As this week in Authoritarians Gotta Authoritate continues, it’s worth noting that there’s another arena of international affairs where it seems that democracies are in retreat: hosting the Olympics.

The case in point is the bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics.  Earlier in the year, Deadspin’s Barry Patchesky warned that cities thinking about hosting the games were dropping like flies, because those pesky voters don’t seem keen on paying for the honor of hosting the Olympics.

Yesterday, Krakow, Polandofficially withdrew its bid for the games, a day after a citywide referendum where 70 percent of voters came out against hosting the Olympics. “Krakow is closing its efforts to be the host of the 2022 Winter Games due to the low support for the idea among the residents,” said mayor Jacek Majchrowski.
In January, another of the six original finalists pulled out, when Stockholm, Sweden‘s ruling political party declined to fund the games. They cited the pointlessness of paying hundreds of millions for facilities that would be used for two weeks and then rarely again, a story common to almost all Olympic hosts. “Arranging a Winter Olympics would mean a big investment in new sports facilities, for example for the bobsleigh and luge,” the Moderate party said in a statement.“There isn’t any need for that type of that kind of facility after an Olympics.”
In November, voters in Munich, Germanyrejected a proposed Olympic bid. “The vote is not a signal against the sport,” said one lawmaker, “but against the non-transparency and the greed for profit of the IOC.”
Last March, a joint bid from Davos/St. Moritz, Switzerland, fell apart after being rejected by a public referendum.

One of the remaining bidders was Oslo, Norway… until this week.  As Slate’s Ben Mathis-Lilley has reported, the Norwegians grew rather weary of International Olympic Committee demands for hosting the games, including my personal favorite, “separate lanes should be created on all roads where IOC members will travel, which are not to be used by regular people or public transportation.”  

The IOC responded to Oslo’s withdrawal by issuing a contender for Snottiest News Release Ever — but this doesn’t change the fact that the only remaining bidders for the 2022 Winter Olympics are Beijing and Almaty, Kazakhstan.  Neither would be accurately characterized as a beacon of liberal values.

Slate’s Joshua Keating identified this problem a few months ago:

Publics may finally be getting wise to the fact that the long-term economic benefits of hosting mega-events like the Olympics or the World Cup are usually negligible at best. This is going to mean that fewer democratic countries will make bids for them and the ones that do, like Brazil, will do so in the face of widespread popular opposition. For the Winter Olympics, where thanks to weather and geography, the number of potential hosts is small (and thanks to climate change getting smaller), the problem will be more acute. Increasingly, the only governments excited about hosting these events are the ones that don’t have to worry about public opinion.

Now, with all the talk about a new Cold War and such, it’s worth asking the question:  Is this trend of the Olympics being hosted by authoritarian regimes bad for the democracies?  As Keating referenced, the standard narrative is that the Olympics are a money-losing venture that props up a pretty corrupt organization — and therefore unworthy of democratic hosting.

But the literature is actually a little more ambiguous than that.  It’s true that the positive effects of hosting a mega-sporting event have often been exaggerated.  That said, there is some evidence that hosting a mega-sporting event increases tourism. Just bidding on an Olympics apparently helps to boost exports.  And the positive macroeconomic effects from hosting an Olympics occur before and not after the event occurs.

But while the economic effects of hosting an Olympics are debatable, the political effects have been more positive for non-democratic elites.  Authoritarian countries have greatly exploited the Olympics as of late.  In many ways, these events are tailor-made for authoritarian capitalists.  China used the 2008 Olympics as a coming-out party, and cracked down even harder on civil society after the Games ended.  Putin seemed to thrive by hosting the Sochi games. As one East European Politics journal article explained:

Such projects help Russia’s leaders promote the country’s image abroad, define development priorities for Russia’s urban landscape, and gain support for the incumbent regime. Events like the Olympics help to justify Russia’s overall political and economic systems and to funnel state resources to specific regions. By setting investment goals and implementing projects through a closed system that allows for little public input and accountability, mega-projects create numerous corruption opportunities. Ultimately, this system works to benefit a small group of elites, with uncertain contributions to the larger population.

In other words, mega-sporting events involving corrupt bodies, such as the IOC or FIFA are tailor made for authoritarian rulers with geopolitical and geoeconomic ambitions.

So should democracies try to step up their game?  Maybe the solution is not to try to outbid authoritarian countries in dealing with corrupt international sporting bodies, but make those sporting bodies somewhat less ridiculous.  If FIFA, the IOC, or even the Federation Internationale des Echecs were more transparent, it might be harder for authoritarians to politically profit and more palatable for democracies to pony up the hosting costs.  

This will take a Sepp Blatter sex scandal long time, but maybe forcing the IOC to choose between just two viable bids will cause the committee to engage in some self-reflection.  And as someone who lives in the Boston area, I really hope they do so before the 2026 bidding commences.