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Sport and Politics: The Olympic Games. Part 7

By Pete Usher

Promoting peace and harmony and with a complete absence of politics, right?

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

People could see in me who I am now, an Olympic champ, the best in the world.

Kathy Freeman


2000: Sydney

199 nations; 10,647 athletes; 28 sports; 300 events.

Failed bids: Beijing, Berlin, Brasilia, Istanbul, Manchester, Milan, Tashkent.


The bidding for the 2000 Summer Olympic Games was completed in 1993, just three years after the unexpected awarding of the Centennial Games to Atlanta. As the bid process evolved, two clear front runners emerged. Sydney, bidding to be the second Australian city to host the Games, had a technically strong bid; Beijing, bidding to bring the Games to China for the first time, had a huge amount of infrastructure already in place from the 1990 Asian Games and the full-throated support of the Chinese Government.


Other bids were in place, but less favoured. Berlin had looked to be a strong bid, but protests against the costs, over and above the ongoing costs of German reunification, derailed the bid, with over ten thousand people peacefully demonstrating the weekend before the vote was taken. Manchester suffered from not being London. Tashkent’s bid was as much to raise awareness of the newly independent former Soviet state, and was withdrawn before the final stages. Brasilia received a failing grade on the IOC inspection.


What may have ultimately cost Beijing the 2000 Games was the Chinese record on human rights. The vote was only four years removed from the events surrounding the Tiananmen Square protests, triggered by the death of reform-minded Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang. The eventual suppression and dispersal by the Chinese Army of the protests resulted in a death toll of somewhere between 300 and 3000, depending on whose estimates you use.


Although the exact motives of IOC voters will never be known, there was a vociferous and concerted campaign, led by Human Rights Watch, to not have the Games awarded to China. Both the US Congress and the European Parliament passed motions calling for the Games not to go to China on human rights grounds. Nonetheless, Beijing led in the first three rounds of voting, as Istanbul, Berlin, and Manchester were eliminated, with Beijing leading 40 votes to 37 on the penultimate round of voting.


On the final round of voting, Sydney won by the barest of margins, 45 votes to 43. Beijing would go on to be selected to host the 2008 Games.


The Australian bid was technically solid, and construction of facilities proceeded on time, and relatively close to budget for an Olympic Games – the total cost overrun was estimated at 90%, for a total spend of around US$5 billion. But before the Games started, there was one more scandal that could have derailed the Sydney Games, and it had nothing to do with Sydney.

ANZ Stadium, Sydney Olympic Park. More or less (by Olympic standards) on budget and schedule. Take note, Montreal.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

On 24th November 1998, local TV News in Salt Lake City, Utah, in America, reported that the Organising Committee for the Salt Lake Winter Olympics (scheduled for 2002) had been paying for a student called Sonia Essomba to study at American University in Washington DC. What was really important was that Sonia was the daughter of the late Cameroonian IOC member René Essomba.


It turned out that the payments were part of a wider scheme that had started in 1991, after Salt Lake City had lost that bid to Nagano, by just 4 votes. As the investigations widened, it was revealed that the Salt Lake Organising Committee (SLOC) had spent at least $400,000 on scholarship assistance for 13 individuals, at least 6 of whom were close relatives of IOC members, the very people who decided on which bids would be successful. As the scandal grew, the IOC president, Juan Antonio Samaranch, formed a commission to head up the investigation, led by Dick Pound. The end result was that 6 members of the IOC were expelled, 4 more resigned, and 3 remained under further investigation.


The events also called the Sydney bid into question. Two factors kept the Games on track. Firstly, any payments offered and made by the Sydney Organising Committee were made to that nation’s National Organising Committee (NOC), not to any individual. Secondly, all the facilities were on track to be ready, so without clear evidence of individual corruption there was no reason for them not to proceed.


Only one NOC was banned from the Games. As Afghanistan was under Taliban rule at the time, which suppressed women’s rights and banned many sports, the Afghan NOC was banned from entering a team, although they had competed in 1996.


In a move that seems almost unbelievable in the modern, online world there were also no video highlights availble online during the Games. This was driven by two things. Firstly, the IOC had signed exclusive deals with broadband operators to show highlights of the Games on the Internet. Secondly, the IOC had a lucrative TV deal with the NBC in the United States, which planned to show events “as live” but time-shifted to align with peak viewing times. To protect these deals, the IOC clamped down on any online content that was not through official partners, including athlete blogs and dotcom sports reporters.


The Games themselves went off without any serious controversy (at the time) or disruption. They are generally regarded as one of the best, if not the best, Olympic Games ever, in terms of spirit and execution, and provided inspiration for the successful London 2012 bid. At the time, the face of the Games was undoubtedly Kathy Freeman, the aboriginal Australian 400m runner who achieved a unique double, as the only final torch bearer (in the torch relay) to win a gold medal at the same Games.

