Below is my column in USA Today on the history of corruption and negligence at the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) remains a troubled (and frankly troubling) international organization. After this column ran, a new doping scandal emerged around the Kenyan Olympic team. Here is the column:
With outrage growing over its failure to bar the Russian Olympic team for cheating and the shocking environmental conditions for the Rio Games, the International Olympic Committee continues to perform its now familiar routine of spins and shifts. Like the much maligned sport of solo synchronized swimming (which was discontinued in 1992 after someone noticed that you cannot synchronize anything with a single swimmer), the IOC continues to blissfully perform alone to its sole satisfaction and standards.
Rio is the IOC’s most signature moment: Games held in a lethally polluted area with some athletes who are viewed as equally dirty. Dirty air, dirty water, dirty games. None of it seems to matter to the IOC. At a time of both political and legal backlash against distant and indifferent international organizations from the European Union to FIFA, the IOC remains a bastion of privilege and impunity.
When England left the EU, critics played on the fact that few people could even name the heads of the EU and even fewer believed that they had any real influence over the organization. In the case of FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, it took a U.S. criminal investigation and surprise raids to finally unseat officials who used the organization to fund excesses that would have made Caligula blush.
In an age of globalization, international organizations are assuming greater and greater control over business, political and sporting events. Founded in 1894, the IOC is one of the oldest international governing bodies. Indeed, it was a model for world governance and cooperation. Yet it has long become the symbol of arrogance and corruption that accompanies many such organizations.
Indeed, corruption and the Games have long gone hand in hand like a baton at a relay race. Emperor Nero reportedly generously bribed Olympic judges to allow him to win events at the Games. The IOC (and its subordinate sporting organizations) has continued that history with a checkered record of conflicts of interests, bribery and corruption:
The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics were the subject of various bribery allegations, including a French judge who admitted to being pressured to vote for Russian skaters in a quid pro quo to help French skaters. Former IOC vice president Kim Un Yong was found guilty of accepting $700,000 in gifts and bribes as part of the Seoul Olympics and the Salt Lake City Olympics. Various officials have been accused of corruption in the selection of cities for the Games. Whistle-blowers claim that millions have been demanded in bribes by IOC officials, including well-documented “gifts” associated with the Salt Lake City games.
The Rio Olympics have already been marred by allegations that the head of Athletics Kenya sought a $24,000 bribe to reduce the suspensions of two athletes. Indeed, even before the 2016 Games started, there were new bribery allegations related to the selection of Tokyo for the 2020 Games, including a criminal investigation into payments of $2 million from a bank in Japan to a company linked to the son of former International Association of Athletics Federations president Lamine Diack.
While insisting that IOC enforces strict rules against cheating, countries have been found to have falsified documents (as with the Chinese gymnasts in 2008) or doping (as with the Russians) without appropriate penalties. In the case of Russia, the World Anti-Doping Agency found a state-run doping scheme affecting 28 sports, including not only the swapping of samples but also 312 positive tests that Russia’s deputy minister of sport hid from WADA.
The question is, what does it take to get the IOC to actually ban a country?
The answer is something more tangible for the IOC officials than sports or ethics. After intense pressure by President Vladimir Putin and Russia, the IOC left the decision up to the individual sporting federations, which are notorious for their susceptibility to influence and pressure. Of course, the IOC was clear that it would bar at least one Russian athlete: Yuliya Stepanova, the whistle-blower who revealed the state-run program. After she was found in violation of the rules in 2013, Stepanova, an 800-meter runner, disclosed the program and is now barred by the IOC despite serving her two-year suspension.
The only thing that exceeds the corruption of the IOC historically has been its incompetence. The IOC ignored a chorus of objections to the selection of Rio, which has long been an acutely dangerous and unhealthy city. Brazil has a record of making bait-and-switch promises, but the IOC accepted pledges that were almost laughable in their implausibility, such as transforming a polluted bay into a model of water treatment purity in a few years. After pledging $1 billion to clean up its cesspool, Rio later announced it would cut that budget down to $51 million.
One Brazilian expert put it simply, “Foreign athletes will literally be swimming in human crap.” Those that make it to the Games, that is. Athletes have not only been mugged in the streets of Rio but also mugged by Brazilian police.
As shown by the disastrous selection of Rio and the Russian doping scandal, nothing has really changed with the IOC. With the exception of rare criminal investigations, there remains no reliable mechanism for holding officials accountable or forcing greater transparency at the IOC. The international sporting community is highly hierarchical and insulated. Advancing up the chain of these organizations promises huge financial and personal rewards. What is needed is a systemic change in the structure and ethical rules governing the IOC and its subordinate sporting associations.
Until the world cries enough and demands reforms, the Olympic motto citius, altius, fortius (“faster, higher, stronger”) will continue to represent for many the ever rising levels of corruption and incompetence of the International Olympic Committee.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanTurley.