Are the Olympics big enough?*
By Prof Dr Steve Cornelius
International Sports Law Centre University of Pretoria South Africa
Sport has, over the past century, evolved from old European gentlemen’s clubs to the formation of international sports federations that have become increasingly powerful and increasingly profit driven.
These developments have taken sport from the local clubs, through the national associations to the international federations, and from gentlemanly pursuits of leisure to massive profit driven multinational entities. The process and the role which the media has played in these developments have left sports associations and federations with some unusual qualities.
To begin with, almost all the major international sports federations were established as non-profit organisations in a time when sport was largely viewed as gentlemanly pursuits of leisure. Despite the increasing commercialisation and globalisation of sport, very few of these governance structures have undergone any fundamental change during the past 100 years
This has left most international sports federations in a dichotomous state. On the one hand, international federations were created by national associations as regulators of sport: they were the means of assuring fair play and good relations among national and regional associations where sport itself was the end. On the other hand, they have become the masters of their creators and sport has become merely the means to an end: the relentless pursuit of profit.
Their mission should be to preserve the integrity of and promote participation in sport; however, they strive to maximise profits above all else. On the one hand, international federations should be run by volunteers who act solely out of loyalty to the sport and the best interest of stakeholders; on the other hand, international federations are commercial entities where those in charge are handsomely and often excessively remunerated for their services.
Consequently, international sports federations may still be seeking to portray themselves as the keepers of the faith – the wise old guardians of their art and the grand ideals of fair play, healthy living, political neutrality and the comity of man. But in reality, they have long since sacrificed the collective soul of sports on the altar of big money.
Some sports, and, in particular, the Olympics, apparently tried to resist the commercialisation of sport for most of the twentieth century; but, in reality, they had succumbed to the pressures of capitalist economic forces and the power of the media long before they were ready to admit it openly. When the IOC began selling broadcasting rights to the Olympic Games in the 1960s, they had already descended on the slippery slope to commercialisation. The Coubertin ideals, based on the old Corinthian values of the Olympic Games, died with the commercialisation of sport towards the end of the twentieth century.
The global sports market is today estimated to be worth more than $1 trillion annually. And, just like any other sports federation, the IOC seeks to get its share of the spoils. Sports events attract the media and the media attract sponsors.
*These comments are in response to Prof Dr Ian Blackshaw’s piece on ‘Are the Olympics too big?’ which was posted on the GSLTR website on 24 August, 2016.
The decisions to include sports, such a golf, tennis and rugby sevens were most likely motivated by the constant search to expand the viewership of the Olympic Games. The more people tune in to watch, the greater the fees for the media rights can be and the more sponsors would be willing to fork out millions of dollars to be associated with the games.
A smaller Games would not serve the commercial interests of the IOC, as less sports and fewer events will also mean a smaller television audience. As a result, I do not expect the IOC to scale down significantly on the current format of the Olympic Games.
Whilst it is true that hosting the Games is hugely expensive, it should also be kept in mind that more and more funding for the preparations come from the private sector. In Rio de Janeiro, the private sector contributed as much as 70% of the total cost to host the Games.
So perhaps the answer lies not merely in cutting back on the programmes of the Games, but in seeking ways to attract more private sector funding and better planning to ensure that facilities can be more readily converted to serve social needs once the Games have come to an end.