🔒Devin Scillian: Why I love the Olympics, but not the IOC

For starters, there’s nothing the least bit alpine about Beijing

A person wearing a face shield walks past the Olympic rings inside the main media center at the 2022 Winter Olympics, Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip) (David J. Phillip, Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

I love the Olympics.

The International Olympic Committee, not so much.

I certainly can’t blame the IOC for the COVID restrictions that now have NBC keeping all of its play-by-play and commentary teams calling the action stateside. (As our Jamie Edmonds just asked me, “What in the world will Johnny Weir do with his wardrobe?”) And decisions on spectators and ticket sales are understandable. But when word came down that the host nation had not so gently reminded the athletes that they are expected to keep any anti-China sentiments to themselves, it was one more reminder of the IOC’s capacity for disappointment.

I traveled to Beijing in 2008 to cover the preparations for their last Olympiad. You may recall those were summer games. Many weren’t sure it was a great choice for a host city given the way that air pollution can choke the Chinese capital in August -- the athletes managed pretty well, it must be said, though it was perhaps due in part to the Chinese government shutting down industry for the duration of the games. But choosing the same city for the winter games was just weird, even weirder than Sochi, Russia with its palm trees.

There’s nothing the least bit alpine about Beijing, no traditions of winter sports. At this time last year, Madrid received more snow than Beijing. And yet here we are looking at admittedly gorgeous new venues, spackled with man-made snow, surrounded by depressing shades of brown. The whole thing looks about as much like a winter wonderland as Tulsa. The Chinese believe they’re ready to go because they’re armed with 300 snow guns to fill in the blanks.

But even the dearth of winter weather pales next to the dearth of freedom among the athletes to speak their minds. There’s an old joke about an American and a Chinese citizen arguing over who had the most political freedom. The American says, “If I want to, I can stand in front of the Lincoln Memorial and scream that the American president is a criminal.” The man from China says, “So? If I want to I can stand on Tiananmen Square and scream that the American president is a criminal, too.”

As travelers, we understand that we must respect local customs and a nation’s sovereignty. But maybe, just maybe, political oppression is a local custom that the IOC should regard as a dealbreaker. I’ve covered quite a few Olympiads and they generally come with a contingent of protesters with a lot to get off their chests. In Athens, it was complaints over spending so much on the Games when there were so many pressing social needs. It was the same in Rio. It can be a little embarrassing for the host nation, but Greece and Brazil let the protestors have their say and the world’s athletes were free to weigh in on those social ills, like the polluted bay where a lot of the water events were held in Rio. Frankly, I’d prefer the Games have a certain agnosticism when it comes to politics; that’s long been the point of these get-togethers. I expect the arriving athletes to be handed a mask for COVID, but when it comes with a piece of duct tape to put over their opinionated mouths, something is amiss.

Many supporters of the Games have feared that the cost of hosting them has become so onerous and indefensible that increasingly only iron-fisted opaque governments will be submitting bids. With the $4 billion dollars China has invested in these games which no one will be attending, Beijing gets the questionable distinction of being the first city to ever host both the summer and winter editions of the Olympics. Makes little sense to me.

So add me to those who believe the only sane path forward is to anoint a group of Olympic cities to share the Games on a rotating basis. Five Olympic cities for the Summer Games (I’ll suggest Sydney, Seoul, Los Angeles, Barcelona, and London) and five for the Winter Games (Vancouver, Oslo, Sapporo, Innsbruck, and St. Moritz).

No more wining and dining (and bribing) IOC members, no more debates over fitness for hosting such a massive international spectacle, and, you’ll notice from the lists, no more worries about the freedoms exercised by the athletes. Hosting once every 20 years means plenty of time to upgrade venues and facilities.

Yes, I hate to pour water on the candles lit by those cities that hope to finally get their moment in the international spotlight. But I’m also tired of those candles burning our fingers.

About the Author:

Devin Scillian is equally at home on your television, on your bookshelf, and on your stereo. Devin anchors the evening newscasts for Local 4. Additionally, he moderates Flashpoint, Local 4's Sunday morning news program. He is also a best-selling author of children's books, and an award-winning musician and songwriter.