In less than a week, the best athletes from around the globe will converge in Rio de Janeiro to represent their countries at the 2016 Summer Olympics. It's a time when the world stops, and all eyes are on the athletes. It should be a celebration of athleticism and human achievement.
But these Summer Games have been marred by controversy, and in turn, have opened the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) practices up to public scrutiny. In the most recent episode of HBO's "Real Sports," Bryant Gumbel and his team of journalists delivered a 90-minute expose on the IOC's long history of corruption, greed and human rights violations.
The Olympic Games are marketed as more than just a way to showcase the best athletes in the world. The Games, according to the IOC, are the only way of bringing the world together in peace.
But a deeper investigation reveals something else: the glory of reaching the pinnacle of sport is just a marketing pitch.
In reality, the IOC is driven solely by a lust for money, and have repeatedly exhibited a total lack of compassion for the athletes and ruined cities they often leave in their wake.
To support a country's bid, individual IOC members have requested everything from cash to paying for plastic surgery for their spouses. While considering Norway's bid for the 2018 Olympic Games, the IOC asked for 24-hour butler service and separate entrances at the Oslo Airport.
Additionally, the IOC made the absurd request that the King of Norway host a cocktail party--at his expense--for members.
The IOC sells countries on the idea of hosting the Games with promises of social and financial benefits. But a country's financial cut is solely determined by the IOC. There is no guaranteed return, and the IOC uses the revenue on itself. They are currently building a state-of-the-art facility in Switzerland, where they are exempt from paying taxes due to the non-profit status they have somehow been granted.
That's right: an organization that will earn an estimated $4 billion revenue this summer has non-profit status.
A $15 billion commitment
When Rio was announced as the host city for the 2016 Summer Olympics, Brazil was on the brink of becoming an economic powerhouse. Industry was at an all-time high. For the first time in a very long time, the country was politically stable.
"The Games are very important to Brazil because they will leave a great, great legacy. There will be a Rio de Janeiro before the Olympic Games, and there will be a better one after," IOC head Thomas Bach told reporters when the Olympics were announced.
Nine years after that initial announcement, it's a different story.
The economy has collapsed, and it is largely blamed on the money spent to build stadiums and infrastructure needed for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Tens of thousands of Brazilians were displaced as their homes were destroyed for redevelopment.
This resulted in political unrest. President Dilma Rousseff was the target of protests. Instability increased as a result of an unfolding scandal--it was revealed that Brazil's Worker's Party had accepted bribes while Rousseff was a member of the company's board of directors. In May, impeachment proceedings began against the now-suspended president.
Protests continued as even more families saw their homes destroyed to build luxury apartments and nine stadiums for the Olympic park. If they refused to leave, they were driven out by a police force that often resorted to bloody violence. After they were removed from their homes, entire communities were razed to the ground and replaced by shiny new buildings that quickly became the symbol of unrest in the country.
Brazil's commitment to the IOC meant funding had to be cut from more important programs such as healthcare, education, and sanitation. Olympic marathon swimmers will be competing in Guanabara Bay, which receives untreated sewage runoff from the Rocinha Favela. Despite promises that 90% of the water would be clean by the time the games opened, experts now estimate that just 10% is free from sewage, bacteria and other contaminants.
A public health expert likened Rio's sewage system to Paris or London in the 14th or 15th centuries. Still, athletes competing in aquatic events will find themselves sailing and swimming through filthy waters next month.
'The Olympic Flame and the Olympic Games are sending the message that our shared humanity is greater than the forces that divide us.'
Sadly, Brazil is not an outlier. The 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi were meant to show the world that Russia was a preeminent, cutting-edge nation. On the surface, Vladimir Putin's government appeared successful; they seemingly created a snow-covered wonderland in a city known as a beach resort.
On TV, Sochi sparkled. The city was a testament to Russian will and might. But below the surface, the ugly truth simmered: Russia broke laws and showed a callous disregard for human lives, all for the purpose of creating a facade to impress the world.
Construction was handled almost entirely by migrant workers brought in illegally to handle the difficult parts of the job. Most had their passports held so they were unable to return home. Many were injured by extremely relaxed safety regulations. Allegations have surfaced that workers were only provided safety equipment after they had fallen to horrible injury or death.
The IOC has a history of willingly dealing with human rights violators and tyrannical dictators.
Long before the 2008 Games in Beijing and the 2014 Games in Sochi, there were the 1936 Games in Berlin. The IOC has defended the decision to host the games in a Nazi-ruled Germany by saying, "it was Germany before Hitler was Hitler."
Yet the IOC has memorialized specific elements of those Games into rituals. The torch relay? That was created by Hitler to show the world the impressive and expansive German countryside while promoting the Third Reich as an advanced world power.
For Hitler, Putin, and Chinese President Hu Jintao, the Olympics served as a way of promoting the government's strength in their oppressed nations. In the case of Germany and Russia, the dictators ruling the country used the games and the exposure they provided as a launching pad for more nefarious ambitions. Two years after Hitler used the games as a demonstration of the Third Reich's might, Germany invaded Poland. And after the Sochi games, Putin began expanding Russian territory in a display of Russian aggression not seen since the Cold War.
Real Change is Needed
The IOC expects the Games to be a spectacle. But they refuse to accept responsibility for the people who were displaced or died for those Games to occur. They allow unchecked corruption at the highest levels of the organization.
The IOC is not solely to blame. The host cities who willingly agree to do whatever it takes in order to be selected play a large role as well. For these cities, it's not about the spirit of competition. These cities are driven by greed, both by money and by the chance to give the whole world a glimpse of the paradise they are missing, even if that paradise is often a complete fabrication.
The IOC's unsaid direction that each Olympics must be bigger than the last, no matter the cost, proves they are not the human rights organization they claim to be.
The reality is the IOC doesn't care about the athletes.
They do not care about the people who live in host cities.
They don't care that tens of thousands of people were displaced so venues could be built.
They don't care that those same venues often fall into disrepair, going unused while costing taxpayers millions in maintenance alone.
They don't care that thousands of people were enslaved to help create the facilities that host the events.
The Olympics aren't about bringing the world together. They aren't a showcase of athletic achievement.
They are a shell game--a way for the IOC to distract the world while taking in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue.
For the IOC, the bottom line is their bottom line.
And until that changes, that's all that matters.