Privatizing the Olympics is the Best Way for Poor Countries to Compete for a Gold Medal

The Olympic opening ceremony premiered yesterday in London, and so began wall-to-wall NBC coverage, Coke and McDonald’s tie-ins and a fortnight’s surge in nationalism. Despite recent Congressional interest in where U.S. Olympic uniforms were manufactured, the United States Olympic Committee is a private, non-profit organization sponsored by donations and corporations — as are all other National Olympic Committees (NOCs). Even though the present funding of the Olympics is inequitable, it is better for poorer nations than the alternative.

Ultimately, the structures of the modern Olympics favor wealthy nations. Granted, the privately funded Olympics are more egalitarian than the publically funded World’s Fairs they eclipsed around World War II, but they are still more costly endeavors for poorer nations to undertake.

This is not a deliberate effort by wealthier nations to oppress the poor but rather a systemic bias inherent from inception. The modern games began in earnest at the dawn of the twentieth century in heavily nationalist Europe. Like so many global structures, they were built by relatively wealthy, Western nations, and it only takes a glance at the cities that have hosted the Summer Games to see that it is largely still a Western show.

While all countries interact with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), through their respective NOCs, none of the above is a government entity. Even the NOC of the USSR was not an arm of that state’s socialism. Since 1972, television and merchandising rights have primarily funded the IOC, which passes 90% of its money onto NOCs, with preference to poorer nations, and the host city.

There are two factors that complicate this otherwise fair distribution of funds: NOCs can only raise funds on the territory they represent; and governments usually help build the infrastructure to host the Olympics. The former ends up granting greater power to Olympic corporate sponsors like Coca-Cola than to the NOCs of poorer nations, and the latter hurts poorer nations by forcing them to invest in more infrastructure than they can maintain.

Recently, the IOC has considered selecting a host city as an act of charity, and they generally try to pick cities they consider up-and-coming. Booming postwar Tokyo won the bid for the 1964 games, unsustainably Euro-funded Athens hosted the 2004 games, and we all remember Beijing’s epic 2008 opening ceremonies.

But, just to focus on the last example, the man behind the curtain of the Beijing Olympics is a small one indeed. Atlantic correspondent, James Fallows explained on The Colbert Report that Beijing’s opening ceremonies “gave this entirely unrealistic impression of a completely successful coordinated country which is not the way China seems when you’re there.” He went on to explain how just the next day the bus routes to the crew race were delayed two hours by the routes of the bicycle race. Further, the government-funded infrastructure Beijing built now “better suits the taste of ruin porn aficionados than urban development officials.”

The way it stands, the IOC could select cities already able to host the games with their existing infrastructure and so save poorer governments from investing in one-time-use infrastructure. If this were the case, the games could be held with little preparation in almost any American city, already replete with multiple sports stadiums, transportation infrastructure and residential areas. But this would only further bias towards wealthier, Western nations.

The private funding of the Olympics allows poorer nations a seat at the global round table, even if it minimizes NOC autonomy by aggrandizing corporations. And when governments build infrastructure to host the Olympics, even more than they can maintain, they raise their national profile. Is there a better alternative?

The IOC could institute an international pool of Olympic funds taken from each country according to its means and distributed to each according to its needs, but that would be even more volatile than the recent NBA revenue sharing scheme and, in terms of revenue collection, even less effective than the United Nations. This would hurt all nations by further politicizing the games, which have been boycotted by many countries many times already.

The systemic bias of the Olympics towards wealthier nations is not going away, but as it stands, over 200 countries send individuals to one place to compete on any number of equal playing fields. More attention should be paid by the IOC and NOCs to cultivating talent to achieve a more equitable Olympics. After all, a gold medal is a gold medal no matter who wins it.