The Existential Crisis of the Winter Games is a Long Time ComingRoundup
tags: sports, Olympic Games
Bruce Berglund taught history for two decades at Calvin University and the University of Kansas. He did research in eight countries for his history of world hockey, The Fastest Game in the World: Hockey and the Globalization of Sports (U of California Press, 2021).
Despite calls for boycotts over China’s abysmal human rights record and concerns about the coronavirus, the Beijing Winter Games will open Feb. 4. A decade ago, when bidding opened for the 2022 Winter Olympics, the suggestion of holding them in the Chinese capital seemed ludicrous. How could a city of 20 million people with no snow, no mountains and plenty of pollution host the Winter Games? But as cities in Europe and North America dropped from the running, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was left with just two options: Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan.
The Chinese bid committee claimed that Beijing would be the “reliable and risk-free choice.” In light of the recent tumult in Kazakhstan, that claim has proved true. But with the omicron variant just reaching China, and with the United States and other countries staging a diplomatic boycott in protest of Chinese repression, the Beijing Winter Games are not without risk for the IOC.
How did the IOC get left with two far-from-perfect choices? The answer stems from a set of long enduring problems that have plagued the Winter Olympics for more than a half-century. In fact, the first warnings of these problems came from the most unlikely of critics: former IOC president Avery Brundage, who even encouraged his fellow IOC members to consider ditching the Winter Games altogether. Now, these issues have snowballed to the point that they threaten the viability of the Winter Games.
The only American ever to serve as IOC president, Brundage held the post from 1952 to 1972. A racist, antisemite and all-around crank, he was the villain in many Olympics dramas of the 20th century. History has passed stern judgment on many of his decisions and statements. Yet the complaints Brundage directed at the Winter Olympics in the 1960s seem prescient in 2022.
Unlike the Summer Olympics, Brundage knew the winter event had limited appeal. He envisioned the Olympics as a global movement, yet half of the member nations had “no interest whatsoever” in the Winter Games. “The great majority of the peoples of the world have neither the desire nor the opportunity to participate in winter sport,” he wrote in a 1968 memo. While the Winter Olympics spurred participation in winter sports, Brundage recognized that only a small group of countries monopolized the top levels of competition.
Because winter sports were restricted to a small part of the world, there were also limited options for where the Games could be held. “Are we not trying to do the impossible,” Brundage wrote to IOC members in 1969, “since there are few places in the world where there are mountains and snow with the facilities to take care of the huge crowds of competitors, officials, and spectators that accompany the Winter Games today.”
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