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From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

A Shameful Track Record

The Olympic movement plays fast and loose with basic democratic values

Laura Robinson

Chris Shaw is a bit of a nebbish, a Woody Allen–esque guy who researches Parkinson’s disease for a living. He has two ex-wives and a fuel-efficient car, but in the winter-of-discontent narrative that has enveloped the Vancouver Olympics, he has a different passion. In 2008, Shaw wrote Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, a thoughtful book exposing the current Olympic underbelly, from cost overruns to the destruction of pristine Eagle Ridge to make way for a widened Sea-to-Sky Highway, to the death of Tsimshian elder Harriet Nahanee from pneumonia, days after she was released from two weeks in detention for camping on Eagle Ridge and facing down bulldozers.

In his introduction, Shaw acknowledged that he had been opposed to and protesting against the 2010 Winter Olympics ever since 2002. But did he ever imagine that the Integrated Security Unit, a nearly $1 billion combination of 7,000 Vancouver City Police and RCMP, 4,000 military and 5,000 private security personnel responsible for keeping the games “safe,” would be tailing him to his local café on June 3, 2009, interrupting his walk from the café to work and, in their polite plainclothes way, telling him they did not like what he had written? Or that they would knock on the door of his ex-wife and try to pry damaging information out of her? Did he imagine the same thing would happen in the same week to other anti-Olympics activists, as police went to neighbours looking for information about the shady person next door who had the audacity to speak out against the games? Or that a week later he would land at Heathrow Airport, on his way to the University of Coventry for a sports conference, and airport security would hold him in solitary with no explanation for 40 minutes? Shaw had not imagined any of this. He was under the impression that Canadian law enforcers understood the Charter of Rights and Freedoms and that our right to freedom of expression was sacrosanct.

It turns out that is not the case, and the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games expressed the tension over this issue very clearly in a press release it issued on September 16, 2009, titled: “A Balance of Interests: Freedom of Expression in Public Spaces and Athletes Competing at Their Best and Spectator Enjoyment at the 2010 Games.”

The press release said:

[VANOC] is working closely with its partners to provide a reasonable balance of interests at the 2010 Winter Games including freedom of expression in public spaces; the protection of Olympic marks and Games sponsors against commercial infringement and ambush marketing; and venues where athletes can compete at their very best before spectators who can fully enjoy the events.

VANOC clearly assumes there is a contradiction between freedom of expression and the right of athletes, spectators and sponsors to enjoy the games, as if allowing freedom of expression will somehow take away from the enjoyment of others instead of adding to it. “Protecting” the games against criticism of any sort is one of the main things the modern Olympics has always been about, giving rise to an intensely secretive and opaque organizational culture. When the games are held in democratic countries, these tensions come to the fore. In more totalitarian or fascistic states, the Olympic movement gets a much more comfortable ride. The history of this tug-of-war is a fascinating and deeply troubling one.

Given the all-powerful and monopolistic role it plays in international sport, the International Olympic Committee has come under little scrutiny in North America. This is partly because it and the international sport federations that make up much of its ranks choose to base themselves in Lausanne, Switzerland, where everything—especially bank accounts—is a secret. But the International Olympic Committee’s Olympic Marketing Fact File numbers from 2001 to 2004 show the IOC brought in a total of US$4,189,000,000 in revenue. Broadcast rights accounted for US$2,232,000,000 and domestic sponsorships brought in US$796,000,000, and licensing another $87,000,000. The Olympic Partner (TOP) sponsorship brought in US$663,000,000. Included in TOP are McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Visa, Samsung, GE, Atos Origin, Panasonic, Acer and Omega—the latter six of which are in the military and/or surveillance business.

Switzerland allows the IOC to call itself a non-profit sports club despite the $4 billion broadcast deals it signed for the Vancouver 2010 games and the 2012 games in London (30 percent greater than the broadcast numbers quoted above). This way it does not even pay the 20 percent standard income tax that regular organizations would, and Switzerland gets a generous bonus in sport tourism, as—coincidentally, of course—the country hosts a disproportionately large number of international sporting events. One World Trust, an independent British think tank, recently ranked the IOC as the least transparent of the 30 non-profit organizations it measured.

When they appear in public, members of the IOC are surrounded by security. Journalists were initially banned from the 121st session of the Olympic Congress this past October in Copenhagen; then the 1,400 media representatives who had come to cover the selection of the host city for the 2016 Olympics were cordoned off by hundreds of police officers and security agents. Once the choice of Rio de Janeiro was announced, most of the journalists left, but there were still a couple of hundred wanting to cover the rest of the congress. The IOC allowed 17 to question delegates in the lobby of the Copenhagen Marriott during lunch and breaks, dividing the journalists into two groups, A and B, with only group A getting access to the IOC members. No reason was given for this by Mark Adams, the IOC’s communications director—at least no reason that made any sense to the journalists present. Gianni Merlo, president of the International Press Association, said, “This is unfair. We are here to talk to the IOC members. And we don’t want to be listed as A and B journalists. It’s complete nonsense to prevent us access to the delegates.” He was joined by the president of the Olympic Journalists Association, Alain Lunzenfichter, who also tried to obtain media accreditation for all journalists. At the end of days of confusion and double-talk from the IOC, Adams said: “Thanks, this was a most enjoyable press briefing.”

