Despite the fiction contrived by the sports moguls for decades that sports brings out the best aspects of American culture, realists, who see things as they really are, know differently.
For years, prize fighting was promoted, as bull fighting is in certain countries, as a manly art, instead of a barbaric sport that caused brain injuries to participants. For years, both the National Football League and the National Hockey League denied that repeated hits to the head can cause brains to turn to mush. For years, Major League Baseball provided pain pills and worse to its injured players so they don’t miss a game. The tycoons that run college sports still pretend that their athletes are amateurs.
But none of those transgressions pale when compared what will happen several weeks from now, when the Winter Olympics will be held in Beijing, China, February 4-20, because the rulers of the International Olympic Committee once again will defend its selection of a totalitarian country to host its games by saying that politics has no place in sports, when in reality sports and politics have always been joined at the hip.
Controversy surrounding the recently completed Tokyo Olympic Games, after it was rescheduled from 2020 to 2021 because of Covid-19, was muted compared to what will transpire between now and during the Beijing Olympic Games by governments, human rights organizations, broadcasters and journalists attacking China for its human rights violations, but probably not by NBCUniversal which will televise the games, given how they ignored the controversies of the Tokyo games.
Awarding its games to a country devoid of human rights is an addiction to the IOC. It’s a habit that likely will grow stronger as many democratic countries find the cost of the games outlandish.
The blemishes on the IOC for permitting its games to be played in countries that commit atrocities are many. The most notorious example occurred in 1936, when they refused to take the games away from Germany. In what is now shamefully remembered in IOC history as the Nazi Olympics, Germany was permitted to host both the Summer and Winter Olympics, despite it being known for its persecutions of Jews and that thousands of people were held in concentration camps because they didn’t fit the Nazi image of what a person should look like or they had opposing political views.
But that wasn’t the only time that the IOC permitted a totalitarian country to use the Olympics as a propaganda tool. Sadly, China once again joins a list of totalitarian countries which have hosted the games. Previous dictatorial countries that were awarded the IOC propaganda vehicle, in addition to Germany, are Russia in 1980 and 2014; Yugoslavia in 1984 and China in 2008 and the upcoming 2022 games in Beijing. In each case, the IOC decided that its games were more important than the vast majority of citizens of those countries who were denied the rights of a free press, expression or religion. In affect, they valued athletes over the vast majority of people who weren’t.
In again awarding its games to China, the IOC also has given its seal of approval to China’s politicized Soviet-era like tactics of training its athletes to qualify for the Olympics. Young athletes chosen are sent to government-run sports academies, where academic education is considered less important than sports and family visits are limited to a few times a year. In preparation for the Beijing Olympics, according to published reports, more than 30,000 athletes are training full-time in order for the government to select the less than 200 who will be chosen to compete. So much for the IOC’s ludicrous oft-repeated position that politics has no place in the Olympics.
But it’s not just the IOC that will be targeted by the critics for awarding its games to a dictatorial country.
Other entities that have already been, and will continue to be targeted are NBCUniversal, which will televise the Olympics, and the game’s sponsors. Are they really thrilled to be “proud sponsors” of an Olympics held in a country that jails, kills, and is threatening nearby counties as well as the U.S.? It appears they are as long as they can sell their products in China.
Without the “proud sponsors” of the games, the Olympics would be just another one of many sporting events. That’s because broadcasters like NBC would not pay billions of dollars for the rights unless they were assured of sponsors buying commercial time on the telecasts.
There are several philosophical questions that need answering regarding playing games in dictatorial countries:
- Should democratic countries help a totalitarian country promote itself by participating in an Olympics?
- The U.S. government puts limits on what activities are permitted by companies doing business in countries that are unfriendly to the U.S. No matter how they attempt to camouflage it, sports organizations are businesses. Should there be limits on their activities?
- The U.S. has a population of hundreds of millions. Should the U.S. let its citizens participate in games played in a country like China, which threatens its nearby countries and the U.S., just so a few hundred U.S. athletes can “live their dreams?” as Olympic supporters proclaim.
Sporting organizations spend millions of dollars annually on advertising and public relations campaigns trying to camouflage the fact that sports should not be considered a business, which it certainly is. A big one.
Want Proof? Watching a sporting event on television is like viewing a loop of advertisements broken up by a few minutes of play between each one. And even during the few minutes of play, ads are clearly seen on the fences of the arenas, or at the bottom of screens and on the playing fields itself.
More Proof: In 2014, NBCUniversal paid $7.75 billion for the exclusive broadcast rights to the Olympic Games from 2022 to 2032. NBC didn’t pony up that money just to provide entertainment for its viewing audience. It was a business decision, just as are the decisions of “proud sponsors” of the Olympics, with the profit factor being the deciding factor.
Four more philosophical questions:
- Should the Olympic Games, which I consider the most important athletic event in the world, be given to totalitarian states, which uses it to camouflage its warts?
- Are playing games more important than standing up for democracy?
- Should Olympians be treated differently than the millions of youngsters each year who don’t reach their dreams of being doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers, police and firemen, entertainers, journalists, and broadcasters, etc?
- In the spectrum of important issues affecting Americans, where do sports belong?
Which brings up two questions that I have been pondering for a long time. 1) Should democratic countries construct their own global sports organization so they are not captives of the IOC, a cartel with a history of ignoring the atrocious policies of countries when awarding its games? 2) Is there too much emphasis on the importance of sports in the U.S.? I think so. How about you?
About the Author: Arthur Solomon, a former journalist, was a senior VP/senior counselor at Burson-Marsteller, and was responsible for restructuring, managing and playing key roles in some of the most significant national and international sports and non-sports programs. He also traveled internationally as a media adviser to high-ranking government officials. He now is a frequent contributor to public relations publications, consults on public relations projects and is on the Seoul Peace Prize nominating committee. He can be reached at arthursolomon4pr (at) juno.com.