The 22nd Winter Olympics are underway. It’s safe to say that the lead-up has not gone smoothly. Of course, there have been the obligatory cost overruns, crony contracts, displacement of locals, and environmental despoliation–all the problems we’ve seen with past Olympics. But this year’s games have come with new wrinkles. It’s possible, though, that the various ills plaguing the Sochi games, from security concerns to shambolic accommodations, might stir deeper changes in the Olympic movement. For all the spectacle, for all the competitive drama and remarkable performances, more and more people are questioning whether the Olympics are worth the expense and trouble that they bring. A series of reports this week on National Public Radio cast light on the financial losses and expensive white elephants saddling cities that have hosted recent games. Meanwhile, a writer for an Australian sports site declared flatly: “It is time to get rid of this anachronistic political farce.”
Political scientist Jules Boykoff isn’t ready to go that far. As he explains at the start of our interview, he’s a fan who looks forward to this year’s winter games. But in his book Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games (Routledge, 2013), Jules offers a sharp critique of the way the Olympics are funded, organized, and run. Based on work in London two years ago and research into other recent games, Jules shows that the Olympics turn massive public funding into private profits, while an ideological para-state, the IOC, subverts local authorities and citizens’ rights. In the weeks ahead, fans will enjoy their quadrennial dose of ski-jumping, giant slalom, and (my favorite!) curling. And this year, we’ll get plenty of laughs from tweeted photos of absurd plumbing arrangements and babushkas painting the grass green. But Jules Boykoff reminds us that the Olympics have deep problems that need to be addressed in order for the games to go on.