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The Olympics Are Over - A Postmortem

by epochepoque Fri Mar 7th, 2014 at 10:17:10 PM EST

"Every great cause begins as a movement, becomes a business, and eventually degenerates into a racket." - Eric Hoffer

The snowy dreams of the last olympics have faded away and we find ourselves in prime geopolitical confrontations. But not only are the Sochi olympics over, the modern olympics in general have finally lost their allure, and the decline which inevitably leads to death has become visible for all to see. (This diary grew out of a recent rant).

On the surface, the olympics are humming along nicely. The IOC has grown its cash reserves to a record $932+ million. It could cancel the next two olympics and still have money left over.

But as the [financial] disaster of Sochi has sunk in (with a helpful assist by Qatar's looming world cup in 2022), opposition in democracies against hosting the olympics has gone mainstream. Last year's massive anti-government, anti-FIFA, anti-olympics protests in Brazil were the biggest social uprising since military rule. In November, all four municipalities in a referendum voted against Munich's bid for the 2022 winter olympics. In January, Stockholm's city council decided to drop its bid for 2022. The Swiss canton of GraubŁnden voted Nay in March last year. In the same month Vienna's citizens rejected a possible 2028 bid with a resounding 72%. Recent polls in Norway have found a 55-60% majority opposed to Oslo's 2022 bid. Which could mean the end of it, if the Norwegian parliament does not support the bid financially.

This has some people rattled, hopefully including some members of the IOC. They don't understand how anyone could possibly be against the olympics. An exemplary editorial comment by a Sports Illustrated writer shows how the signs of the times are slowly sinking in with olympia fans, and how much of a gap is still left.

Oslo, is bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics. ... some 55 percent of you don't want them.

Or at least a majority of you doesn't want your government to approve a relatively modest financial guarantee of $5.4 billion, less than one-ninth the cost of the Sochi Olympics, which the IOC would need to give Oslo the Olympics.

Factually wrong, since the Norwegian OC / IOC require an unlimited government guarantee. Also, that budget of $5.4 billion is far from modest. Now that Sochi has happened, the goalposts have been moved and people brag about bids that are 'so much cheaper' than Sochi, as if that was difficult. As a reference point, Sochi is only good for astrophysics.
And that means we have a problem, you and I. Because the world desperately wants you -- needs for you -- to change your mind.

... there's no need to punish the rest of us. This is bigger than that

... I've heard about the origins of your tradition of idraet, the principle of "sport in service of nation," ... All I'm asking for is an inversion of idraet: "nation in service of sport."

So don't let the rest of the world down. Embrace your destiny. ...

The Lords of the Rings couldn't possibly want to give the Games to anyone else. Please don't force them to.

You can hear the desperation in his voice as he flatters, implores, and cajoles the Norwegians into bidding for the olympics. "Save the olympics!" could be his alternative headline. Yet it's not so much about saving the olympics but bailing out the IOC. If Oslo were to bid, they would almost surely win. The IOC could go back to a 'traditional' winter sports country, siphon off some much needed credibility, and convince itself that nothing is wrong.

The open letter's comment section was deluged by responses from Norwegians most of whom were not impressed

  • "To host the winter olympics in Oslo with an ambition to change the ways of the IOC, is about as smart as if a woman marries a violent alcoholic for the sake of changing him."
  • "We do not need more showboating, gloating, and national narcissism. WE DO NOT NEED THE OLYMPICS TO BE HAPPY AND PROUD! You're like drug-addicts, "craving for that next hit of some olympics". I don't want that plague in my country."
  • "I think we both can agree that admiration is the parameter for success in our time and age, but is admiration based on potemkin villages really worth it? ... in my experience love that's for sale is quite overrated."
One could say these problems are not new. Montreal 1976, the big bang of olympic financial catastrophes, needed 30 years to pay off its olympic debt. Munich 1972 was not exactly peaceful. Colorado retroactively withdrew from its winter games because of a public vote.

