Faster, Higher, More Oppressive

International mega-sporting events like the Olympics have become the playthings of authoritarian regimes. Is it too late to shine the spotlight on human rights abuses?

By , the CEO of PEN America.

At the close of this year’s Formula 1 auto race in Bahrain this April, its organizers announced the latest addition to the global grand prix calendar: Slated for 2016, the world's premier race series will come to Baku, Azerbaijan. Not coincidentally, the upcoming first-ever European Games (a kind of spring training for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro) will also be hosted by Baku. For the next up-for-grabs Winter Olympics -- the 2022 Games -- the only two contenders are Almaty, in Azerbaijan’s neighbor Kazakhstan, and Beijing, the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The next World Cup soccer tournament, in 2018, will take place in Russia, home to last year’s Winter Olympics. The following World Cup, in 2022, will take place in Qatar.

At the close of this year’s Formula 1 auto race in Bahrain this April, its organizers announced the latest addition to the global grand prix calendar: Slated for 2016, the world’s premier race series will come to Baku, Azerbaijan. Not coincidentally, the upcoming first-ever European Games (a kind of spring training for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro) will also be hosted by Baku. For the next up-for-grabs Winter Olympics — the 2022 Games — the only two contenders are Almaty, in Azerbaijan’s neighbor Kazakhstan, and Beijing, the host of the 2008 Summer Olympics. The next World Cup soccer tournament, in 2018, will take place in Russia, home to last year’s Winter Olympics. The following World Cup, in 2022, will take place in Qatar.

Although each international sporting competition’s secretariat selects its own host cities, it’s hard not to discern a trend toward splashy international sporting competitions becoming the provenance of repressive regimes. If this pattern continues, mega-sporting events that aspire to soar above politics risk becoming political footballs that, tossed about by a hapless International Olympic Committee (IOC) and similar governing bodies, bounce from one authoritarian setting to the next. While advocates are valiantly trying to play offense, using the events as media hooks to spotlight abuses, the IOC, sponsors, and governments will all need to step up to prevent mega-sports from becoming the turf of tyrants.

The reasons that global games appeal to repressive governments are fairly obvious. Small countries that earn mostly negative international media attention when they attract any notice at all are eager for the spotlight that a sporting competition brings: toned athletes, rousing music, stadiums full of cheering fans, soft-focus feature stories on local customs, and a spate of punchy headlines that avoid sensitive topics such as politics and corruption. For large countries like China and Russia, global championships are a chance to showcase their logistical prowess, pageantry, and leadership to a press corps more interested in medal counts than prison counts.

Democracies have not entirely opted out of global sports convenings. Brazil, eager to buff its stature as a rising global power, hosted 2014’s FIFA World Cup and will be home to the 2016 Summer Olympics. South Korea and Japan continue to actively bid for Olympic business, and Boston is in the running for the 2024 Summer Games. But while the Summer Olympics continue to be prized — more countries in more climate zones are able to host the Summer Games, and the Summer Games can be more profitable — less desirable competitions are being orphaned by some of their traditional national sponsors in Western Europe and are being turned over to the highest or only bidders, many of which are motivated by the chance to use sports to deflect negative attention.

The 2022 Winter Olympics are a case in point. Alongside Almaty and Beijing, the cities of Krakow, Poland; Lviv, Ukraine; Stockholm, Sweden; and Oslo, Norway, submitted bids, only to subsequently withdraw them. In Lviv’s case, the Ukraine crisis was to blame. The three other cities backed out due to flagging political support for their bids back home. In Krakow, a popular referendum on hosting failed; in Stockholm, two parties in the governing coalition came out against the bid; and in Oslo, Geir-Inge Sivertsen, a conservative lawmaker, said “very strange demands from the IOC” convinced his party to reject the bid.

As countries become more attuned to popular attitudes on sports hosting, and as populaces grow more skeptical about rising costs, environmental burdens, and nebulous benefits, games are increasingly the domain of governments that can bid and spend freely without having to answer to voters.

* * *

Rising political opposition to sports hosting is driven by a number of factors.

