Money, politics and the Olympics

This weekend will see the Olympic torch arrive in Britain amidst wrangling over Chinese human rights and the role of Prime Minister in the ceremony. Tomorrow, April 6th, is also the 112th anniversary of the opening of the first modern Olympic games in the Panathenaic Stadium in Greece. Most people ignore the Much Wenlock (Shropshire) Olympian Games of 1850 as a precursor.

The first modern Olympics in Greece had many of the features of the more recent encounters. The organising Committee saw costs multiply to three times budget, before they resigned en masse in 1894 saying the games could not be staged in Athens as they could not afford it. Others stepped in to raise more money and sort the problems out. The games were organised with representatives from 14 different nations, who joined in the Opening ceremony in national groups. Silver medals and laurel wreaths were awarded to winners and copper medals to runners up. Attempts to construct a modern gold/silver/bronze medal table for Greece shows the host nation winning, with the US second and the UK fifth. There were 43 separate events covering nine sports, with the highlight for the home crowd being a Greek victory in the marathon. There was a protest by a female athlete, running her own marathon to highlight the organiser’s ban on women participating in the games at all. There was no special accommodation for athletes. It was left to who happened to be able to afford to be in Athens at the time as to who could join in. Several of the British competitors were attached to the British Embassy. The rowing had to be cancelled owing to high winds, and sailing was abandoned owing to a shortage of boats. The closing ceremony took place a day late owing to bad weather.

In many ways the modern Olympics are much better. Women and the disabled can join in the games. Provision is made for the athletes. Many more countries are represented and more sports featured. More preparation and more money allows the best in the world access to good equipment and high standards of organised competition. They have, however, wandered further and further from the ideal of dedicated amateurs competing for the fun of it. The advent of ever bigger money has produced all the trappings of professional sport – expensive coaches, expensive equipment, detailed regimentation of the athletes life by others, and so much training that an Olympic athlete can no longer hold a normal job as well. It brings with it lawyers and ever more complicated rules. As the prizes become so much more valuable to win, so the ingenuity of coaches and athletes pushes at the limits of the rules. An athlete who wins an Olympic gold may still be an amateur in the sense that they are not paid for the winning race, but they will on the back of it be able to enter all sorts of lucrative contracts and deals to exploit their skill and celebrity status. The rules have been changed and relaxed over the years to reflect the reality that financial support helps produce better performances.

We are learning to live with the rough side of the Olympics. Any host nation is opening itself up for scrutiny, and potential abuse if the world does not like the way it behaves. The Olympic movement does little to stop the advance of ever more money in the games themselves, and even encourages it by backing very expensive staging and lucrative media involvement. It has become a media fest and a celebration of large corporations as sponsors, as well as a showcase for the fastest, strongest and most skilled competitors. We should expect more political controversy over the games, as the games are big news and those campaigning see an opportunity to gain air time and coverage. Attempts to stop peaceful protest will simply increase the coverage of the protesters, as it will make the story bigger. The arrival of the UK Lib Dems on the scene trying to find the moral high ground tells you they realise it is a great media circus, where even a squeezed third party can find some oxygen of publicity.


  1. Stuart Fairney
    April 5, 2008

    Giving Tessa Jowell budgetary control over the Olympics (words to the effect it is not a good idea!-ed)

    Haven't costs increased around four times now, allegedly because the sums were really rather difficult and anyway they forgot indexation and VAT. Either of the later errors would see you fired from a graduate QS role (salary around £20K) but not apparently from a ministerial post? This baffles me. Of all the insanity, blaming VAT seems the most insane as who receives VAT proceeds?

    Once you start adding too many zeros, money loses context, so let's give it some. If your spouse suggested you buy a house for say £275K, you might complain about stamp duty, but after checking you could afford it, you may go ahead. If they then announced the house would actually cost £1.1M you might well decide on another house and possible another spouse! What a shame we cannot divorce Tessa and co.

  2. Freeborn John
    April 5, 2008

    Anyone interested in our degraded democracy in Britain cannot fail to be moved by the Tibet issue. I was in McLeod Ganj in 2005 and the sight of the Tibetan community in exile there, with their colourful culture and half-forgotten cause, is an assault to anyone’s sense of injustice. I was in China in 2006 and although the economic progress is impressive it is still an obviously authoritarian state. The single greatest step forward that humanity could make would be for China to become a democracy. This would lead in my opinion to the liberation of Tibet (and indeed to a merge of China and Taiwan). How I wish that our foreign minister would spend more time advancing the causes of democracy and human rights in Beijing or Burma and less timing lying to us on behalf of mandarins in Brussels.

    That said I don’t think the Olympics should be a political football. It is only because the Games long since degenerated into a bloated vanity project that boycotts are viewed as a means of influencing the kind of overbearing states that most yearn to host them. If Britain could use 2012 to show that Games could be relatively modest affairs and even to demonstrate that we don’t give two hoots if some countries want to boycott, then we might leave a legacy as useful to the Olympic movement as to the host city.

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