The Great Censorship Game

The Great Censorship Game

Modern cosmopolitans tend to think of the twentieth-century revival of the ancient Olympic Games as expression of Athenian values, albeit remolded for today's world. The host city and nation use the spectacle as a showcase for their commitment to democratic values and perpetual peace, temporarily suspending their animosity toward any foes to host them in a spirited athletic competition. Britain may support sanctions against Iran, but it allowed the Ayatollah's athletes to come to London.

But it's not really Britain who is control of its capital during the games. A closer look reveals that the country plays host to an occupying force, the International Olympic Committee. The IOC brings its tent city to town, and like many of those tribal societies of old, it operates like an authoritarian regime. Before and after all the pomp of the opening ceremonies, the IOC works behind the cameras to enforce its strict control over the Olympic brand.

After promises from Britain's leaders that public money spent on the games would boost the local economy, many proprietors are finding that the IOC's agreement with their government prohibits any retail reference to the games. As The Spectator's Nick Cohen reported in the days preceding the games, even small businesses are targeted:

Trading standards officers in Stoke on Trent told a florist to take down floral Olympic rings. Offending sausage rings vanished from a butcher’s window in Dorset. ... The Olympic organising committee warned estate agents in the West Country that they must remove Olympic torches made from old ‘for sale’ signs or face ‘formal legal action’.

The latest example of what Cohen calls the "Censorship Olympics" occurred earlier this week. Twitter, which partners with the IOC and NBC on coverage of the games, temporarily suspended a newspaper journalist who dared to criticize the network's Olympic programming. While Twitter later apologized, the damage had already been done: the Olympics no longer looked like a venue for maximizing the movement's professed values of respect and friendship.

Perhaps that myth should have been buried long ago, alongside the defunct tradition that Olympic athletes should be "amateurs." Like most regimes, the Olympic movement and its sponsors appear to care first and foremost about survival—not some set of universal values.