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Between a rock and a hard place: 2022 Winter Olympics decision

Upholding Olympic values and ideals? Tom Kelly/flickr, CC BY-NC

Between a rock and a hard place: 2022 Winter Olympics decision

When International Olympic Committee (IOC) members meet on July 31 to select the host city for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the organization that describes itself as “the moral authority for world sport” will choose between Beijing, China and Almaty, Kazakhstan.

I have written five books and numerous articles and book chapters taking a critical look at the Olympic industry, and I haven’t seen such a lack of interest in hosting the games since the selection of Los Angeles for the 1984 Olympics.

European contenders, including Krakow, Lviv, Stockholm and Oslo, withdrew their bids by October 2014; referendum results and financial concerns prevented other bids, like St Moritz’s and Munich’s, from proceeding. Negative press surrounding the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics’ unprecedented costs and the threat of boycotts prompted even conservative business sources, usually keen bid boosters, to warn countries of the economic risks of hosting the games. And earlier this week, Boston withdrew its Olympic bid over financial concerns and community opposition.

It is equally significant that there have been few, if any, previous occasions when all the short-listed contenders represented nondemocratic regimes. Is this a sign of of what we can expect in future Olympic Games?

Back to Beijing?

Cynics might argue that dictatorships are better suited than democracies to host the games, given the Olympic industry’s ever-escalating security demands and its rules banning peaceful protest.

In 2001, when the IOC selected Beijing for the 2008 Olympics, a National Review commentator observed that their decision “furthers the perception that the People’s Republic of China – with its sprawling gulag system and often murderous repression – is a normal country, if with some peculiar characteristics.” A Washington Post reporter wrote that “If Beijing is marred by corruption, burning with commercial fever and eager to have a chance at self-promotion, maybe that makes it the perfect place for what the Olympics have become.”

Can Beijing bring it home again? faungg's photos/flickr, CC BY-ND

Fourteen years later, little has changed in China, and yet Beijing appears to be the favorite for 2022. Of course, the IOC selected Berlin to host in 1936, and Sochi for 2014, so there is no evidence that it considers a totalitarian regime, human rights violations or suppression of dissent as grounds for ineligibility.

When Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced nationwide anti-gay laws in 2013, the IOC, after a superficial investigation under newly elected president Thomas Bach, announced that it was satisfied that Olympic athletes and spectators would not be adversely affected. Any concern for the fate of protesters or dissidents who spoke out against Putin’s government was notably absent.

History has demonstrated that so-called “Olympic values” and the anti-discrimination clauses in the Olympic Charter do not guarantee equal treatment for all. However, following global condemnation of Putin’s anti-gay laws, the IOC last year introduced a new anti-discrimination clause that specifically included sexual orientation in the charter and in the host city agreement. Future developments will demonstrate to what extent – if any – the IOC monitors host countries’ adherence to these provisions. Neither China nor Kazakhstan are known as countries where sexual minorities’ rights are protected, and yet the IOC will no doubt choose Beijing or Almaty to host the 2022 Games.

Closer look at Almaty

Whenever the IOC awards the games to a nondemocratic country, it relies on unspecified “behind the scenes” negotiations and “silent diplomacy” which, it claims, will persuade that country’s leaders to address human rights abuses. Linked to this rhetoric are the usual references to the redemptive power of sport to unite the world, along with the claims that politics and sport don’t, or shouldn’t, mix. We can expect to hear this more of this after the 2022 decision is announced.

With China having hosted the 2008 Summer Olympics, it is a “known quantity” in mega-sport circles. Kazakhstan, established in 1991 as successor state of the former USSR republic and the largest country in Central Asia, is less well-known.

Almaty in Kazakhstan is a power center in Central Asia but is little-known as a sports venue. Alexander Fisher/flickr, CC BY-ND

According to some critics, Kazakhstan has largely failed in its attempt to transition to a democracy and a transparent market economy. Profiting from continued access to the country’s natural resources, especially oil and gas, the US and other western powers have avoided pressing for political and economic reform.

Kazakhstan remains “a family-run state,” with power and property securely in the hands of the president and his extended family, and mining projects marked by scandal and corruption. The president has held power since 1991, serving five terms and winning the most recent election with 97.3% of the vote and a 93% voter turnout, an outcome that clearly reflects the country’s political situation. The precarious ethnic balance between Kazakh majority and the Russian minority, the proximity to Russia and the 3,000-mile shared border all pose threats to the country’s political stability, particularly in light of Russia’s recent actions in Georgia, Crimea and Ukraine. These factors may count against Almaty’s bid.

In the area of international sport, Almaty’s previous bid for the 2014 Winter Olympics was unsuccessful. More recently, the International University Sports Federation awarded the city the 2017 Winter Universiade, a multisport competition with a program that includes most winter Olympic sports. However, like the recent winter Olympic host cities of Sochi and Whistler, warmer temperatures from climate change could lead to a shortage of snow. Both Sochi and Almaty recently suffered unprecedented summer flooding, which could be linked to climate change.

In short, it appears that the Olympic “movement” is in a lose/lose situation with these two short-listed cities if it is to maintain any credibility in terms of demonstrating “respect for universal fundamental ethical principles,” a value it claims to hold dear.