We will all be paying for the IOC’s security this winter. It may deter terrorists, but most importantly it keeps journalists out. In Beijing I wanted to ask Hein Verbruggen, chair of the Olympic Games coordination commission and former president of the Union Cycliste Internationale (the governing body for cycling), why there was such a discrepancy between how many women were allowed to compete in cycling compared to men. Each country could bring a maximum of eleven men to compete in seven events at the velodrome while only a maximum of three women competing in three events were allowed. When I saw that he would be giving out the medals at the time trial, I made my move.

As soon as I got close enough to ask him a question—which I did by squirming around security guards—they closed in on me. All Verbruggen would say to my questions was, “I don’t know.” This from the man who is still the most powerful person in bike racing in the world. I persisted, but security was pushing me away. “It must be historical,” Verbruggen said, smiling as security formed a wall around him and pushed me out.

The UCI headquarters at the Olympic venue in Beijing was guarded by a steel fence, cameras and more security. We now know that Verbruggen worked out a secret deal with Beijing. After IOC president Jacques Rogge guaranteed journalists that all internet sites would remain up and uncensored, Verbruggen agreed to let Beijing shut down sites that were critical of China’s human rights record seven days before the games commenced, a move most believe Rogge also knew about.

By focusing a magnifying glass on some of the IOC’s members, a portrait of the movement and its values begins to emerge more clearly. Look, for instance, at General Lassana Palenfo, a member of the IOC Women and Sport Commission. He is from the Ivory Coast but now lives in Paris. Why? Because, according to two stories in the Danish newspaper Ekstra Bladet this past October, he was sprung from an Ivory Coast prison in 2000 by an envoy sent by then IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch. Palenfo was told, according to the paper’s confidential source, he would be released from prison as long as he voted for Beijing to host the 2008 Olympics.

And why was the general in jail in the first place? He was second in command after being part of a 1999 Ivory Coast coup masterminded by junta leader Robert Guei, who later suspected him of plotting an assassination attempt and had him thrown in jail. This was ironic given that Palenfo was very good at throwing others in jail as head of the PC Crise—or Crisis Patrol—which “was a kind of death squad,” journalists Sverre Quist and Bo Elkjaer from Ekstra Bladet were told by an informant still in the military who met secretly with them last fall.

General Palenfo is not unlike Major General Francis Nyangweso, also an IOC member. By 1972, Nyangweso was a military commander under Idi Amin in Uganda. Amin’s reign of terror is responsible for having an estimated 400,000 Ugandans killed. If things get uncomfortable for Nyangweso in Uganda, he too will be well taken care of by the IOC, and this may have to happen because after being president of the Ugandan Olympic Committee since 1980, Nyangweso was ousted in February 2009. The newly elected officials found the committee’s bank account nearly empty—something Nyangweso had previously denied even though his tab as a jet-setting president became very high during his reign. As well as being an IOC member, Nyangweso also sits on the IOC Commission for Culture and Olympic Education. Remember that when the Olympic torch comes through your town.

In fact, it is salutary to remember how the Olympic torch got its start. Despite what Canadian journalists might write and broadcast about the torch relay being a symbol of peace and international understanding, its roots are steeped in one of the best propaganda exercises ever perpetrated on this planet. In the prelude to the Berlin Olympics of 1936, Carl Diem came up with the idea that Germany should send 3,422 Aryan runners to start at Mount Olympus and end 3,422 kilometres later at the Berlin stadium. Diem, the games’ organizer, later became a vicious Nazi military commander who ordered his young soldiers to “die like Spartans” in the war to uphold the Aryan nation.

In the 1988 The Olympic Flame, an official IOC publication written by Conrado Durantez, founder of the Spanish Olympic Academy, the chapter on the Berlin Games begins: “The 1936 Olympics went down in the annals of sport as among the most perfect ever organized, as those which were steeped in the greatest Olympic sense and essence and where the public turnout was the most enthusiastic, boisterous and numerous.” There are large photos of Nazi parades with the torch and a banner reading “Germany Awake”—the title of a popular Nazi song. More photos show Hitler with the IOC president at that time and massive columns of soldiers and swastikas. The text under a group of runners doing the Heil Hitler salute reads, “The team of runners who will execute the first phase of the journey to Athens swear an oath, raising their right arm” but not one word of the text even hints at the political reasons Hitler wanted the Olympics in Germany.