First off, costs are rising fast. The staggering $51 billion bill for the Sochi Winter Olympics is greater than the gross domestic product of most of the world’s countries. While Vancouver’s $7 billion spend for the 2010 Winter Games and London’s $14 billion tab in the summer of 2012 are less heart-stopping, when weighed against bread and butter investments in things like health and job training, the Olympic pageantry struggles to make the cut. In London, security costs alone topped $1 billion. As Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg put it plaintively when dropping her country’s 2022 Winter Games bid last fall, “It could have been fun … But when there were so many questions, so much skepticism and so much money involved, there was no point in moving forward with this.”

Second, on the revenue side, the payoff is getting worse for host countries. According to Harry Arne Solberg, sports-economics professor at Norway’s Trondheim Business School, whereas in the 1980s local hosts auctioned off Olympic television rights and kept 90 percent of the revenues, now the IOC keeps almost 70 percent of television and sponsorship dollars. While hosting the Olympics can create anywhere from 50,000 to 300,000 jobs, research shows that most are temporary and few go to people previously unemployed. A 2009 study by Andrew K. Rose, an economist at the University of California, Berkeley, and Mark M. Spiegel, an economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco determined that while Olympic host cities see a trade boost, comparable benefits accrue to metropolises that make losing bids — the advantage comes from signaling to the world that a city is open for business, not from actually hosting synchronized swimmers or bobsledding.

Finally, the growing prevalence of human rights miscreants among the ranks of high profile athletic hosts has grown so problematic that is has spawned a cottage industry within the international human rights movement, focused on the nexus between sports and rights. Advocates are becoming increasingly dogged in using international competitions as a lens to spotlight abusers and push for reforms, trying to shame governments into implementing improvements lest the story of human rights pitfalls overshadow athletic triumphs. The U.N.’s Human Rights Council has issued resolutions on the topic of human rights and sports and, earlier this year, leading human rights groups launched the Sports and Rights Alliance aiming to ensure that mega-sporting events uphold human rights and environmental standards.

These efforts have sought to pinpoint abuses that are occasioned or intensified by the games themselves. Ahead of the Beijing and Sochi Olympic games, Human Rights Watch issued major reports highlighting concerns with press freedom restrictions on those covering the extravaganza, the rights of laborers charged with building the elaborate Olympic villages and arenas, and the forced removals of urban residents with the misfortune of residing in the path of the Olympic construction storm. Open letters from rights advocates, athletes, and former diplomats pegged to the Olympics, Formula 1, and now the upcoming European Games in Baku have demanded improvements on gay rights in Russia, the treatment of lawyers and activists in Bahrain, and the release of jailed journalists in Azerbaijan.

As recently as the much ballyhooed first-ever Chinese-hosted Olympics in 2008, rights activists nurtured hopes that the Olympic torch might light a fire under governments to burnish their records before the international press corps descended en masse. Yet a raft of meetings with IOC and Chinese government officials, alongside a plethora of reports, recommendations, briefings, and handbooks for foreign journalists ahead of and during the games yielded scant impact. Human Rights Watch’s director of global initiatives, Minky Worden, a key architect of the sports and rights movement concluded a year after the games concluded that awarding Beijing the Olympics “actually worsened the human rights climate in China.”

Six years later in Sochi, Russian President Vladimir Putin did order a few token releases of political prisoners including Pussy Riot and Mikhail Khodorkovsky in the run-up to the opening ceremonies, but these were overshadowed by a longer and harsher pattern of arrests, attacks, and unexplained disappearances targeting prominent journalists and activists. According to Freedom House, Sochi took place amid Russia’s most severe crackdown on human rights since the days of the Soviet Union.

Activists protesting the Olympics — including the newly released members of the Pussy Riot protest collective — were arrested and attacked during the championships. Neither informal boycott of the Sochi opening ceremonies by international officials nor a move by athletes to display rainbow gay rights insignias seemed to much cramp Putin’s style. Just a month after the Sochi closing ceremonies Putin annexed Crimea, dispelling any lingering notion that the world’s warm embrace might draw him closer to international norms.

