An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


2002 – The Salt Lake City Winter Olympics


8 February 2002 – Salt Lake City

My mother once told me of a place,
With waterfalls an unicorns flying.
Where there was no suffering, no pain.
Where there was laughter instead of dying.
I always thought she’d made it up,
To comfort me in times of pain.
But now I know that place is real,
Now I know its name.

~ The Book of Mormon

Why wouldn’t you want to hold a Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah? Where the warlords are friendly and the goat meat is plentiful? Well, we know why you would hold an Olympics there – flagrant corruption.

The Salt Lake City Olympics bidding process opened up the lid on the systemic nepotism and bribery within the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the systems for awarding Games to host cities. It resulted in a number of reforms to clean up the system and the IOC’s reputation. Thankfully, nothing like this will ever happen again…

In a completely and utterly unrelated story:

It can be difficult sometimes to justify to people who don’t like sport just why I spend so much of my time watching it. Even if you can explain the attraction of watching people compete and the narratives that flow from that, how exactly do you explain away the rampant commercialism, corruption, sexism, racism, homophobia and various other unsavoury aspects of so many sports and their governing organisations?

Corruption in sport is – shockingly – not new. The “old boys’ networks” from the old British Public School system helped establish the rules for a number of sports in the late nineteenth century, from various versions of football to tennis and beyond. This was part of a Victorian desire to rationalise and standardise sport across the globe, so that everyone was playing by the same rule books. Sport was part of a masculine1 and Christian ideal, supposedly requiring and encouraging self discipline and athletic prowess. By the end of that century and the beginning of the twentieth, international sporting organisations popped up to express these ideals through nationalistic competition.

That nationalism was a key tool for regimes across the twentieth century, some authoritarian, some democratic. Italy “borrowed” a number of soccer players from Argentina to win the 1934 and 1938 FIFA World Cups (and may have slipped a coin or two in the pockets of the referees for good measure). The Nazis made a big play to host the 1936 Olympics. After 1945, the USSR and USA used a number of sports, mostly Olympic, to play out the Cold War in the sports stadium. Soccer teams have been integral to the post-1991 independent states in Eastern Europe and their national identities.

This explains why, say, Salt Lake City was keen to have a Winter Olympics. The eyes of the world would be on them, giving the place legitimacy. It’s why Qatar wanted a FIFA World Cup. It’s why the English were so angry when they didn’t get it.

There is another side to the corruption coin, however, which makes uncomfortable reading for countries who were part of that initial elite 100 years or so ago. Because the rest of the world has had to fight hard to be taken seriously alongside the traditional nations of Western Europe and North America. It took until 2002 before a FIFA World Cup went to Asia; 2010 before one went to Africa. We’re yet to have an African Olympics, Summer or Winter. And we’re a year away from the first ever South American one.

In the case of FIFA, the English/European oligarchy was swept aside in the 1970s under the leadership of João Havelange from Brazil. He appealed to the traditionally neglected nations, and built a large power base outside Europe. In some ways, this was a way to finally wrest control from the closed-shop in Europe. But it was built on giving bonuses to officials with… questionable ethics. No doubt, football investment has improved dramatically in Africa and Asia. But how much would have it have improved if officials weren’t trousering so much of the money?

Now, of course, Sal Tlay Ka Siti was in the United States – not exactly a sporting backwater. But it had been repeatedly overlooked. They believed the reason for this was that they weren’t wining and dining officials as well as their rivals. They may have been right. Though their solution wasn’t. They decided to bribe their way to the Olympics.

Perhaps it was right. They got the games, after all. But it nearly brought down the IOC and resulted in widespread reform.

There’s a question that international sport really needs to tackle, then. It doesn’t want corruption. At the same time, the West isn’t willing to give up its power. The arguments that other nations are not mature enough to be involved, economically or in terms of their business practices, can only go so far. How can they get better if they are never invited to the table?

Similarly, we cannot condone corruption simply because it allows non-traditional nations a shot at the big time. Qatar shouldn’t have a World Cup for the same reason it shouldn’t have a Winter Olympics. The climate isn’t right, the human rights record should see it kicked out of the international community, and it will help none of their citizens; it’s a vanity project for an absolute monarchy trying to buy credibility and prestige with the West.

People in the non-traditional countries deserve more from FIFA, the IOC and their ilk. More than that, though, they deserve more from the people who supposedly represent them.

Title image from Wikicommons.
  1. Although women were similarly encouraged into sport for the good of the race, especially with eugenic theories running wild through the period.
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