In fact, Hitler did not like the idea of the Olympics because the games involved too many people he saw as “unfit,” but Joseph Goebbels, his minister of propaganda, convinced him that hosting the games would put Germany in a glowing light. The Nazis put US$8,000,000 toward the Games. And Goebbels’s press agency issued sophisticated edicts to German journalists:

Press coverage should not mention that there are two non-Aryans among the women: Helene Mayer (fencing) and Gretel Bergmann (high jump and all-around track and field competition). [July 16, 1936]

The racial point of view should not be used in any way in reporting sports results; above all Negroes should not be insensitively reported…Negroes are American citizens and must be treated with respect as Americans. [August 3, 1936]

The northern section of the Olympic village, originally utilized by the Wehrmacht [German army], should not be referred to as “Kasernel” (the barracks), but will hereafter be called “North Section Olympic Village.” [July 27, 1936]

And how did Ewald manage to come to the prestigious position of head of the country’s sports organizations? His résumé included joining the Hitler Youth in 1938, becoming a member of the Nazi party as an adult and organizing the very street gangs he once ran in as a young brown shirt. Ewald’s past was known to the IOC, but it did not keep Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the very august and male organization from 1980 to 2001, from awarding him, in 1985, the Olympic Order, seen as the Nobel Prize of sport.

In Germany after the wall fell, Giselher Spitzer of the University of Potsdam and Gerhard Treutlein of the University of Heidelberg researched and wrote all they could on the Ewald era in the east, and also about the ease with which West German athletes were given performance-enhancing drugs. Spitzer lost his professorship and both have been persecuted by an element of the German sport system that has remade the country’s sporting past into myth. Go to the stadium in Berlin where Hitler held the 1936 Olympics and you will see the bronze plaque that commemorates Carl Diem. Go to the Olympic Museum in Lausanne and read the accolades to Manfred Ewald in the archives.

The IOC prefers to operate publicly with no memory, and of course that includes not acknowledging Juan Antonio Samaranch’s fascist ideology and provenance. Samaranch was sports minister in Francisco Franco’s regime in Spain, and during that time was president of the Spanish Olympic Committee from 1967 to 1970. There are photos of him in his fascist’s blue shirt alongside Franco, but none of this is ever mentioned in any official IOC text. By 1966 he was also a member of the IOC, and replaced Ireland’s Lord Killanin as president in 1980. Samaranch insisted on being called “his excellency” and is now Honorary President for Life. His son is an IOC member, too. If Samaranch Sr. showed a soft spot for fascism, he was following in the footsteps of American Avery Brundage, who became IOC president in 1952. Brundage conveniently took fellow American Ernest Lee Jahnke’s place in the IOC ranks in 1936 after Jahnke was expelled for calling for a boycott of the 1936 Berlin Olympics. Brundage referred to Germany’s persecution of Jews as “the present Jew-Nazi altercation” and blamed the support for a boycott on “the Jewish-Communist conspiracy.” Brundage continued to believe that the Berlin Olympics were by far the finest and was said to have been a life-long admirer of Hitler until he died in 1975.

Besides Jahnke, one may ask, what other prominent opponents have there been to the IOC’s proclivity for dictators? Not many. In 1994, before he took the athletes’ oath on behalf of all athletes at the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Vegard Ulvang—three-time gold medalist in Nordic skiing—questioned the dictatorial nature of the IOC. “We Norwegians do not think highly of fascists,” he told me later.

In no time Samaranch had the upstart athlete taken off the starting list for his first event. This caused a scandal in Norway, where Ulvang is considered a Nordic god. The Norwegian Olympic Committee and ski federation intervened; Ulvang was put back on the startlist and he did not apologize. In 2007, when Oslo, Trondheim and Tromsø were vying to be the Norwegian city to host the 2018 Winter Olympics, Ulvang asked publicly where a critical appraisal of sport had gone. He was not alone: a poll showed that only 38 percent of Norwegians thought hosting the games was a good idea and all three cities dropped out.

Canadian Olympic gold medalist swimmer Mark Tewksbury organized many athletes in 1999, including Ulvang, to form Olympic Advocates Together Honourably—OATH—as a way to address corruption in the IOC. In 2000, Tewksbury told a BBC documentary that the IOC is “an autocratic or totalitarian system whereby things are going to happen a certain way and processes are put in place whereby those results are arrived at.” The group was snuffed out by a few IOC lawsuit threats.

Along with the B.C. Civil Liberties Association, Shaw and another activist filed a lawsuit in October 2009 against the City of Vancouver over its omnibus bylaw that gave police special powers to enter private homes should they display “ambush marketing” signs or logos on their property and to arrest the occupant and take down the signage. The BCCLA argued that anti-Olympic signs could be considered ambush marketing under the bylaw. After many protests the city amended the bylaw to protect the rights to protest and to freedom of expression. The BCCLA sees this as a major victory, but is also asking VANOC to rescind a clause in its contract with artists that stipulates that the artist must “refrain from making any negative or derogatory remarks respecting VANOC, the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games, the Olympic movement generally, Bell and/or other sponsors associated with VANOC.” In addition, the Writers Union of Canada has written to VANOC twice—first over the harassment of Shaw and then, in December, over the detention and interrogation of U.S. writer Amy Goodman at the Canadian border on her way to do a reading at the Vancouver Public Library.

Meanwhile, journalists from official media sponsors such as CanWest Global, CTV, TSN and The Globe and Mail exclaim over the torch relay and Olympic “dreams.” Canadians are supposed to put on their Made in China red mitts and are told to “believe.”

In what?

Laura Robinson is the author of Black Tights: Women, Sport and Sexuality and Cyclist BikeList: The Book for Every Rider.

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