* * *

Azerbaijan is next in line to prove that mega-sporting events can spur abusive regimes to intensified repression. When Baku hosted the Eurovision song contest in 2012, observers witnessed a crackdown on dissidents ahead of the competition. Azeri journalists were punished for documenting expansive, corrupt deals for song venues and facilities that lined the pockets of Azerbaijan’s President Ilham Aliyev. Despite criticism from the winning Swedish crooner Loreen — who told an opposition newspaper that, “Human rights are violated in Azerbaijan every day. One should not be silent about such things” — Aliyev has clearly decided that the public relations and diplomatic benefits of hosting mega-sports well outweigh both the financial and political costs. For the upcoming Olympic-sanctioned European Games, Azerbaijan’s government is willing make unprecedented outlays to foot the costs of participation for athletes from over 50 countries. Aliyev is beginning to learn the lesson that high-profile international events can prompt the media to probe Azerbaijan’s ugly underbelly, but only if he allows them to do so. The most prominent journalist behind the Eurovision song exposés, Khadija Ismayilova, has been in jail since December.

The one place sports-minded rights advocates have claimed some rhetorical progress is with the International Olympic Committee itself, though to a lesser extent other sports governing bodies are following its lead. Last fall, to the applause of activists, the IOC decided to include human rights protections in its future host city contracts, requiring hosts to uphold Olympic Charter provisions including “human dignity” and “non-discrimination” as well as environmental and labor standards. Formula 1’s notoriously eccentric chief, Bernie Ecclestone, after long dismissing any link between rights and auto racing (amid a mass police lockdown during the 2013 Formula 1 race in Bahrain, Ecclestone remarked, “I keep asking people, ‘What human rights?’ I don’t know what they are. The rights are that people who live in the country abide by the laws of the country, whatever they are”), has now reportedly approved a “policy document” that commits the competition to recognizing “human rights at all of its 20 venues around the world” and to “due diligence” before signing up new hosts.

But there’s every indication that these are superficial gestures aimed more at quieting critics rather than actually quelling rights abuses. When questioned about how Formula 1’s new policy would affect plans for future races in Baku, Ecclestone indicated that due diligence had been carried out and Azerbaijan met the standard with flying colors, saying, “I think everybody seems to be happy. There doesn’t seem to be any big problem there.”

It isn’t clear that the IOC is setting the bar much higher. When the 102-member committee takes something seriously, it shows. The contrast between the IOC’s treatment of intellectual property and its approach to human rights is instructive. As Northumbria University law professor Mark James has pointed out on the explanatory journalism website The Conversation, the IOC requires all host nations to adopt new and stringent laws to ensure the protection of the Olympics’ copyrights — for example, its iconic and colorful rings logo. Since 2000, every Olympic host has adopted new legislation to guarantee compliance with the rules. When it comes to human rights, the IOC’s demands don’t entail any new legislative requirements. Instead, its human rights ambitions are included in hortatory pledges in the preambles of host-country agreements, rather than in operative paragraphs.

Arresting the race-to-the-bottom for international mega-sports hosts would require a broad rethink of the purpose of the games as well as how they are structured and governed. Three intersecting sets of measures are needed: stiffer human rights standards applied to host cities, improved incentives to beef up popular support among potential host cities in democratic countries, and outside pressure from sponsors and the press to make it more difficult for countries to use international games to whitewash their human rights conduct.

* * *

To stiffen human rights standards for host countries, the IOC need look only to its own unyielding approach to intellectual property. While it would overstep the committee’s mandate to require broad legislative changes in areas like women’s rights or police practices, the IOC could insist on passage of laws necessary to guarantee press freedom ahead of and during the games, to outlaw discrimination in all things games-related and to prevent labor abuses and forced removals. While some would undoubtedly chastise the IOC for wading into politics, there’s an argument that these nefarious practices, when carried out as part of Olympic preparations or staging, incur more risk to the Olympic brand and prestige than do unauthorized uses of the word “games” and the other infractions barred under the committee’s copyright strictures.

The IOC has subsidiary commissions to address issues including ethics, culture, and marketing. It should create a new commission focused on human rights and populated with experts to help formulate and implement new and more stringent requirements. The commission could also carry out dispassionate due diligence during the bidding process and inform the IOC’s nominating commission of its findings, ensuring that the human rights information guiding IOC decision-making is solid rather than anecdotal. Now that international human rights groups have locked their gaze on the Olympics as a force for good and ill, the scrutiny will not let up. Rather than cosmetic half-measures, the committee should take advantage of the crisis occasioned by its Hobson’s choice between Almaty and Beijing to get ahead of the next human rights crisis. The IOC’s approach will set the tone for the sector, leading other sports federations to beef up their own standards.

