Depoliticising the Olympics

Finding an uncontroversial host for the is a tricky business. The games need a permanent site on neutral territory.

he Beijing Olympics promise to be one of the most spectacular in the history of the games. But events on the political track and field kicked off months ago, with receiving heavy criticism for its human rights record, deficit and the Tibetan question. To add to China’s problems, separatists in Xinjiang, which neighbours Tibet but is little known in the wider world, have even set off their own deadly fireworks.

While I am as outraged as others by the regime’s heavy-handedness, similar accusations have been levelled at previous hosts, and can easily be directed at future ones. In fact, numerous Olympics have been boycotted since the games were revived in 1894.

The first time this occurred was in Melbourne in 1956, where three European countries did not attend the games in protest at the crushing of the Hungarian uprising, while several developing countries stayed away in protest against the Suez crisis and the tripartite invasion of . Later boycotts included, in 1980 and 1984, the two superpowers of the Cold War refusing to attend each other’s games.

The Olympics have also been used for shameless propaganda. The most notable case was the 1936 games in Berlin. The silver lining was the sportsmanship exhibited by German athlete Luz Long who helped the African-American athlete Jesse Owens to win the long jump – a poignant gesture of subversion against Nazi race politics and American racial segregation.

And the use of the Olympics as a platform for political propaganda and protest is unlikely to stop in the future. The 2012 games will be held in London, perhaps in a bid to overcome the damage to the ’s international reputation caused by its military misadventures. But just as people demanded the boycotting of the Beijing Olympics because of Tibet, in the next cycle, we are likely to hear calls for the boycotting of the London games in protest against the illegal invasion of and its dire consequences.

So, what’s the answer?

Well, the Olympics cannot be entirely divorced from politics since the Olympic ideal is itself political: it seeks to make of an arena where countries can cast aside their political differences and build understanding through friendly competition. On a side note, wouldn’t it be great if we could revive one of the ancient Olympian ideals and make it obligatory for all participating countries involved in a conflict to call a truce for the length of the games?

In order to ensure that the games are a place to forget political differences and not highlight them, we need to rethink radically the way in which the games are organised. Instead of hosting them in a different country each time, I propose that we borrow from another ancient Olympian tradition and hold the games at a permanent venue – but one that is on neutral international territory.

Finding an appropriate location would not be easy. Olympia in Greece would certainly have a powerful symbolic advantage, but some of Greece’s neighbours might object.

To avoid the political wrangling that would inevitably arise in deciding where to locate a permanent Olympic venue, the should invite interested countries to bid a tiny part of their country which would be declared, rather like the UN headquarters, neutral international territory.

The different sites would be put up for an international vote and the selected one would immediately become a non-political international zone. In addition, an international fund would be set up to construct a fully-equipped Olympic city with all the necessary sporting facilities and accommodation.

Not only would this depoliticise the Olympics, it would also avoid the massive economic waste associated with the rotating venues we currently have, since, after the initial investment, there would only be maintenance costs.


This article first appeared in The Guardian on 7 August 2008.

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