From rejected bids, to political moves, and more…
A deep dive into the Winter Olympic Games
As Canadians, we like to think we know the Winter Olympics. Maybe we watched Sidney Crosby score his game-winning goal against the United States in Vancouver in 2010 or cried when Tessa and Scott shared their last moment together on the ice in PyeongChang in 2018. Maybe we even sported those red and white Olympic mittens for a few too many winters after Vancouver hosted the Games. But, how well do we really know the Winter Olympics?
Though the Olympics (both summer and winter) often conjure up an idyllic image of countries putting their differences aside and gathering for some respectful, cooperative competition, they also come with a robust and complicated history.
Thinking about the Olympics through a political lens, Dr. Russell Field explains, is necessary in order to understand their full significance. He says that the Olympics tend to be viewed as a “mechanism for smoothing out difference, by asserting that sport is apolitical, and by attaching national value to that.”
But, rather than buying into the utopian notion that sport can heal all difference, it’s important to recognize that international events like the Olympics are often where we see these differences play out. This doesn’t mean that sport cannot be a powerful tool to forge connections between nations and work for peace, but simply that it not always successful in doing so.
This year, the Bejing Winter Olympics are kicking-off under “diplomatic” boycott instated by allied countries, including Canada, in protest of human rights violations committed by China.
Regardless of one’s stance on boycotting the games, it’s worth considering the fact that the Olympics have been tangled in webs of personal, national, and international struggle since their inception.
In light of the opening of Beijing 2022, here is a short list of facts related to the history of the Winter Olympics, indebted to innovative research being done in the field of Olympics history in our faculty and across the world. These facts are offered as an entry-point and as an exploration of the social, political, environmental and economic conflicts that have arisen in the world of international sport, and to demonstrate the fact that the Olympics, whether we like it or not, have always been political.
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- The founder of the Olympics was hesitant to endorse the Winter Olympic games
Vicktor Balck, who ran the successful Swedish Nordic Games (a winter sport competition) sat on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) at the beginning of the twentieth century and was adamantly opposed to the IOC getting involved in winter sport. His perspective likely influenced Pierre de Coubertin—the founder of the Olympics—and his good friend, who also opposed the integration of winter sports under the Olympics umbrella. It was only after Balck’s retirement from the IOC, that de Coubertin endorsed the first “official” Winter Olympics, which took place in Chamonix, France, in 1924. Researchers Pedro Perez-Aragon and Alejandro Viuda-Serrano work to uncover this history in their paper “the Icy Road towards the first Olympic Winter Games in Chamonix in 1924.”
- Hosting the winter games can bolster international reputations, especially for non-Western countries
Winter sports come with more cultural and economic barriers than summer sports do. Jung Woo Lee writes that because of these barriers, the divide between the global north and south is much more apparent at the Winter Olympics, with Western countries tending to host these games. However, in recent years, non-Western cities have been chosen to host the Winter Olympics, such as Sochi in 2014, PyeongChang in 2018 and Beijing in 2022. Woo Lee’s research explores how the Winter Olympics have been leveraged as a political tool by “non-Western industrial powerhouses, to demonstrate their desire to be recognized as advanced cultural economies.” It is likely that something similar is happening this year in Beijing, as Chinese officials continue to deny point-blank that any human rights violations are being committed against the Uyghur ethnic community.
- In the 21st century, referendums with negative results are becoming more common
Referendums are held when there is a reason a city may not want to host the Olympics. The public is then given the chance to weigh in on the issue, voting for or against the bid. Jean-Loup Chappelet writes that when a public votes against hosting the Olympics, it generally has to do with one of the following issues: environmental costs, economic factors, or the changing image of the IOC. His research shows that since 1968, 31 referendums have been held for the winter Olympics, with 58% of them ultimately rejecting the bids. Looking at the 11 referendums that have happened since the beginning of the 21st century, that percentage has drastically increased, to 78% of the referendums producing negative results.
Recently, Calgary was “planning on bidding for the 2026 games until two-years ago when a civic referendum voted against (it),” notes Dr. Field, adding that this is not the only Canadian bid to have been pulled. Banff bid three times in a row and were the favourites to win for the 1972 games, but ended up finishing second in that vote due to a series of environmental protests.
