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A big black eye for the IOC

15 Comments
By Joseph Sternberg

The International Olympic Committee has emerged with a big black eye from the recent controversy over censorship of journalists' Internet access at the Beijing Games. Reporters last week were unable to access "sensitive" sites, like Amnesty International's home page -- a restriction long familiar to Chinese web users.

The Chinese government's move runs counter to its pre-Olympic commitments to allow media freedom. But instead of calling Beijing to account, the IOC appears unfazed by this blatant promise-breaking. During a press conference Saturday, IOC President Jacques Rogge refused to apologize for the censorship, which continues on some sites. It's all in stark contrast to the noble ideals the Olympics are supposed to represent.

Fortunately, there's a better solution than merely bemoaning the IOC's lack of willpower: Treat the IOC as the business it is, tax it, and let it get on with the very big business of running a major global sporting event.

Like the IOC, many Western companies play ball to varying degrees with the Chinese government as the cost of doing business there. Cisco found itself in the spotlight for selling Beijing hardware that can be used to filter the Internet. Yahoo has come under fire for handing over identifying information on account holders Beijing was investigating for political crimes.

In these and other cases, the companies have received unwanted media attention -- and sometimes even a congressional hearing or two. But they've also been able to muster a defense that's at least plausible: Their job is to look out for the interests of their shareholders, not to change the world.

The IOC, however, can make no such argument in its favor. It calls itself a "movement," implying lofty ideals rather than the motivations of traditional corporations. It compounds that error in its charter, especially the six "Fundamental Principles of Olympism." No. 2 on that list: "The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity."

It's hard to see how complying with censorship by an authoritarian government is consistent with that statement. But it's also hard to see how the IOC could not comply. What exactly would be its alternative? Canceling the Beijing Games in protest of Beijing's failure to live up to the Games' ideals?

Of course not. There's simply too much money involved. In the full quadrennium through the 2004 Athens Games, the International Olympic Committee raked in $4 billion by selling broadcasting rights, corporate sponsorships, tickets and product licenses. Once the dust has settled on the current Olympiad, expect the total to be even higher. Then there's all the other money related to the Games: the businesses that pop up to serve athletes and spectators in the host cities; construction companies that build the venues; corporate sponsorships for individual athletes; the list goes on. The financial repercussions of a cancellation would be widespread, and severe. Everyone knows this, which is why the IOC finds itself powerless to enforce its will on Beijing.

For a business, there wouldn't be anything inherently wrong with any of this.This is how businesses create jobs and prosperity. That includes complying with local laws, even when the businesses might not like them. Indeed, companies' bargain with society is that instead of having to look out for the broader common good, they pay taxes so government can do so.

The IOC's problem is that it's not legally a business, so its bargain with society is different. The IOC and many of its national affiliates are afforded special treatment by governments -- including special tax treatment -- on the theory that the IOC performs a public good in advancing its principles. It's the same implicit bargain underlying relations between government and all untaxed not-for-profits: Not-for-profits will serve the public good, and government will consider that service a form of "tax" paid directly to society without taking any cash for government coffers.

The IOC's principles themselves are certainly in the public good. A "peaceful" China that "preserves human dignity" through democracy and respect for human rights is in everyone's interests. The IOC implicitly recognized this in 2001, when it claimed to have exacted pro-freedom commitments from Beijing as a condition of hosting the games. If the Olympic Movement were forcing China's government to follow through, it would be worth every franc or penny of tax exemption it gets from the Swiss government in its home, or that the U.S. Olympic Committee gets from the Internal Revenue Service.

But the IOC's financial ties are preventing it from enforcing its principles, just as if it were a normal company. So let's stop kidding ourselves. The Games are a business, not a philanthropy. Let's treat them as such. In place of a "movement" and a "charter" let's have corporate bylaws. Instead of a tax treatment predicated on the belief that they perform a public service, let's tax them as the corporations they might as well be.

In this new world, we could sit back and enjoy great athletes performing great athletic feats. And the IOC could carry on its perfectly respectable business of delivering a world-class sporting event, minus the idealistic baggage that causes indignity eruptions like the Internet censorship furor. This might lack the idealism we still associate with the Games. But it's more honest than an outfit that pretends to deliver a public good and fails thanks to its financial conflicts of interest.

© Reprinted from The Wall Street Journal Asia 2008 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.

©2023 GPlusMedia Inc.

