Every two years, the best athletes in the world descend upon a sleepy hillside village or a bustling metropolis for a few weeks and leave a mountain of insurmountable debt. We call this the Olympics.

The 2012 London Olympic Games Opening Ceremony.
(Photo by Korean Olympic Committee)

While not quite as lucrative and widely consumed as the World Cup, the Olympics are still a sporting mega-event of global importance. Over the next few days, The Blank Page will explore the history of the Olympic movement, from its humble origins as an idealistic international exposition to its emergence as a global financial behemoth.

Sports are often a mirror for society, and the evolution of the Olympic movement parallels many of the trends around the world since the nineteenth century. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is framed as an international partnership, yet is hindered by the competitiveness of individual nations.

The parallels with the United Nations are quite striking. Both organizations idealistically aim to bring people and nations together around common goals, but both have constantly been subverted by nationalistic political considerations. The IOC frames itself as a not-for-profit non-governmental organization, yet depends on public funds to run the Olympic games.

The Olympics have been used by various political regimes to boost their international reputation and prove their country’s superiority. International competitiveness fostered the erosion of amateurism and encouraged the use of performance-enhancing drugs. Globalization and technological innovations (read: television) fundamentally reoriented the IOC in the 1970s, which led to decades of corruption allegations.

Recent literature has also uncovered the true financial cost of hosting the Olympics, specifically the dependence on public funds, which can bankrupt entire countries – here’s looking at you Greece. Despite this, the Olympics remain incredibly popular. Which begs the question: why would a country want to host the Olympics?

From noble beginnings

Amidst the nineteenth century Romantic Neo-Classic revivalist movement, inspired by the Greek revolution in 1821, a group of European aristocrats had a novel idea – to revive the Olympic games. Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat, was fascinated by the role of physical education in schooling. He spent his formative years studying sports in English education in the 1880s and concluded that organized sport creates moral and social strength.

As a neoclassical revivalist, de Coubertin romanticized the ancient Greek approach to physical education. He believed athletic competition would promote understanding across cultures, which would limit the dangers of war. He was heavily influenced by the destruction of the Franco-Prussian war in 1870.  He also believed that competition itself was more important than winning – a philosophy that would underpin the Olympic Movement.

After a few years of lobbying the European aristocratic class, de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1894. The IOC was created to prepare and organize the first Olympics in Athens in 1896, and to organize every subsequent Olympic Games. The IOC incorporated itself as a non-governmental organization, granting itself tax-exempt status in Switzerland – where it is headquartered.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters, in Switzerland. (Photo by Mélanie)

The Games developing

Fourteen nations took part in the inaugural games. Despite objections from many aristocrats in French society, the German delegation was allowed to compete. Most of the nations competing were European, with America, Chile and Australia carrying the banner for the rest of the world. The committee decided to hold Olympic Games every four years in a different host city. Cities would bid to host the games, and the committee would decide based on the merits of the bid.

The Olympic Games have evolved significantly since the nineteenth century. The original Olympic Games were held over the course of the entire summer season – the 1908 games took six months. The Olympic Games were cancelled in 1916 as well as 1940 and 1944 because of the First and Second World Wars. The first Winter Olympics were held in 1924 – inspired by the Nordic Games.

Women first competed at the second Olympics in 1900, but only in golf and lawn tennis. Women were allowed to take part in athletics in 1928. The Paralympic Games were first introduced by British War veterans in 1948, and became a full-fledged Olympic movement of their own right in 1960.

The IOC has always made the final decision on competitions allowed in the Games, and will occasionally trial and add new sports. Surfing, baseball and karate will join us at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Sports are often a mirror for society, and the evolution of the Olympic movement parallels many of the trends around the world since the nineteenth century.

But what is the IOC now?

So what exactly is the IOC? The IOC describes itself as a not-for-profit independent international organization made up of volunteers. To them, the goal of the Olympic movement is to, “Contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind, in a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.” This universal humanitarian language is used time and time again to justify their role in international sport governance.

Critics of the IOC contend that it is actually a profit-maximizing corporate entity that engages in rent-seeking behaviour. They point out the tax-exempt status of its headquarters in Switzerland and the millions of dollars of marketing and television revenue the organization generates with each tournament cycle. The global television rights for the Rio Olympics were estimated at $9.3 billion. The IOC pockets 70 per cent of the television revenue, compared to around four per cent before 1980. And, of course, they point out the decades of corruption scandals that have dominated the IOC since the 1980s and the election of Juan Antonio Samaranch as president.

Who runs the IOC?

The IOC is governed by an exclusive committee. Membership to the IOC is limited – new members are chosen by existing members. Nations that have hosted the Olympics are permitted two members on the select committee. There are currently 95 active members from 71 countries. Each member has one vote, which they use to elect a new president and choose the location of the next Olympic Games.

There are 206 National Olympic Committees operating under the IOC charter, which is actually more than the United Nations (oh, hi Palestine). These committees are charged with organizing athletes in their own nations. The IOC purportedly funds each national association.

Finally there are the International Sporting Federations – who are charged with organizing the individual sports themselves – from rules to tournaments. There are global sporting bodies for hockey, basketball, biathlons and gymnastics, to name a few. Both the International Sporting Federations and National Olympic Committees are subsidiaries to the IOC.

Canada’s National Olympic Committee was founded in 1904, and is headquartered in Toronto. They are responsible for organizing and coordinating the Canadian Olympic movement – which includes training, funding and putting together teams for the biannual competitions. The Canadian Olympic Committee is vague about its sources of revenue – saying that it is “independent and predominantly privately funded” on its website.

In actuality, the Canadian taxpayer is the single biggest contributor to the Committee. This rhetorical discrepancy and dependence on public funds is a consistent feature of the Olympic movement around the world.

There has been a lot of criticism of the IOC over the years. The biggest issues have been nationalism, corruption, doping and amateurism. In tomorrow’s article, we will discuss the role of nationalism in subverting the ideals of the Olympic Movement.

By Rashid Mohiddin

Rashid Mohiddin is Chief Executive with Pressed Magazine, a society and culture magazine in Toronto, Ontario.

This article is a featured piece in #OlympicOpinions, an Opinions takeover week that explores everything about the Olympics. 

Please note that opinions expressed are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views and values of The Blank Page.