Time to pull the plug on the Olympics

The Olympic games have become a joke. A bad joke. It is time to put the event out of its misery. There was about a 1500 year gap between the last of the Olympic Games in Ancient Greece, and the first of the Games in the new Olympic era. Let’s have another 1500 years without Olympics. Then we can see again. There are three arguments that support this recommendation.

(1) Who wants to watch a contest between pharmacological labs?

I won’t be watching the Olympics this year. A sufficient reason for this decision is that the spectacle is just not interesting anymore, because most of the time I don’t know what I am watching. Is it a competition between athletes or some convolution of a competition between athletes and a contest between pharmaceutical labs trying to find the optimal combination of illegal performance enhancement and likelihood of detection?

I would certainly be interested in following a competition between different teams of researchers to find new performance-enhancing drugs. But I would not want to watch this live on television. The competition would involve studying the ranking of academic departments in the fields of pharmacology, chemistry and associated bio-medical sciences, the evaluation of peer-reviewed research papers and of replicable lab results, and reviewing market analysts’ assessments of the leading biomedical and drugs companies.

This does not make for good spectator sport, however. Only the sad individuals who get a buzz out of watching chess, darts or golf on television could could find live broadcasts of competitive pharmacological research exciting.

I would also be interested in watching on television an athletic competition where any and all forms of performance enhancement are allowed, as long as the information about who uses what is in the public domain: “In lane 4 we have Marion Jones, fresh out of jail after doing six months for lying to federal prosecutors about her steroid use and cheque fraud – a one-time poster child of American track and field, now exposed as a career-long performance-enhancing drugs cheat. Next to her in lane 5 is Ben Johnson, steroid-assisted former world record holder over 100 meters and Olympic 100 meter Gold Medal winner at the 1988 Olympics (both short-lived), ……. The full list of performance-enhancing drugs each of the competitors will be using can be found on our website: http://www.withalittlehelpfrommyfriends/olympics.org .”

These fallen idols are, unfortunately, but two names in a long line of top athletes, in track and field and in other sports – cycling, tennis, swimming and many others – who have cheated their clean competitors and the public. Surely, this must be the final nail in the coffin of the Olympics? The only competitive sport that appears to be clean is darts – a sport played by unfit fat slobs without the benefit of performance-enhancing drugs other than beer and cigarettes, and both are out in the open.

(2) Today’s Olympics desecrate the Olympic ideals; it is an exercise in collective hypocrisy

It is difficult to read the Olympic creed – “The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”- and keep a straight face. The Olympic creed may ring true for Eddie “the Eagle” Edwards, the worst ski-jumper ever, and for the Eric “the Eel” Moussambani, the slowest swimmer ever. It is a lie for most of the prominent participants in most events. Winning, winning at all cost, winning ugly, winning dirty, winning winning winning is the only thing that matters. The hypocrisy of the Olympic creed is staggering. Why not be honest and replace it with “Winning isn’t everything; it’s the only thing”.

In classical times, a truce was announced before, during and following the Olympic festivals, to allow visitors to travel safely to and from Olympia. During the truce, wars were suspended and armies were prohibited from entering Elis, the area where Olympia was located, or from threatening the Games. More to the point for the 2008 Olympics, legal disputes and the carrying out of the death penalty were forbidden.

In 2006 China admitted to just over 1000 executions, out of a global total number of just under 1600 executions reported by 25 countries. Admittedly, when you express the execution figures in per capita terms, the Chinese execution figure doesn’t look so big (nor does anything else; e.g. carbon emissions per capita in China are quite low even through China is now the biggest emitter of green house gases; the low per capita number is little comfort for the rest of us, because the damage done by carbon emissions depends on its quantity, not on its per capita quantity). Iran leads the world in per capita executions. Will China get into the Olympic spirit and suspend executions for the duration of the Games? What about a giant step for mankind: abolishing the death penalty altogether?