15 Comments
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Jacques Rogge needs to step down after the Beijing olympics. The whole process is one big black eye rewarding China for nothing. The world sees through China's coming out party, the PRC is still an authoritarian regime regardless of how modern the country has become.

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Jacques Rogge is the Apple of that Black Eye. The IOC is corrupt to the core.

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The journalists are there to report on the Olympic Games, why does this involve looking at "sensitive" sites such as Anmesty International? They can do their research on that before they go and after they leave. I am not condoning it but, the Chinese government's web restrictions are well-kmown and have been for a long time. The media should just do its job, report on the games and then leave.

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if anyone really thinks that the IOC is going to bad mouth the chinese gov't in anyway 4 days before the olympics start, they are smoking crack stupid article

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Without the athletes there would be no Olympics, and most participants make very little off this venture. The IOC is actually quite insignificant, but necessary.

As a structure maybe it should be set-up like a trust. Think Nobel.

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good post Harry....took the words right out of my keyboard.

report on the games, the people and live events...dont report on the internet restrictions the world has known about for years.

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it is a fact china is granted by IOC as the host of 08 olympics. it is a fact that china is a communist-rule country. no matter what, the game has to take place in chinese soil, why threatening and hijacking olympics as chips to foster democracy in a communist country, turning a consecrate sports event to human rights, liberalize for independency.

simply lets welcome a monumental events with efforts of millions of people on earth, lets enjoy the skills,sportsmanship of atheletes who spent years of hard-working. please stop potching the host, let her free from criticisms as well as threats for a peaceful and harmonious international sports activity.

may peace be with you ALL!!!!!!!!!1

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The agreement on web access specifies "during the games". They have not started yet. Pretty simple, really.

Frankly, I don't trust any of the foreign media on this one. China represents the last frontier for the media - over 1 Billion people who don't have access to a corporate newspaper, at a time when western papers are hemorrhaging money, and a whole country of potential headline stories to sell newspapers abroad.

Perhaps I'm just old and cynical, but I just don't trust what the media has to say about China, especially on this one. They're trying to do what they can to pressure China for grater "Press Freedom", which at the end of the day is nothing more than the "right" to sell newspapers and commercials on Fox News China. Journalism has always been about making money, first and foremost, and there's a lot of it to be made in China.

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What was the IOC expecting? I expect the dialogue went something like this. IOC: China, we'll give you the games but we want some changes. China: Sure Subtext: Ok we'll agree to whatever you like so you'll give us the games. We know once we're close to start time we can revert back to whatever we want anyway. So sure, for now.

These games are the modern day equal of the 1936 Berlin games. A repressive government putting on a good face for the world while hiding their real and much darker face.

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this story is old there were reports a couple days ago that they already listed the firewall...

Also, as many other people have pointed out, it has nothing to do with spying on the reporters and other guests.

Anyway, even in the USA, try to look at "subversive" websites. I give you a few days before there are black vans outside your house doing surveillance... The US has been doing this for 40 years, now they are doing on a global basis.

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"Harry_Gatto"

The reason is ...if China wants to play in the worlds sand box, they have to play by the world's rules... if not go back to the glorious closed society days....

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osmondau

Because China is using the games as a propanganda event.....as we all thought

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hokkaidoguy

A free western press helped bring the Berlin wall down.... Nothing but good can come from exposing how China treats its citizens and steals from the west.

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Spot on article. Seems like the perfect solution to me.

Journalism has always been about making money, first and foremost, and there's a lot of it to be made in China.

Which ..is why...they're being...so...critical of China...yeah, it all makes sense to me now. . . Sure, they are businesses, but network TV news in America has usually been a "window-dressing" money loser- which is why many newsrooms can afford to be so Lefty.

Interesting that you bring up Rupert Murdoch's Fox News- Mr. Murdoch has not exactly been one of China's fiercist critics...

Anyway, even in the USA, try to look at "subversive" websites.

Are you suggesting that Amnesty International is pushing child pornography? I mean really?

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Badsey

"Without the athletes there would be no Olympics,"

It's alway about these poor athletes that have trained for FOUR or more years to get to this games. So what? They have acted with a degree of selfishness that beggers belief. They are seen as being so special, more special than the human rights of the Chinese people?

The games should never have gone to China & the fact that did should have meant that many athletes should have started to look at the 2012 games rather than these games.

It is nothing but sport, there are far more important things in life. Little boys infront of their TVs need to grow up. It is not important & only the childish hype makes it important.

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