The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is balancing its commercial interests and an inherited Olympic ideology, which might stand in stark contrast. Whereas in the past it could be argued that the former had saved the movement, sport today seems to be tainted by doping, violence, and corruption. Whilst the IOC has been presented itself as an ethical institution within the realm of sport – ever since its inception and apparent considering its Olympic ideals – such belief has been shaken heavily by contemporary issues. The foundation of the IOC Ethics Commission might serve as an example of the significance the Committee attaches to being perceived as moral sport institution. The author, however, would like to argue that the rationale behind such ambition is two-fold: firstly, it supports the IOC’s image and thus enhances marketing capabilities of the Olympic Movement towards all stakeholders; secondly, it supports the IOC’s determination to become internationally recognized by the United Nation. This opinion paper follows the argument that the IOC’s struggles will continue and that the tension between its ideology and commercial interests will remain.
IOC and in-country representations
National Olympic Committees (NOCs) primarily utilize the IOC’s ideological framework and international marketing appeal to promote themselves domestically. However, this only holds true for NOCs, which: firstly, do not have sufficient funds to connect themselves with the country’s sport sector; secondly, the local government supports the Olympic values and has an interest to utilize such ideology to either promote sport for all or use sport as a means to promote their political agenda (cf. Beijing Olympics).
On the one side, the second variable plays well with IOC’s mission to seek corporation with national governments. For instance, when the bid for the Games stipulates that they should be utilized as a vehicle to promote physical education. On the other side, the Olympic values can serve as an ideal marketing tool to represent a NOC, fueling its credibility and suitability as an ethical partner to foster mass participation, domestically.
It should be noted, however, that oftentimes there is quite some tension between the IOC and NOCs. Partly, as the NOCs are generally supposed to remain independent from public authorities. Nonetheless, both parties are more likely than not willing to ignore any conflicting interests, oartly as NOCs might have no choice but to have the government intervene. Which is particularly true in cases where the NOC’s integration into the national sport system falls under the umbrella of the Minister of Sport for the respective country (cf. Germany).
In contrast, some NOCs are political independent and do have significant resources to fulfill their mission. This undertaking, however, may be contrary to Olympic values or the IOC’s ambitions, either because the cultural environment does not belief in those ideals or the government hasn’t integrated sport as part of their public policy. For instance, considering the dispute between the IOC and the United States Olympic Committee (USOC).
During the 1980s the USOC secured exclusive rights to use the Olympic rings and sell those to the highest bidder, i.e. broadcasting stations and corporate sponsors. This move has given the US’s NOC financial prowess and gave birth to years of disputes between the IOC, the USOC, and the Olympic community. In question was and still remains the distribution of Olympic revenues and its connected marketing value.
The Olympic system and local governments
Largely related to the emerging issues in the year 1999, when problems related to doping and corruption revealed the limitations of the IOC’s current status and structures in the eye of public authorities, an outcry for more public order within the Olympic system echoed. The IOC saw itself confronted by public authorities and the juridical order nationally and internationally. Though, governmental involvement on a NOC level is partly inevitable, there is a threat that the world’s more powerful countries are more capable of influencing the IOC directly.
To counter such possible loss of the Committee’s autonomy, the IOC is constantly striving for international recognition; in parts successfully. It’s lobbying activities at the United Nations in Geneva or in Brussels at the European Commission, have helped to make it a de-facto international organization, holding some remarkable privileges (e.g., tax exemption, no limitations of international recruitment, diplomatic status of members, international commercial ownership of Olympic rings, etc.).
This mission, however, might be in jeopardy if the IOC fails to proof its ability to handle its contemporary problems such as corruption, doping, and violence. The Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), and IOC’s Ethic Commission are some of the first regulative initiatives, which try to establish credibility for the IOC’s ability to handle issues mentioned above autonomously.