Kathy Freeman, the face of the Sydney Olympics, who went on to do AIDs awareness programmes.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Unfortunately, it would later emerge that the battle against doping was still ongoing. Most famously, US athlete Marion James who won five medals, including three golds, at the Games was implicated in the BALCO scandal, which revealed the use of steroids on a wider scale than previously imagined. Although Jones initially denied she had done anything wrong, by 2007 she had admitted to lying to investigators about her use of performance enhancing drugs, returned her medals, and retired from sport.


2004: Athens

201 nations; 10,557 athletes, 28 sports, 301 events.

Failed bids: Buenos Aires, Cape Town, Istanbul, Lille, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, San Juan (Puerto Rico), Seville, Stockholm, St Petersburg (Russia).


Following on from the successful Sydney Games, the Olympic movement finally returned in 2004 to its spiritual home of Greece. Athens had learned from the failed 1996 bid, where arrogance and lack of detail had ultimately counted against it. Athens had hosted a number of other international sports events in the intervening years, which also went a long way to easing delegates’ fears and concerns. In the end, Athens won the voting comfortably, leading throughout, and handily beating Rome in the final round.


As the Games approached, there were a number of concerns. When Juan Antonio Samaranch visited in 2001, there was concern that construction had not started on some venues and infrastructure, publicly issuing a ‘yellow card’. Samaranch later said that Athens was three months away from having hosting rights removed, although it is not clear what the alternative plan would have been. Certainly, after the commercial and sporting successes of Atlanta and Sydney, it seems inconceivable a different host could not have been found.

The man who gave a yellow card to Athens: Juan Antonio Samaranch.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Although significant progress had been made, driven by the appointment of the head of the bid committee, Gianna Angelopoulos-Daskakaki, to oversee the delivery of the Games. By March 2004, some venues and infrastructure projects were still not completed. Plans were changed, such as the non-essential roof for the Aquatics Centre not being built, and extra effort was put in to ensure trams, Metro upgrades, and road projects were completed on time. Despite widespread concerns about the readiness of Athens for the Games, all facilities were delivered and ready before the opening ceremony on 13th August.


The other significant change to the Athens budget was security. As a result of the 11th September attacks in the United States, the security operations for Athens was increased significantly, with costs rising to over US$1 billion. There had been some criticism of the Greek security services in May 2004, as domestic terrorists bombed a police station in Athens, and the group Popular Struggle had carried out a bombing in March. As well as a massive increase in the number of people deployed (up to 70,000 military and police), 900 magnetic gates, 261 X-ray machines, 520 metal detectors and 39 bomb detectors, an electronic “superpanopticon” system was deployed, using over 1400 cameras to provide real-time intelligence across all the Olympic sites.


Only, it wasn’t ready.


Despite reassurances and statements from the Greek Government and the Organising Committee and a full test drill ahead of the Games, the contractors responsible for the system, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC), did not delover a fully tested system before the Games. As a result, the “superpanopticon” was not operational, mostly due to challenges with integration of electronic systems with the human elements. The collusion of Greek media and the Security Services prevented this from becoming public knowledge during the Games.


There were no major security incidents during the Athens Games. That is not to say that there weren’t other things happening, although it wasn’t known at the time. In January 2005, a software update for Vodafone Greece resulted in some customer text messages not being delivered. Investigations found the cause to be some rogue code, inserted into the exchange software. Removal of the code solved the issue, but sparked an investigation. The investigation found that, due to a flaw in the security set up, the extra software was able to copy the messages and phone calls made to and from that phone to a network of anonymous prepaid phones, all located within central Athens.


The tapped phones were mostly those of senior Greek politicians and civil servants, including Kostas Karamanlis, who was Prime Minister at the time, other senior cabinet figures, and leaders of the opposition. Unfortunately, because the software was removed before law enforcement got involved, the identity of the perpetrator(s) is unknown, although a Greek investigation, concluded in 2015, suggested the involvement of the NSA, and an arrest warrant was issued for William George Basil, a Greek-American who worked at the US Embassy in Athens.


Kostas Tsalikidis, the Network Planning Manager for Vodafone Greece, died in an apparent suicide just a day or two after the software had been removed, on 9th March 2005. After a long campaign by his family, the investigation into his death was re-opened, and in 2019 the Greek Ministry of Justice pronounced it as a murder, before closing the case.


Vodafone Greece were fined €76 million for the wiretapping.


One of the more famous incidents in Athens occurred the day before the Games. Greek sprinters Konstnatinos Kenteris and Ekaterini Thanou missed a mandatory drugs test. Hopes were high that Kenteris would be able to challenge for medals in the sprint events, and he was regarded as a potential favourite to light the Olympic cauldron.


The pair claimed that they had been involved in a motorcycle accident as they rushed to get back to the testing centre, having heard the news of their missed test on the radio. They then spent several days in hospital, before withdrawing from the Games on the 18th, under pressure from the IOC. An official Greek investigation determined that the crash had been staged, and the pair said their withdrawal was “in the interests of the country.”


