Commentary: The Olympics Ought to End

Ah, the Olympics. A time where the nations of the world come together, play in some competitive games, validate authoritarian regimes, economically crush cities, and cripple the mental health of some of their greatest athletes. 


Let me explain: The Olympic Games are international sporting events in which almost 200 states participate. They were started in ancient Grecian times, before falling out of favor, and were restarted in 1896. Various times during which the Olympics have been held are pockmarked with turmoil. The Olympics have weathered world wars, global pandemics, economic depressions, and all kinds of strife. They alternate every four years, and are hosted in various cities in various countries around the world. While the tenacity of humanity to continue these games for so long is certainly commendable, one has to wonder; is it worth it?

The Olympics serve as a great prize to tyrannical nations, because the Olympics are internationally televised, held in, and honor the countries that host them, regardless of how dishonorable these states may be. A better opportunity to cement a regime’s legitimacy could scarcely be hoped for.

In 1936, the Olympics were hosted in Berlin, at the height of Nazi rule. Nazi leadership and propagandists correctly realized the chance they had to glorify and promote their barbarous ideology. A woman named Leni Riefenstahl was commissioned to film the Games. She would go on to create some of the most effective and innovative Nazi propaganda films ever, and her work would prove instrumental in justifying and carrying out the Holocaust.

“[I]n line with directives from the Propaganda Ministry, headed by Joseph Goebbels […] the regime exploited the Olympic Games to present foreign spectators and journalists with a false image of a peaceful, tolerant Germany.” wrote the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Visions of swastikas fluttering in the wind on televisions around the planet, and Nazi Germany’s status as the most successful nation that year lent Adolf Hitler’s dictatorship a more ‘official’ feel to it than anything he could have said or done. The Olympics had been used to great effect in lionizing and empowering one of the most overtly evil regimes in the history of planet Earth.

This did not end with the collapse of the Third Reich. In 1980, in the penultimate stages of the Cold War, the Olympics were hosted in Moscow. With the United States leading the charge, 66 nations boycotted the event, disgusted by the prospect of giving such a platform to the autocratic nation. 

In 2022, the summer Olympics will be hosted in Beijing, China. Presently undertaking the largest genocide since the Holocast, against the Uyghur people, an estimated one million human beings have been eradicated, with many survivors claiming the death toll to be higher. The People’s Republic of China is widely expected to use the Olympics to portray themselves as a peaceful, benevolent nation. It’s set to be a propaganda opportunity without rival.

Well, surely it’s an economic boon to host such an event. Think of the tourists!

Again, think of the human cost.

“Some 720,000 people were displaced in Seoul, South Korea ahead of the 1988 Games, […] Atlanta, Georgia demolished several public housing projects that were home to thousands of families before it hosted the Olympics in 1996 […] and in the run-up to the 2008 Games in Beijing, China […] more than 1.25 million people had been displaced.” observed Al Jazeera. Unfortunately, to build the sweeping grand stadiums that house the most elite athletes in the world, residential areas and public housing projects are often demolished. Hundreds of thousands, even millions of people are often displaced.

“A growing number of economists argue that both the short- and long-term benefits of hosting the games are at best exaggerated and at worst nonexistent, leaving many host countries with large debts and maintenance liabilities.” writes the Council on Foreign Relations, a non-partisan public think tank whose members include secretaries of state, CIA directors, and more. The CFN notes that Tokyo spent $150 million alone in its failed attempt to host the 2016 Olympics. It takes tens of millions of dollars to even bid to be the host city, to say nothing of the myriad of other costs.

Actually hosting them dwarfs these costs; the winning bid in 2016, Rio de Janeiro, paid at least $13 billion, and the steep debt it went into tripled in 2019, according to the Wall Street Journal. Countless other nations have been saddled with decades of extreme economic hardship. Promised jobs often fail to materialize. Displaced populations create massive swells in the homeless population of the host cities. Crime rates often spike after cities host the Olympics. 

But these are all large, nation-sized problems. Other than these bigger issues, the Olympics put incredible pressure on the individual athletes’s mental health. 

Simply try, for a moment, to put yourself in the shoes of an Olympic athlete. 

You’re about to participate in an international tournament attended by world leaders, held for over 100 years, with origins tracing back millenia. You’ve been training and practicing for years, possibly decades. You represent your entire nation, and everything it stands for. You’re televised globally, with billions of people watching your every move. Your family is watching. Your friends are watching. Your boss, your dentist, your barber are all watching. Everyone you’ve ever known, ever interacted with is watching you, to say nothing of the screaming in-person crowd that numbers in the hundreds of thousands.

Is it any wonder that Michael Phelps, Simone Biles, or Sha’Carri Richardson have struggled with mental health problems? Kerri Strug’s performance in the 1996 Olympics, when she pulled off a vault after seriously injuring her foot, is often presented as an exemplary feat of determination, but is it perhaps a symptom of a single-minded, toxic culture that obsesses over victory, at the expense of a person’s well being? This interpretation of events has become more influential as time goes on, and for good reason.

Existing tensions between countries can also flare up as a direct result of the games meant to promote cooperation. South Korea and Japan, two close American allies, have a long and painful history. In the Olympics, the display of the Rising Sun flag, used in the 20th century as a symbol of Japanese imperialism and aggression, caused a dispute that ended with the South Korean president refusing to attend the Olympics. A press secretary for the South Korean president Moon Jae-in announced, “President Moon has decided not to visit Japan.”

This diplomatic incident reopened painful colonial wounds dating back to the fires of the Second World War, and brought the image of the East Asian equivalent to the swastika fluttering in the wind to televisions around the planet. What was meant to bring nations together instead widened the divide between them.

Taken together, it’s obvious that the Olympic Games work contrary to their proposed ideals. They mythologize tyrants, cause economic difficulties, foster animosity, and hurt the individual athletes. The Olympics don’t work. We should, quite simply, not hold them any longer. They are not worth it.