Firstly, CAS is one of the ‘oldest’ regulators and aims to avoid appeal processes before state courts by having an independent and knowledgeable entity for sport cases. The CAS is virtually recognized by all Olympic International Federations, and beyond, particularly because it saves money and time to settle disputes. Governments, however, remain skeptical about the institution’s independence and, hence, not all authorities accept sentences, may even be inclined to overrule those. This is specifically true when talking about cases regarding athletes, which might fight their cause on other local or even supranational courts. Even more complicated are cases of arbitration which involves whole countries. Nations which may not be recognized by the United Nations or are in war with another country. All cases in which conflicts of interest between the CAS, IOC, and the world community might be encountered. Furthermore, sentences are usually kept confidential, unless otherwise agreed by both parties, thus it remains questionable if the IOC will be trusted given such limited transparency.
Secondly, the fight against doping, formerly solely an IOC matter, has been growing in public interest and even impacted relations between states and (inter-)governmental organizations. Before WADA was founded, the IOC and respective NOCs solely instigated random doping controls at the Games. Governments, however, quickly lost confidence with regards to the way in which the sport organizations were regulating the phenomenon. WADA as an institution only game into being when a parity agreement between governments and the Olympic movement was found. Since, problems of doping are handled collaboratively, or through the help of national anti-doping organizations. However, WADA’s goal remains to become the independent anti-doping leader. Particularly, as the aforesaid parity agreement constitutes a threat for the IOC’s goal to become an international, recognized, and above all, totally independent institution.
It seems unlikely that governments will opt out of this arrangement. In fact, it is more likely that WADA puts its focus beyond doping. The Agency could be used as springboard for local governments to lobby for their cause at the IOC or at least influence it’s members on an indirect, less formal communication channel. It is not necessarily important what the actual mission of the WADA is, it appears more important for individuals and countries involved in international sport governance to have a voice in overarching issues to represent and position themselves. It may be argued, that within the complex web of the world of sport, compromises will find their way and the more involved the better an entity is positioned to promote its cause.
Finally, the IOC advocates the idea of being the guardian for ethics in sport and has for this reason established an Ethics Commission. Beyond seeking moral high ground, it shall also give an answer to the growing governmental influence in its internal processes and organizational structure. Governments, however, doubt the Commission’s independence, which seems justifiable considering that reports are delivered exclusively to IOC’s Executive Board. Perhaps, also as the Commission’s budget is subject to approval by the same panel. Though, after all, IOC’s Ethics Commission is more an advising entity for all Olympic parties.
In sum and referring to the Coubertin action plan. Here within the European Union reiterates the importance of sport for every citizen. Consequently, stating that it will inevitably continue to intervene in the world of sport. Thus, even if the IOC might not like such claim, it is a challenge they will face on their path to become independent. We shall see if they ever will be autonomous.
International sport governance, particularly considering the International Olympic Committee, is a complex web of interests, a balance act between humanity and commercial interest. Managing a financial powerhouse, by effectively allocating its resources to NOCs, local governments, and for supporting the good is a highly delicate task; a mission that surely sells, yet should first and foremost serve the society it operates in.
The IOC is deemed to collaborate with multiple stakeholders, handling various interests by national governments, sporting organizations, and de-facto world organizations such as the UN. It is unlikely that everyone will agree to every move, but it could be argued that respect for minorities and accountability of all stakeholders needs to be of utmost importance for IOC’s management – a management which has been blamed for unethical, corrupted behavior; largely based on its commercial attitude and euro-centricity.
Secret ballots and questionable nominations have cast doubt on IOC’s organizational structure and ability to govern. The foundation of several regulators may have helped to shed light on IOC’s internal processes, yet, most votes, sentences, or regulations, remain hidden from public scrutiny. Furthermore, the IOC’s own institutions remain in disagreement on certain issues, contesting their own decisions. A harmonization appears thus more than important to establish fundamental principles of universal moral and human rights, if we agree that the Olympic Movement should first and foremost serve humanity and as a vehicle to peace.
In conclusion, the IOC is caught in a web of oftentimes conflicting interests and diverging objectives. It must handle the tension between commercialization and upholding its Olympic ideals. It also needs to balance ever increasing governmental influence, while being in need to lobby for its credibility to become an international recognized organization, independent and autonomous. The outcome is yet to be seen! Let the Games begin!