Sports ID: The IOC

Disclaimer: I write these particular entries as part of my academic study in American sports culture. Such a study requires me to be both analytical and critical. If you disagree with what I write, please, 1) finish reading, 2) decide why you disagree, and 3) post a comment! Start a conversation! I want to learn from you and hope that you learn from me. Also, I tried not to make the writing over-academic…but, you know, college. Let me know if you have any questions, if I can, I’ll give you my most expert non-expert answer. 

The Power of the IOC: Creating International Sporting Social Norms

“The society portrayed in the Illiad is already highly athletic: wrestling, foot races, throwing…earnest competition which everyone trained for, set in a religious framework: the religion of athletics was born. Soon there would be periodic ceremonies and temples for daily worship. The ceremonies were to take the form of the Great Games: Pythian, Isthmian, Nemean, and the most famous of all, the Olympic Games. Gymnasiums were to become temples…” –Pierre de Coubertin, Founder of the Modern Olympic Games

In this “religion of athletics,” who is to be our God? In the realm of international sport, no entity is more omnipotent, omnipresent, and perceptively omniscient, than the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Before diving into US specific athletic social norms, I wanted to start with the grandpappy organization, as it has set the oldest example for international athletic regulations. Working under a charter that bolsters the Modern Olympic Movement under the tenets of “friendship, solidarity and fair play (1),” the IOC has received criticism for contradicting its own orders by being friendly, finding solidarity and playing with exclusively white, wealthy males.

IOC President Thomas Bach (center) waves to the fans at the Sochi opening ceremonies
IOC President Thomas Bach (center) waves to the fans at the Sochi opening ceremonies (

Luois Callebat, an athletic historian (historian of athletics? I mean, he might be fit…), labels the Olympiad and its legacy as “an enterprise at once elitist and popular,” one that promotes the expansion of fairness, equality and accessibility of sport, so long as it remains within the “Anglo-Saxon sporting philosophy” (2). In his article, The Modern Olympic Games and Their Model in Antiquity, he outlines the ideals of the modern Games and compares them to those of the Grecian version.

The American delegation at the first Olympic games in 1896. Things have changed a bit..
The American delegation at the first Olympic games in 1896. Things have changed a bit..

Callebat lists the goals of the Games, ideas based on global community, peace and intellectual flourishing derived from sport, and concludes that said ideals are lost upon our modern “sport, spectacle and commerce.” At the head of that conflict, that between ideal and reality, is the IOC, which, as a 19th century institution, has had to deal with the demands of a growing political community.

In particular, the IOC has been criticized for its dealing with gender discrimination. Of 107 IOC members, 22 are women (3). Two of whom are princesses. (Note: I counted these women by hand. I am a philosophy major and counting is hard, take these as ball park figures). The drama of the exclusion of women’s ski jumping from the 2010 Vancouver Games exemplifies the IOC’s reputation as discriminatory.

The IOC member base (
The IOC member base (

In studying similar criticisms, scholars Dan Bousfield and Jean Michel Montision wished to unveil the nature of the IOC’s “norm confusion” (3). In so doing, they categorized the IOC decision making process into three branches, all of which overlap and contradict: transnationalism, domesticity, and corporatism.

Here are those words again, in English:

Transnationalism: appealing to everyone, everywhere, with every kind of culture

Domesticity: making host nations happy, giving them their social and political bread and butter

Corporatism: making international corporations happy. Because, money.

Of the three, corporatism tends to have the most clout with the IOC, particularly in cases of discrimination. The IOC reports 45% of Olympic revenue from corporate sponsorship, and 47% from broadcasting rights (which, turns out, is a synonym for corporate sponsorship). That’s 92% corporate sponsorship, 8% ticketing and licensing revenue.

So, when popular belief held that women’s ski jumping was excluded from Vancouver because organizers were concerned about ticket sales, they were instead worried about corporate sales. In ski jumping, “a male only event for 80 years…there was not an audience interested in following women’s ski jump, which took precedence over gender equality” (Bousfield & Montision).

So was the story leading into the 2014 Games: the IOC would protect and defend the norms that, in turn, protected and defended their monetary interests. If transnational or domestic interests crossed the corporate ones, they would be bypassed.

Pie charts are pretty.
Pie charts are pretty.

However, there appeared to be a change in the IOC’s behavior this year. In Sochi, women’s ski jumping joined the docket of events, along with ski and snowboard halfpipe and slopestyle. The decisions and actions of the committee throughout the Games pointed to a more progressive approach to sport.

Take the opening ceremonies speech from IOC President Thomas Bach, for example. After an onslaught of social and political outrage in response to Russia’s anti-homosexual propaganda laws, Bach enforced the position of the IOC on the issue by asserting “Yes. Yes. It is possible–even as competitors–to live together under one roof in harmony, with tolerance and without any form of discrimination for whatever reason.”

A video of the speech (which was surprisingly hard to find, for reasons I’ll let you divvy out on your own) can be found here, in the second video.

IOC President Thomas Bach chatting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (
IOC President Thomas Bach chatting with Russian President Vladimir Putin (

So what fostered the change? Perhaps, as Bousfield and Montision point out, the structure of the IOC has grown to be obsolete, and its members are feeling that way. According to the Associated Press, the median age for Olympic viewers has grown from 50.9 to 55.1, which explains why youth-oriented sports were added to the games. Perhaps the IOC wants to keep from feeling antiquated by it’s narrow mindedness. So again, IOC actions round back to corporatism.

But, honestly, if equality and progressive thinking are what sells, maybe that’s not so bad.



(1) The Olympic Charter, 11

(2) Callebat, Louis. The Modern Games and Their Model in Antiquity. International Journal of Classical Tradition. Vol. 4. No. 4. Springer. 1998. Accessed 2 Feb 2014.


(4) Bousfield, Dan and Montision, Jean M. Transforming an International Organization: norm confusion and the International Olympic Committee. Sport in Society: Cultures, Commerce, Media, Politics. Routledge. London, 2012. Accessed 26 Feb 2014.

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