Does the IOC Bear Any Responsibility for the Ukraine Crisis?

From Berlin 1936 to Sochi 2014, repressive governments that have been awarded the privilege of playing host to the Olympic Games have devolved into world crises soon after the crowds leave. Is there a cause-and-effect connection?

The International Olympic Committee has recently closed the door for any future bids to host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games, and five cities are in contention as possible nation hosts. But at least three of them are potential ticking time bombs, and the IOC should for once do what’s in the best interests of the world at large and reject any totalitarian or repressive regimes seeking to play host. History and current events explain why.

Starting in 1936, Adolph Hitler wanted to use the games to showcase Berlin and his Third Reich as a model of architectural modernity, civility, and a free and open society, masking the horrors that were already underway just beneath the surface throughout Nazi Germany. But no one looked carefully, and those that spoke up were ignored, thrown into concentration camps, or killed. There had long been questions about Germany’s actual intentions and motives beforehand, but once the IOC draped a mantle of respectability and legitimacy around Hitler’s shoulders and as soon as the athletes and visiting foreign dignitaries packed up and cleared out, Hitler took the glorification as a mandate for his grand design and lost no time in gobbling up huge swaths of Europe. That was a prelude to invading Poland in 1939, which was the catalyst that ignited World War II. 

Following the 1984 winter games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, the country fell apart and a devastating civil war broke out. Today, the name  “Yugoslavia” has been relegated to a footnote, little else, and the region was divided and renamed Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.

And now Sochi 2014. No sooner had the athletes and spectators departed that Russian president Vladimir Putin annexed Crimea, which precipitated the crisis in the Ukraine. Russia has amassed troops on the Ukraine border and is threatening to swallow up that country, too. Resistance, to date, has been fierce, but Putin has a history of getting his way.

There is such a cachet to hosting the Olympic Games, that the afterglow seems to settle like an aura of respectability and legitimacy over the host country. Host countries – democracies as well as totalitarian regimes – are on their best behavior for months leading up to the games and, of course, during the games themselves. Basking in the communal pool of high praise for a job well done, repressive regimes liberally interpret such applause as a mantle of legitimacy and carte blanche to do as they please.

This is an apt description of what happened almost immediately following the extinguishing of the Olympic flame in Sochi, Russia.

Ironically, one of the five cities that submitted a bid to host the games in 2022 is Lviv, a city in turmoil-inflicted Ukraine. The bid was started long before the current crisis began.

Also in the running are Beijing, People’s Republic of China; Krakow, Poland; Almaty, Kazakhstan; and Oslo.

Probably the wisest choices from a geopolitical standpoint would be Oslo or Krakow.

My best crisis management advice to the IOC: Choose wisely. Lives could be at stake.