So why are a majority of people only now rejecting the IOC? Firstly, because they can. Referendums on these kinds of issues have only recently been widely adopted by 'democracies'.

Secondly, the veneer has lost its sheen due to a number of factors. The olympics are not the only game in town now. It's a television event among many that has been done before a lot of times, and now there are a lot of other new (sportive) distractions out there. The image of the olympian as a gladiator hero has been reduced to that of a doping fiend. And the willingness of international sport organizations, tax-exempt in Switzerland, to get involved with 'unsavoury' regimes to explore new markets doesn't win favours.

The last point may be interpreted as Western arrogance, but most of the money (licensing/ads) is still made in western democracies. "Our sponsors are afraid." says an IOC man.

As they should be. At some point the glaring defects became too obvious to be ignored by the masses.

That explains the wave of popular rejection of the olympics. Since every one of the purported olympic values had been relativised down by the ugly sporting reality, there was only ordinary self interest left: why do we have to let ourselves be taken advantage of by those people? Why? There is no reason. And that's what tipped the balance against the bids.

Detour: "The ideological structure of a legitimated scam"

There is an analogous scam that has recently entered its decline in the United States. The scam consists of unlimited, taxpayer-guaranteed, non-dischargeable educational loans on the one side, and of colleges (esp. grad schools) with their administrators and tenured professors on the other side who are happy to take advantage of the money fountain. The fountain is embodied by young, gullible students who have been told over and over that more education is always better - regardless of price and quality. Being young and stupid, most of them don't know what they're doing when they potentially sign their lifes away on the loan application. Meanwhile, universities who want to look good in the rankings keep raising tuition up and beyond inflation.

One of the worst subspecies of this scam is the law school scam. In short, people spend three years on largely philosophical courses, pay $50,000 per year in tuition (+ living costs). At the end of this ordeal they don't know how 'to lawyer' and enter a job market where each year there are double as many graduates as openings, most of which pay too little to pay off the loans. Indentured debt servitude is the default scenario for ~80% of those "law lemmings".

The contrast between the high-minded image of the law school (ethics, prestige, constitution, money) and the abusive reality of it imposes questions about the people who profit from the scam. Don't they have to be sociopathic scoundrels?

In fact, we can't assume law professors to be intentional con men. But an unintended scam is still a scam. So how can they justify their actions or lack of action to themselves? Simple ignorance is the obvious answer. If there is nothing wrong there is nothing to justify. As problems become visible, denial becomes more difficult. Here, a law professor provides the answer:

A legitimated scam is a scam which is not understood to be such [...], but which is interpreted as being something else altogether. ... a legitimated scam requires [...] an ideology -- a set of beliefs that allow those who profit [...] to misunderstand the nature of that structure, in a way that allows them to behave in a fashion that advances their own interests, while at the same time believing (again, with all sincerity) that the purpose of their behavior is something else.

... Once subjected to serious scrutiny, these beliefs are revealed to run a gamut from the irrelevant, to the highly questionable, to the obviously preposterous. An ideology functions by ensuring [...] that such scrutiny doesn't occur. It does so by raising these sorts of beliefs into the realm of [...] the commonsensical, the things that "serious people" don't question or [...] even think about. That legal education in its present form is, despite whatever problems it may have, a fundamentally Good Thing is a belief that can't be questioned ...

... Thus "design" should be understood here to be a metaphor for the unconscious circulation of social power, rather than a description of a conscious conspiracy. Conscious conspiracies to defraud, after all are [...] illegal. Unconscious ones, on the other hand, tend to be much more successful.

Thus the analogy becomes clear and why the olympic scam was able to persist for so long. The IOC members don't have to be corrupt swines to keep the scam going. They just have to cling to the aforementioned articles of faith of Olympism: Sport for all - it's a human right, Development through Sport, Education through Sport, Women and Sport, Peace through Sport, Sport and Environment. Even most of the newspaper commentary that was critical of the olympic enterprise has tended to extol the 'great' olympic idea. One of the few papers to call bullshit was taz, comparing the olympics to an outdated religion.