- In 1976, Montreal added an extra tax on tobacco to mitigate their debt
Did you know that the huge deficit run up by the Montreal 1976 Olympics may have contributed to a reduced interest in hosting the winter Olympics across the globe (for a few years)? During the Montreal 1976 Winter Olympics, the Quebec government added a tax on tobacco to relieve some of the deficit that was being run-up by their Olympics infrastructure costs. Following this, there were only two bids (each year) for the 1980 and 1984 winter Olympic games!
- Conversations about sustainability are creating division
The environmental impact of the Winter Olympics is something to be considered. Activists have pointed out the amount of water it takes to produce fake snow and the way carving ski/lunge/skeleton courses out on mountains can impact environmental health and biodiversity. There is also the issue of architectural waste—the huge arenas, freeways, and trainlines that are usually built to support the influx of organizers, tourists, and athletes. Recent games—such as the Tokyo 2020 summer Olympics—have made significant efforts to reduce their environmental footprints, by using renewable energy and recycling architecture, among other things, but environmentalists have called this “greenwashing,” arguing that these efforts are largely superficial.
“Environmental protest has increasingly become a feature of the games, right up to the 2018 games in PyeongChang where there were local protests over a sacred site in the mountains,” says Dr. Field.
Is it possible that the Olympics and sustainability are at the core, incompatible entities? Opinions on this are split, with activists claiming that such gargantuan projects cannot possibly be sustainable, while others suggest that bid supporters and game organizers have simply struggled to adequately explain (to an increasingly skeptical public) how these complex sustainability initiatives function.
- Canada has never fully boycotted the winter Olympics
Canada has been involved in boycotts of summer Olympic games—including the famous boycott of the 1980 Moscow games following the former Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan— but has never fully boycotted the Winter Olympics.
This year, however, Canada has already joined the United States, Australia, and New Zealand in a “diplomatic boycott” of the 2022 Bejing winter games, in protest of China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities in the Xinjiang region. A diplomatic boycott means that no government officials will attend the event, but that athletes will still be allowed to play. This decision has been met with support from athletes and organizers who appreciate how it affords athletes the right to choose whether or not they will compete. A full boycott, in the eyes of many Olympic athletes, is complete devastating, and strips them of the ability to compete in events that they have usually been training for for many years.
Still, Canadian activist groups like Vancouverites concerned about Hong Kong and Vancouver Society in support of democratic movement are asking citizens not to legitimize the event by watching it.
- An Indigenous winter games may be on the horizon
According to Dr. Field, “the potential is being explored of an Indigenous-led bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics.” An announcement of whether a formal bid will be submitted to the IOC is expected this coming fall, which is something to watch out for. The idea behind this bid, Dr. Field explains, is that “local organizers will not only work with First Nations (as they did in 2010)” but that Indigenous communities will be leading the charge with a reconciliation-focused concept. He notes that “Between Canada and Russia and the Scandinavian countries [there are] a number of Indigenous peoples who live in the north, who live in winter climates. The idea of an Indigenous Winter Games is interesting, not unproblematic, but interesting”
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Evidentially, the Winter Games, like their summer counterparts, come with a series of political, economic, social, and environmental factors to consider. Though Olympic athletes are certainly to be praised for their prowess, and supported in pursuing their passions, it is useful to consider the ways that a utopian vision of the Olympics is inaccurate, at best.
“[The Olympics] are inherently political from the ground up,” explains Dr. Field. “from debates about who gets to play, what kind of access they have, where community centres are.” He adds that in some places, people have to pay to play sports whereas in others there is public access to recreation.
“We get excited, we get all ra-ra about sport, and we get upset when people step into that, and we say: ‘don’t take this away from us,’” he says, noting that many folks are resistant to critical conversations about the Olympics.
But, this is a big year for the collision of major sporting events and human rights injustices, he explains. “Between the Beijing Olympics and the Qatar Soccer World cup, we’ve got some regimes that raise major concern for human rights activists.”
Rather than ignoring the fact that international sports events are political, it’s time we acknowledge it, and start to learn more. If any of the research mentioned in this article sparks interest, please see the following links for additional reading:
- Pedro Perez-Aragon and Alejandro Viuda-Serrano’s research on the IOC’s hesitance to include winter sports in the Olympics here.
- Jung Woo Lee’s article on the non-Western host cities using the Olympics to bolster their international reputations
- Jean-Loup Chappelet’s history of Olympics referendums here.
- Article: Olympics and environmentalism to learn more about how sustainability fits into the Olympic image
This year, the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics will be held February 4-20, while the 2022 Paralympics will run March 4-13.