Last, the Olympics have become hothouses of toe-curlingly embarrassing nationalism. The national medal counts, total, per capita, per square meter or what not are the exact antithesis of what the Games ought to be about. Abolishing national teams and scrapping the playing of national anthems would help. Admitting, say, just 200 club teams, each of which was located in an area containing roughtly 0.5 per cent of the world’s population, and none of wich could discriminate as regards membership on the basis of nationality, would be a positive alternative. Playing the Archers’ theme instead of the various national anthems would save money and lower the jingoistic cholesterol count.

(3) The Olympics are at risk of being hijacked by totalitarian political regimes and turned into mass-political propaganda events.

The 1936 summer Olympics in Berlin and the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen were used by the Nazis to showcase the strengh of their New Order, for the benefit of domestic and foreign observers. The Soviet Union used the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics to extol the virtues and merits of Soviet Communism. The 2008 Summer Olympics in China will be used by the Chinese authorities to showcase the arrival of China on the global scene as a financial, economic and political superpower. As indeed it is.

But I refuse to watch the organised spontaneous exhibition of self-realisation-in-the-harmony-of-pan-Chinese-unity that will be staged by the 55 happy ethnic minorities officially recognized by the Beijing authorities (including the happiest minorities of them all, the Tibetan, Uyghur and Mongol ethnic groups). No doubt the ethnic minorities will feature in the opening and closing ceremonies, all dressed in cute folkloristically correct outfits and singing the appropriate ethnic songs. They will be followed by the happy religious minorities (members of the underground Roman Catholic Church and of the many protestant ‘house churches’, Muslims associated with unregistered Muslim religious activity in Xinjiang province, Tibetan Buddhists, followers of Falun Gong and many others).


The Olympics are a hypocritical, dishonest, corrupt and wasteful event. One of the positive side effects of global warming could be that it kills off the Winter Olympics, because there won’t be winters any longer. To get rid of the summer Olympics, a concerted effort is required.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that the Beijing Olympics will turn out to be such an athletic, human rights and political debacle, that the Olympic Movement will not recover.

The following calamities are quite likely, severally and jointly:

  1. Athletes in endurance events dropping like flies because of intolerable atmospheric pollution;
  2. Foreign and domestic demonstrators protesting human rights violations in China, China’s deplorable environmental record, its alledged complicity in the Darfur massacres and its general neo-colonialist policies in Africa and other vulnerable developing countries, or whatever else rings their bell disrupting the opening and closing ceremonies and possibly the sporting events as well.
  3. The demonstrators getting arrested, manhandled and expelled (in the case of foreigners) or locked up for indefinite periods (in the case of Chinese residents).
  4. Clashes between young Chinese whose nationalistic fervour cup floweth over and demonstrators against political, cultural and religious repression.
  5. Journalists getting neither the access to people and sites nor the freedom to report that they expect and creating a massive fuss and stink.

I believe that the Chinese authorities have no idea as to what they are about to bring upon themselves with these Olympics and the inevitable temporary opening up of the country this implies. Recalcitrant domestic demonstrators can perhaps be given the Tiananmen Square treatment again. It would not be as costless to the authorities if they meted out similar treatment to foreign demonstrators. If they are genuinely interested in the survival of their regime, they would find some excuse for cancelling the Olympics as yet. A public health scare, say SARS or something like it, would do nicely. But this is, unfortunately, unlikely.

Here is an opportunity for Gordon Brown to regain the moral high ground. After the Beijing Olympics have degenerated into farce and mayhem, he should stand up and inform an attentive, respectful and soon-to-be-admiring public that the 2012 London Olympics are off. The infrastructure improvements for Greater London planned for the Games should, of course, be implemented regardless, as the ambition to move London from third class to second class infrastructure status ought to survive the cancellation of the Olympics.

The Olympics: just don’t do it.

Maverecon: Willem Buiter

Willem Buiter's blog ran until December 2009. This blog is no longer active but it remains open as an archive.

Professor of European Political Economy, London School of Economics and Political Science; former chief economist of the EBRD, former external member of the MPC; adviser to international organisations, governments, central banks and private financial institutions.

Willem Buiter's website