The olympic values are not completely empty. They were always utopian, yet they were likeable. But the idealistic folly could be better lived independently of the IOC. For it asks everyone to support immaterial, priceless values while it lets the hosts pay a heavy material price.

Incompatible with reality

The olympic games in antiquity started out as a religious festival with some sport competitions on the side. The political aspect of suspending the Peloponnesian war during that festival was a side effect.

The modern olympics however inverted that concept by hoisting an ideology of human betterment through sports (including political) on the games. But after tasting the rough waters of world politics in 1980/84, the IOC under its Franco fascist president Juan Antonio Samaranch embarked on a decidedly commercial course while retaining an implicit 'positive' political image.

The current IOC President Bach came up in the IOC under Samaranch. Not being able to participate as a fencer during the Moscow boycott left a mark on him. Therefore politics should no longer negatively interfere with the games. All fair enough, except for the constant demand of the IOC from politicians to finance the games, to turn up, cheer at the games and thus to lend the festivities glamour and importance. Ignoring political realities has a long tradition with the IOC. The lone IOC member who vigorously campaigned against Berlin 1936 out of political reasons was later thrown out.

This hypocritical contradiction hit an apex when Bach assailed politicians for 'politicising' the [Sochi] games and sending political messages on the backs of athletes. But high level politicians didn't forbid athletes to participate in the games like in Moscow. They simply didn't show up. Indirectly disturbing the mood of Mr. Bach's 'happy world festival' was deemed an act of aggression.

If the games are too 'politicised', here is a solution: no state financing for the games, and ban active politicians from the games. Problem solved. Alternatively, have the games in the same location every time. But that would mean relegating the IOC from a seven-course meal to a bowl of porridge.

Which is why the IOC will only make some procedural and not fundamental changes. As long as there are willing customers, there is not enough pressure to change. If I were in the same situation I wouldn't do it, either. So the circus will keep traveling, making people happy who haven't had it yet. They can show off their newly acquired membership in the first (or second) world. Until the debutante ball has gone to all corners of the world and is finally drowned out by the rumbling 21st century.

I never knew of Swiss hip hop. I can understand maybe half of what he says. It seems in line with the overall criticism of the olympics.

Schengen is toast!

by epochepoque on Fri Mar 7th, 2014 at 10:23:57 PM EST
The Norwegian Parliament seems to know the score and is making demands of its own to the IOC:
** Apart from what they call "good Norwegian hospitality" and necessary access and security measures. the government politicians believe that the costs of IOC members' own accommodation during the OL weeks should be covered by the IOC itself.
Which means, 'Pay for your own five-star hotel and doctors.'

Then there are some unconcrete demands to bring the gigantic olympic bubble under control.

** The two government parties think the Oslo2022 committee must demand that limits be placed on any additional competitive events within the Olympics. Critics have claimed the Olympics have become much too big, with too many new sporting events added in recent years. The Norwegian politicians think that development should be brought under more control.

** They also want to see more use of existing sports facilities in and around Oslo, to control costs and reduce environmental impact.

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Sat Mar 8th, 2014 at 04:10:37 PM EST
the willingness of international sport organizations, tax-exempt in Switzerland, to get involved with 'unsavoury' regimes to explore new markets doesn't win favours
Unsavoury or BRIC-level organizers are convenient at the times of prolonged economic downturn. The show decline can then be blamed on hapless wannabe organizers, compared serious civilized cities...
by das monde on Sun Mar 9th, 2014 at 04:36:07 PM EST
Interesting. Fifa jumped on the opportunity to have a gold-plated world cup in Qatar. They are going to spend more than $100 billion in preparation, which is not all just for the world cup but those numbers were enticing at the time. Likewise, some IOC people are now saying that it's not their fault Russia spent dozens of billions. Hard to be responsible if you're not accountable to anyone

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Sun Mar 9th, 2014 at 05:03:25 PM EST
[ Parent ]
$100 billion seemed unusually high to me so I googled and found estimates over $200 billion. Absolute insanity.

you are the media you consume.

by MillMan (millguy at gmail) on Sun Mar 9th, 2014 at 06:58:41 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I just looked a bit closer at the Colorado 1972 case. The state promised it wouldn't spend more than $5 million. In today's dollars that'd be less than $30 million. That's a difference of two orders of magnitude between then and today's 'normal' winter olympics. Three if you take Sochi.

