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The Olympics Again: At What Price this Time?

Originally published February 10, 2014

Well it’s time for the Olympics again; Winter Games on this occasion. Sochi, Russia, is the 2014 venue. The magnificence of the pageantry, the gathering of the athletes, the excitement of the fans, the omniscience of the media and the posturing of the nations all come together for the Games. It is heartwarming – even in the midst of winter in the ice and the snow.

But let’s step back a minute, take a deeper look and also explore the good, the bad and the ugly.

No one can take away the good. The modern Olympic movement, launched by Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was clearly motivated by a desire to use sport as an instrument of international peace. His selection of the ancient Greek rituals, where even warring nation-states declared a truce to participate, seemed an excellent instrument on to which to build. The fact that so many countries manage to send delegations – including the now famously incongruous Jamaican bobsled team – is a tribute to de Coubertin’s vision and to the interesting dynamics of globalization.

But we can’t close our eyes to the bad or the ugly. Let’s start with the issue of commercialism. The media frenzy is tied to the very large amounts of money associated with the rights to televise these events. The sports federations, the Olympic committees and the hosts negotiate ruthlessly with the media in order to award to the highest bidder the right to bring the spectacle to the viewing public worldwide. The advertising dollars are huge, and the most popular sports with the fans – those with the highest Nielsen ratings or equivalent – command the prime time limelight. The marketplace efficiently at work, of course, but ask a biathloner or a Nordic combined skier whether they feel their sport is fairly treated and you’ll probably get an earful.

Then there is the huge cost to the country. I always remember the fact that it took Montreal close to 30 years to pay off what they spent on the 1976 Games. And with the recent Greek riots still fresh in our minds, many analysts still point to the $11 billion cost of the 2004 Games as one of the factors contributing to Greece’s financial crisis. What is the cost of the Sochi Games? The Russian government is talking about a $50 billion price tag.

But today’s main problem ties back to the intersection, or continuing interference, of politics and sports. I wrote about this at length – and my personal experiences with sports and politics – a couple of years ago on the occasion of the 2012 Games in London (The Olympics: Some Personal Experiences with Technology, Politics and Sports) and will not rehash what I already wrote. Rather, I want to touch on the issue of security and the climate that now permeates these sports events.

Somewhere between 70,000 to 100,000 Russian security forces are present, looking into everyone and everything. Just before the games started they were searching for “black widows” from an Islamist militant group said to be planning a suicide bombing in the Olympic Village or as close as they can get to it. In the weeks before the Sochi games opened, several spectacular terrorist attacks occurred in Volgograd, a key transportation link to Sochi, in an attempt to disrupt the event. The U.S. has offered security assistance to the Russians, which they have been slow to accept. In the meantime several delegations, the United States, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia, included, had reported receiving threats via email. Multiple videos have appeared with Islamist extremists threatening the games and all athletes and spectators who attend. But the Games must go on, no matter what.

What is wrong here? What is the role of sport in human affairs? If these are activities ultimately designed for people to engage in mainly for their own enjoyment, then let that be the main driver of what we do with sports. The fact that they may also become interesting mediums for training that may be helpful in other aspects of life is secondary, and events and competition should focus on the athletes and their sport and not on the fans, the sports bureaucracies or the nation states from whence these athletes originate.

If we established this as the priority, maybe we would be more careful and avoid choosing venues that ultimately are problematic and invite potential problems. Nations vie for hosting the Olympics for their own reasons. Tokyo 1964 and Munich 1972 were Japan's and Germany's full reintegration into the community of nations after World War II. Mexico City 1968 and Seoul 1988 were the way Mexico and Korea called attention to their new status as important players in world affairs. But these specific rationales invite potential problems. Not many people remember the “Tlatelolco Massacre” where it is estimated that the Mexican government forces killed dozens of protesters ten days before the 1968 Olympics. They had to make a show of force because no self-respecting Olympic host would allow itself the humiliation of a cancellation or severe disruption of the games. Hence we had the PLA sweeps before and during the Beijing games; and now we have Russian security forces out in full force because Putin’s reputation at stake.

So what has been the driver of the Sochi games?  Brett Forrest calls it “Putin’s Party” in his January 2014 National Geographic Magazine article, which opens with the statement, “For Russia, hosting the Winter Olympics could prove it has finally reemerged as a global power.” But when it comes to the selection of Sochi as a venue, here‘s Forrest’s most telling paragraph: “The Sochi Games on the Black Sea coast will take place in the backyard of a recent war with Georgia, on the site of what many call the genocide of a people (the Circassians), and in the orbit of an Islamic insurgency (in Dagestan, Chechnya, Ingushetiya, and Kabardino-Balkariya).”

The games will go on, but they are increasingly taking a high toll. To the Russian people, to the athletes, to the world at large. The event has become a target for violence and demonstrations.

As a former participant in five Olympics, I am still a fan. But there has to be a better way for athletes to gather and test their skills without creating a media circus and having the event itself become the focus rather than the athletic competition it was supposed to enable. Let’s find a way for there to be a lot more good and less of the bad and the ugly. As business intelligence practitioners maybe we can devise the right metrics and use a utilitarian framework that focuses primarily on the athletes and the sport to guide future Olympics into less complicated politically riled venues.

  • Dr. Ramon BarquinDr. Ramon Barquin

    Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

    He had a long career in IBM with over 20 years covering both technical assignments and corporate management, including overseas postings and responsibilities. Afterwards he served as president of the Washington Consulting Group, where he had direct oversight for major U.S. Federal Government contracts.

    Dr. Barquin was elected a National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) Fellow in 2012. He serves on the Cybersecurity Subcommittee of the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee; is a Board Member of the Center for Internet Security and a member of the Steering Committee for the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council’s (ACT-IAC) Quadrennial Government Technology Review Committee. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. 

    Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

    Editor's note: More articles from Dr. Barquin are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel

     

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