive, often leaving host cities in debt for years afterward, and the objects the money is spent on are so transient and ultimately useless that they qualify for an academic term: white elephants. Pre-Olympic talk always focuses on how Olympic Villages and venues will promote development, tourism, and infrastructure, and will host future athletic events. Yet this hardly ever pans out. The subsequent tournaments and championships are inevitably smaller, or, as in Rio’s case, don’t come at all. And that’s just the hard, physical structures. Take, for example, the gobs of cash it took to stockpile snow for the Sochi Winter Olympics—simply because Russia, a country where much of the territory is winter-bound for much of the year, decided to have the Winter Olympics in its one subtropical city.
The vast sums of money it takes to pay for the Olympics don’t come from nowhere. They usually come from taxpayer funds that could be paying for something vital. While it was paying for preparations for the Sydney games, for instance, the local government of New South Wales also saw declines in its health and education budgets. In Russia, the cost was footed by state-run banks like VEB at a time when the economy was turning toward full-on recession.
Then there are the naked displays of politics and nationalistic one-upmanship. Despite the Olympic Charter’s repeated and explicit ban on political propaganda at the Games, the Olympics have always been as much a political event as an athletic one. When Athenian general Themistocles arrived at the Games in the 5th century BCE, for instance, Plutarch recounted that, “the audience neglected the contestants all day long to gaze on him.” According to David Goldblatt’s The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, “Olympia was always a place where political capital could be generated and traded.”
The modern Olympics came out of a dove-tailing of two 19th-century fads: a fascination with all things ancient, and violent ethno-nationalism. It’s no surprise then that the Olympics became a forum for nationalism, a stage for countries to prove that they are the best in that most basic, animalistic way: physical strength. The infamous 1936 Olympics in Adolf Hitler’s Berlin—the Jesse Owens upset notwithstanding—were a way to legitimize his new, nationalist regime.
In the first years of the Cold War, Josef Stalin seized on the Olympics as a way to compete with the United States in yet another arena. “The Kremlin viewed athletics as a way of international recognition and legitimacy,” writes Erin Elizabeth Redihan in her book The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948–1968. “Stalin and his successors strove to create and maintain an all-encompassing national sports infrastructure that could compete with and hopefully eclipse the United States to meet two interrelated goals: to gain international acclaim and to win the Cold War on the playing field.” There is a straight line from this old Soviet policy to the Russian doping scandal that derailed the lives and careers of Russian athletes and officials because the ends—athletic triumph as stand-in for geopolitical might—justify any means.
The 2008 Olympics in Beijing and the 2014 Olympics in Sochi served much the same purpose: showing the world that the Chinese and Russian regimes had arrived as new geopolitical and economic powerhouses. This time, in Pyeongchang, Kim Jong Un is using his cheerleaders and figure skaters in much the same way he uses his ICBMs: to show the world he has arrived, and is a serious leader not to be messed with. (That, and trying to peel South Korea away from its historic alliance with the United States.)
The Olympics, because of their political nature, have also turned violent, as they did in Munich in 1972, when 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorists who wanted to bring attention to their brethren’s plight when all the world was watching. Others have been followed by other violence: after pulling off a successful showing and winning the medal count in Sochi, Putin felt emboldened to annex Crimea and start a bloody war in eastern Ukraine, a conflict that is still nowhere near resolved and has taken over 10,000 lives.
And what of the other side of the scale? What do the Olympics give us that you can’t glimpse at other championships and smaller-scale competitions? And can we really pretend that the chance to watch a sport few watch except at the Olympics—curling, weightlifting, the bobsled—is worth all the corruption, waste, and political ugliness? Do we really need our hockey games to be shadow wars? I don’t think we do.