Olympics face an existential crisis – an American-led effort could save them

A coalition of broadcasters, sponsors and the athletes themselves is needed to save the Olympic movement from a perilous fate

Here is an argument you won’t often hear from a US gold medallist. Russia isn’t solely to blame for the crisis in the Olympic movement. The real problem is wider and more serious – and it represents a threat to the whole Olympic movement with Russia currently at the centre.

How might we view Russia?

They could be seen like a kid behind you on an airplane who keeps kicking your seat. And yet when you turn around and ask them to stop, they keep going. If the parent doesn't hold the child accountable, what reason is there for behaviour change? In this case the IOC executive board are the parents, and IOC president Thomas Bach is ultimately responsible.

But the Russians aren't children and the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, is a master who has been able to manipulate and construct the system, and back Mr Bach, to his liking. After all, Putin was reported to be one of Bach's first congratulatory phone calls when he was elected IOC president in 2013.


But on Friday last Mr Bach rightly condemned the coach and entourage of 15-year-old Russian skater Kamila Valieva after she was coldly harangued by a coach who should have been comforting her.

He was less bold when it came to criticising the FSB-led effort at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, which involved passing urine through a hole in the wall, the Russian doper curler at the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics, and the Russian Anti-Doping Agency (Rusada) deleting massive troves of doped athlete data.

Amid a litany of scandals, the IOC’s window-dressing attempts to restore integrity to the Olympic brand have amounted to little more than adding a word to the motto; it’s now Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together, in case you didn’t know. And you probably didn’t, because fewer and fewer people are paying attention. With record-low television ratings and cities no longer bidding to host the Games, the Olympics face an existential crisis.

It is no longer good enough. And it is already hurting the Olympic movement.

There are corporations who are wondering why they should put their billions of dollars behind a values-centred brand that betrays few real values anymore outside of the continuous parade of incredible athletes who rarely cease to disappoint.

There are athletes who are increasingly unhappy because the IOC and other Olympic bodies’ leadership, other than athlete IOC members, will not sit down to address concerns of athletes outside of the system. These athletes and their allies have pushed for reforms that would have created more independence in global governing bodies or placed more recently retired or currently competing athletes at the decision-making tables – but no meaningful or material progress has been made.

Let’s lay out the structure that is propping this up.

Small world

The promoters of Olympic sport (the IOC), the police (the World Anti-Doping Agency, Wada), and the judiciary (the Court of Arbitration for Sport, CAS) of the Olympic movement are so entangled that it’s hard to tell where one stops and another begins.

For example, a vice president of the IOC, John Coates, is the head of CAS – which rendered the ruling that allowed Valieva to compete, and previously took any teeth (there weren't many to begin with) out of the original decision to punish Russia for their proven state-sponsored doping. Coates also happens to be the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, which recently were awarded the 2032 Games without competitive bidding. Small world.

CAS literally rewrote the doping code, according to Wada, when they allowed Valieva to compete last week.

Another example of the IOC ensuring they are in control is that half of the governing board of Wada is mandated to be IOC Members. The IOC controls the appointment of the president and vice-president of the anti-doping authority. No matter how strong Wada can attempt to be, they will forever be tied to their governance system if things don’t change.

In short, the entire Olympic movement has become a comedy of conflicted interests, few of which seem to involve the ultimate integrity of the Games and clearly none of which are ensuring a level playing field or justice.

We do applaud the World Anti-Doping Agency and its staff for calling out the CAS decision involving Valieva, because it violated both WADA’s rules and precedent. But that’s how these things go in the Olympics – capriciously. And then there are press releases of condemnation, and nothing happens – except for declining interest and disillusion from viewers and cities. Rinse and repeat.

Athlete representatives and sport leaders have attempted to find levers to pull to invite the IOC to reform. But the athletes have no leverage short of abandoning our dreams of becoming Olympians and sitting the next one out. And no one wants to do that, will do that, nor should do that. An Olympian “strike” isn’t feasible even though that’s what groups of underpaid, underserved and downtrodden groups at the bottom of massive pyramids with no voice have had to turn to for the past century.

So what should happen next? For us, the levers on the IOC and Mr Bach sit in a handful of places:

1) The broadcasters – 73% of the IOC’s revenue comes from broadcast. Close to half of that comes from NBC, meaning the CEO of Comcast has the largest lever of them all.

2) The corporate sponsors – 18% of the IOC’s revenue comes from 13 of the most powerful brands in the world including Procter & Gamble, Visa and Coca-Cola.

3) The athletes – we have seen a strong athlete movement in the US bring meaningful reform to the American system. A concentrated, widespread athlete uprising or strike could do the trick. But this gets complicated in the short term for countries that solely rely on the IOC for financial support.

4) The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee

– which is the only Olympic Committee in the world that has a specific contract with the IOC for the disbursement of funds – has material powers at their disposal. This makes sense considering the amount of money coming from NBC for US market rights and that the sponsors need to ensure access to the American market through their IOC deal.

If these power players decide to pull their levers, that may be the only opportunity for real, positive change and a strengthening of the system to defend itself against corrupt individuals and rogue states.

If not, the Olympic movement might have to accept its fate as a drug-infested collection of competitions and competitors with no end in sight. Because the best predictor of future behaviour is past behaviour.

Zero tolerance

And considering many of the levers lie in many Americans’ hands, we would like to see, at the very least, the CEOs of the American broadcaster and IOC sponsors to meet with global athletes and experts. Soon.

There are quality athlete reps out there, there are groups such as Global Athlete and the Athletics Association who represent wide swaths of international athletes who can bring independent, quality thinking to the table. With values-driven corporate CEOs involved, there can be values-driven deliverables created that we all need to see the IOC live up to to ensure the global Olympic brand gets out of this tailspin.

We would want to see independence amongst the major governing bodies - the IOC, Wada, CAS have no interlocking members; no less than 33% athletes at every table of decision-making; clear rules and consequences that are more strict and more punitive for coaches, administrators and countries for wrongdoing than for athletes; term limits for both IOC Members as well as international sport administrators; and a zero-tolerance policy for individuals and states involved in systematic cheating, and violence and bribery in all of its forms.

And then these CEOs and athletes would fly to Lausanne and sit down with Mr Bach and in no-uncertain terms demand changes or a refund.

For corporations sitting on the fence, remember, everyone loves a comeback story. After watching the athletes perform magnificently in Beijing, the core product continues to be inspirational and strong. But another thing is also clear; if the Olympic movement doesn’t live up its own stated ideals it will eventually pay a painful price.

– Steve Mesler is a three-time US Olympian and Olympic gold medalist in four-man bobsleigh, the founder of a nonprofit dedicated to Olympians and Paralympians mentoring youth, and an athlete representative on the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) board of directors. Mr Mesler does not represent the views of the USOPC.

– Dr Jeff Porter is a two-time US Olympian and NCAA champion in the 110m hurdles, a nonprofit and sports researcher, and an athlete representative on the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Athlete Commission. Dr Porter does not represent the views of the WADA AC.

– Guardian