The Qataris are going all out for the world cup. Building a completely new city for the competition and 12 stadiums (with air conditioning !?) in a country with a population of 2 million. It's a bizarre latter day display of bread and circuses.

Schengen is toast!

by epochepoque on Mon Mar 10th, 2014 at 02:35:10 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Isn't the whole world political economy a legitimated scam? People vote for governments that work for someone else. Argue about free market, monetary policies, world events following coordinated media suggestions. Take up loans, enter agreements based on latest decade trends but without knowing real rules. Assume the normal times will come back...
by das monde on Sun Mar 9th, 2014 at 04:43:10 PM EST
A legitimated scam is a scam.

This fits 'Mainstream Economics' to a T and is the essence of our political economy presently.

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Mar 10th, 2014 at 01:19:15 AM EST
I turned the article under your 'law professor' link into a LQD diary on 'legitimated scams'. I hope you don't mind. Do you know in what work Riesman developed the concept?

"It is not necessary to have hope in order to persevere."
by ARGeezer (ARGeezer a in a circle eurotrib daught com) on Mon Mar 10th, 2014 at 02:40:49 PM EST
I can only guess. Maybe it's his book The Lonely Crowd about the conformity of the American character. The gist of it seems to be: without a traditional implanted or natural inner direction, the individual that is freed from such sources of rigidity (e.g. middle class) defines itself by its relations to others. The outside direction acquired by social forces restricts the 'free' individual even more than the former inner direction.

Schengen is toast!
by epochepoque on Mon Mar 10th, 2014 at 04:48:55 PM EST
[ Parent ]
by epochepoque on Tue Mar 11th, 2014 at 03:01:49 PM EST
Olympic Winter Games always more expensive than promised - Play The Game
Blackmailing and theft

Foolish measures have been taken to cover and cover up the cost overruns over the years. Lake Placid, for instance, had a budget of 75 million euro for the 1980 Winter Games but spent 373 million. In panic, millions of dollars were taken from a fund for the fight against unemployment.

Grenoble used the infrastructure needed for the 1968 Winter Games as a manner of blackmailing. Three months after the IOC had assigned the event to the French, the organisersation rang the bell: "If we do not start improving the roads within two months with, it is too late. We need a new station, an airport and new roads to Lyon and Geneva."

They already knew that in Grenoble the year before, but the blackmailing was successful. The expenses increased so much that they were still not fully paid in 1992 when France again hosted the Winter Games, this time in Albertville.

The 1998 Winter Games in Nagano tops everything. The Japanese had an initial budget of 1.17 billion euro, but spent around 14.6 billion euro. The final cost is an estimate, as the complete administration of the event was burned.

The original article on sportgeschiedenis.nl has a nice picture how the budget of all previous winter games combined fits into Sochi.

Worst offenders in percentage points: Squaw Valley '60, Innsbruck '76, Nagano '98 with each more than 1100% over budget.

Schengen is toast!

by epochepoque on Wed Mar 12th, 2014 at 02:59:56 PM EST
The action of the free market: the Games organizer has to pay as desperate to satisfy obligations to IOC, and then has to sell the Olympic assets for pennies (or worse) while the debt is still astronomic.

With Nagano still in memory, Abe's Japan appears eager to spend on Tokyo...

by das monde on Wed Mar 12th, 2014 at 03:42:21 PM EST
[ Parent ]

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