Unless the IOC accompanies heightened demands on authoritarian Olympic aspirants with steps that boost the appeal of hosting to democracies, it could end up with almost no hosts at all. Robust debate is now underway in Boston about the pros and cons of the Olympics. Proponents of “Boston 2024” and a group of critics who straightforwardly call themselves “No Boston Olympics” have clashed at multiple town hall meetings and produced dueling memos and analyses of the intricacies of revenue sharing and environmental impacts. Multiplying, data-rich analyses of the long-term impact of hosting on cities like Montreal and Athens are discouraging, with the stats and balance sheets increasingly outweighing the feel-good messaging campaigns mounted by Olympics boosters.

The IOC is beginning to recognize the problem and reshape its value proposition to prospective hosts. It has recently streamlined the early phases of the bidding process in an effort to avoid having cities like New York and Chicago drop more than $10 million on initial bid efforts, only to be knocked out of the competition in the early rounds. The IOC has also amended its rules to allow cities and countries to co-host the games with neighbors, pooling resources and spreading costs. These measures will need to be accompanied by a change of tone, set in motion by the IOC, to prize environmental stewardship and the long-term impact of the Olympics on local infrastructure and communities over ever grander, fleeting Las Vegas-style spectacles. In evaluating bids, the committee should take account of not only how well the plans will serve the games themselves, but whether the sports facilities, new housing, and transportation infrastructure is integrated into a long-term plan — rather than just becoming another cautionary tale of empty hotel rooms, and lonely post-game white elephant sporting facilities.

With the die cast for the next few rounds of Winter Olympics, Formula 1, and World Cup championships, authoritarian regimes with a taste for sports will be either affirmed or challenged in their belief that the drama and excitement of the games can be counted on to drown out the heightened criticism and scrutiny that can come with the spotlight. While rights groups have diligently mobilized to ensure that repressive governments hear from them early and often in the run-up to big competitions, only when governments begin to feel heat from the media and sponsors will the touted potential of the Olympics to incentivize rights improvements be realized.

In Sochi, leading sponsors such as Coca Cola, General Electric, and Visa were largely mum about human rights concerns. If they were to make noise and threaten to back away from contests based on reputation-tarnishing rights infringements, host governments would take notice. The media also has a role to play. Earlier this month, in a first, a group of prominent sports journalists including NBC’s Bob Costas — who has covered nine Olympic games in prime time — Sports Illustrated’s Frank Deford, and dozens of others penned a letter to IOC President Thomas Bach asking him to use the committee’s leverage to demand the release of jailed Azeri journalist Khadija Ismayilova and dozens of others ahead of the European Games in Baku. While sports journalists may hesitate to wade into politics, media outlets must recognize the integral role they play in enabling repressive governments to use mega-sporting events for their own purposes.

The opening clause of the Olympic charter describes “Olympism” as centered on “the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” To uphold that aspiration, Olympic organizers had better move quickly to wrest their august games from the hands of repressive regimes. If not, the Olympics and other mega-sports competitions risk being known more for boosting the careers of authoritarians than of the athletes — and ideals — they claim to serve.

 Photo credit: Robert Cianflone/Getty Images

Suzanne Nossel is the CEO of PEN America and a member of Facebook's oversight board. She was formerly deputy assistant secretary of state for international organizations at the U.S. State Department. Twitter: @SuzanneNossel

More from Foreign Policy

Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.
Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping give a toast during a reception following their talks at the Kremlin in Moscow on March 21.

Can Russia Get Used to Being China’s Little Brother?

The power dynamic between Beijing and Moscow has switched dramatically.

Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.
Xi and Putin shake hands while carrying red folders.

Xi and Putin Have the Most Consequential Undeclared Alliance in the World

It’s become more important than Washington’s official alliances today.

Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.
Russian President Vladimir Putin greets Kazakh President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev.

It’s a New Great Game. Again.

Across Central Asia, Russia’s brand is tainted by Ukraine, China’s got challenges, and Washington senses another opening.

Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.
Kurdish military officers take part in a graduation ceremony in Erbil, the capital of Iraq’s Kurdistan Region, on Jan. 15.

Iraqi Kurdistan’s House of Cards Is Collapsing

The region once seemed a bright spot in the disorder unleashed by U.S. regime change. Today, things look bleak.