The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is currently deciding who will host the 2022 Winter Games, and they don’t exactly have a wealth of options. At press time, only two cities remain in contention: Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan. Oslo, Norway recently dropped its bid to host due to the ludicrous number and type of demands made by the IOC. Neither of the remaining options are particularly well-suited to hosting the Winter Games; Beijing is 120 miles away from the nearest skiable mountain , and Kazakhstan does not have the budget to host the event. A representative of the Kazakhstani Olympic Committee has gone on record that if the city gets the games, “it will not be a big budget.” More troublingly, both Kazakhstan and China have terrible human rights records, and are currently classed by various freedom indices such as Human Rights Watch and Freedom House as “not free” or as having “authoritarian regimes.”
Looking at the slate of massive, global sporting events happening in the next ten years, one notices an alarming amount of “unfree” or authoritarian host states. Russia, hot on the heels of its troubled 2014 Winter Olympics, will host the World Cup in 2018. After that, the next host will be Qatar. The Olympics will take a post-Sochi break from being hosted by despots, landing in Rio, Brazil in 2016, Pyeongchang, South Korea in 2018, and Tokyo, Japan in 2020. However unless things change dramatically, The Olympics will once again run into the open arms of a repressive government in 2022. Even when large sporting events are held in nominal democracies, the mere presence of such spectacles seems to turn the host countries despotic. The widespread protests in Brazil last year in the run-up to the World Cup were met by government crackdowns, and Britain used the 2012 Olympics as an excuse to increase its surveillance state and to push residents out of poor nieghbourhoods to make room for the event.
Why do big sporting events tend either to occur in authoritarian states or inspire authoritarian actions from governments who claim to be representative democracies? There is something about these events that is inherently hostile to democracy. For one, the governing bodies of both international soccer and the Olympics demand the right to change the laws of host countries by authoritarian decree. FIFA forced the Brazilian government to re-legalize alcohol sales in stadiums after they had been banned for ten years, causing a return of the dangerous levels of drunkenness that prompted the ban in the first place. When Norway rejected the 2022 Winter Olympics, one of its cited reasons for doing so was the ridiculous list of required accommodations for IOC members, which included a request for an extra lane on all streets used for Olympic business and reserved exclusively for the travel of IOC members. If these are the sorts of conditions expected by the IOC and FIFA, it is not surprising that they have an easier time finding authoritarian hosts. It is generally riskier for democratically elected officials to change laws on a whim than it is for dictators, although the recent experiences of Brazil and London show that the mere presence of democratic elements does not necessarily protect it from these kinds of injustices if its leaders are in the pockets of big sporting organizations.
Furthermore, hosting the World Cup or the Olympics has little actual value to a country other than perhaps conferring on it a certain level of prestige. Economically, being a host can be disastrous. Montreal finally paid off the last of its debt from the 1976 Olympics in 2006, and the Olympic Stadium sits basically unused except for tours. The bill for the 2004 Olympics was one of the stressors that led to Greece’s later economic crash. Russia spent $51 billion in Sochi for facilities that are already decaying from disuse. Perhaps Norway’s rejection of the 2022 Olympics is a sign that democratic citizens can no longer be duped by their leaders into believing that hosting giant sporting events confer an economic benefit that trickles down to them. Brazil’s World Cup protests definitely showed that the citizens of Brazil were aware of the economic injustice of spending billions on stadiums that would be used one time in a nation where millions live in favelas. The economic benefits of the Olympics and the World Cup are overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of the IOC, FIFA, and sponsors like Coca-Cola.
While world leaders may still crave the prestige that holding a world-class sporting event confers, it is becoming harder and harder for them to justify to their citizenry that holding these events benefits anyone but large corporations and other elites. Unfortunately, as shown in Brazil, citizen awareness does not always save them, as purported democracies still use tools of oppression to help the IOC and FIFA keep the money flowing, and keep events running smoothly. However, the backlash to the most recent World Cup and Olympics seems to be giving all but the most repressive states second thoughts about the practicality and utility of hosting these big-tentpole spectacles. Hopefully, the bidding wars for the next few global sporting events will be as dismal and uninspiring as the one for the 2022 Olympics. Perhaps that will make the governing bodies of world sports realize they need to restructure the way they run these events, and find some way of actually benefitting their host nations instead of stealing money and freedom from their citizenry.