The popular perception was that the pair had missed the test on purpose, and that they withdrew because of an ongoing doping scandal. They were provisionally suspended later in the year by the IAAF, before being cleared by the Greek athletics federation. They then reached a settlement with the IAAF in 2006, accepting lesser charges in return for more serious charges being dropped. Both were eligible to compete from December 2006, although only Ekaterina Thanou came back to the sport. Thanou was selected by the Greek team for the 2008 Games, before the IOC banned her for competing under rule 23.2.1, which covered athletes who brought the Games into disrepute.


In 2011, Thanou and Kenteris were convicted of perjury in a Greek court, and given a 31-month suspended sentence. They immediately appealed their convictions and, in September 2011, they were acquitted.

Missed drugs test; staged motorcycle accident; committed perjury; banned by World Athletics from entering stadiums. Konstnatinos Kenteris.

Picture courtesy Sydney Morning Herald.

As usual, politics did have a small role to play in the Games themselves. In the men’s 66kg judo competition, Iranian Arash Miresmaili was favourite to win the gold medal, having won the World Title the previous year. He was drawn to fight the Israeli Ehud Vaks in the first round, but was found to be 2kg over the weight limit, giving Vaks a walk over. Although no action was taken against Miresmaili, as the International Judo Federation (IJF) did not penalise overweight athletes, suspicions remain that he deliberately got over the weight limit. There were precedents for Iranian judoka refusing to fight Israeli opponents – it happened twice at the 2001 World Championships.


Miresmaili’s own words on the events were: “Although I have trained for months and was in good shape, I refused to fight my Israeli opponent to sympathise with the suffering of the people of Palestine and I do not feel upset at all.” The Iranian government awarded him $125,000, the same as the two Iranian gold medallists in Athens.

2008: Beijing

204 nations; 10,899 athletes; 28 sports; 302 events.

Failed bids: Bangkok; Cairo; Havana; Istanbul; Kuala Lumpur; Osaka; Paris; Seville; Toronto.


After the failed Beijing 2000 bids, there was again a focus on China’s human rights record as bidding for the 2008 Games got underway. Indeed, China’s own bid documents and promises to the IOC mentioned improvements to human rights, press freedoms, and environmental concerns should Beijing be successful in winning the rights to host the Olympics. Nonetheless, concerns were raised during the bidding process about human rights within China, the occupation of Tibet, which had been going on since the 1950s, and the Chinese involvement in other states, such as Myanmar and Sudan.

Protests in Moscow (where the IOC vote took place) led to some arrests, including a Tibetan monk. But in the end Beijing won the rights easily, securing an unassailable majority after the second round of voting. Although the motives of the various IOC delegates (and who voted for whom) cannot be known, the investment from China into sporting facilities around the world, and sympathy for missing out on the 2000 Games were believed to be important factors.


Although the Chinese government said it would improve human rights, as the Games approached the reality was somewhat different. Amnesty International reported that activists who were likely to threaten the image of stability and harmony the PRC wanted to portray were detained or put under house arrest. The US House of Representatives passed a motion condemning China’s human rights record, to which the Chinese responded by accusing the US of “evil motives” and trying to sabotage the Games.


The Internet was also a bone of contention. China had promised unrestricted Internet access for journalists during the Games.  But as the Games approached, the organising committee announced that only “convenient” access would be allowed, which blocked websites critical of the PRC, whether that be “internal” matters such as Tibet or Tiananmen Square, Chinese involvement in other countries, like Sudan, or the Chinese response to HIV. China justified these actions as late as 31st July, one week before the Games opened, as: “The Chinese government won’t allow the spread of any information that is forbidden by law or harms national interests on the Internet.” One anonymous IOC member told the New York Times that the Games would not have gone to Beijing if these restrictions had been known about.


However, the very next day the issue was resolved, and the Chinese government guaranteed unrestricted Internet access for journalists covering the Games, unlike the rest of the country.


In the run up to the Games, there were numerous calls for boycotts of the Beijing Games, mostly around human rights and the displacement of locals to make way for the Games and associated tourism. Although no formal boycott was forthcoming, a number of heads of state and senior figures did not attend the Games, including Angela Merkel and Donald Tusk.


The torch relay was also controversial, due to the presence of 30 attendants who escorted the torch through its journey. The attendants were selected from the People’s Armed Police, the Chinese paramilitary police forces, and their actions were controversial. Sebastian Coe and Konnie Huq described them as “thugs” and “bloody aggressive” as the torch came through London. In Paris, attempts by pro-Tibet protestors to disrupt the relay led to the attendants extinguishing the torch and placing it on a bus several times, disrupting the planned route. Japan refused to allow the attendants entry into the country, and in Australia, they were prevented from running with the flame. Both nations supplied their own security for the torch relay.

Getting the flame to Beijing was - controversial.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The Games themselves passed without any significant political incidents. The only National Organising Committee (NOC) that did not attend was Brunei, who did not register their two athletes in time. Doping was still an issue (and remains one) but of 4500 samples tested, only six athletes were found to test positive during the Games. However, later testing in 2009 and the Russian doping scandal of 2016 led to 50 medals (the current highest for one Games) being stripped from the winners at the time, including 9 gold medals.


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