Jules Boykoff on why the US cannot host the 2024 Olympics

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Verso author Jules Boykoff, along with Dave Zirin, writes that the United States is not fit to host the 2024 Olympics given the country's history of human rights violations. The following essay was orginially published in Al Jazeera AmericaPower Games: A Political History of the OlympicsBoykoff's upcoming book with Verso, is coming next spring.




On Sept. 1, the Los Angeles City Council voted to authorize the U.S. Olympic Committee’s (USOC) bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The committee dropped Boston in July amid tenacious activism, wavering politicians and paltry polling numbers.

Los Angelenos should emulate Bostonians to make sure that their political leaders say no. The Olympic games tend to militarize the host city and go over budget, saddling taxpayers with lopsided fiscal risk while private groups pile up profits. What’s more, the United States’ appalling human rights record should rule the country out as a host.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has an inglorious track record of awarding the Games to unsavory human rights violators. Russia hosted the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, despite an anti-LGBT law that contradicted the Olympic Charter. Beijing will again be hosting the 2022 Winter Games, even as China continues imprisoning journalists and its oppressive practices in Tibet. Beijing won the 2022 games narrowly beating Almaty, Kazakhstan, where torture is common and President Nursultan Nazarbayev has ruled the country since 1989, winning elections by wide margins — he was re-elected in April with a whopping 97.7 percent of the vote.

In addition to Los Angeles, the IOC has a gaggle of cities vying for the 2024 Summer Games: Hamburg, Germany; Budapest, Hungary; Paris; Rome; and possibly Toronto. Many consider L.A. a front-runner, in part thanks to the city’s history of hosting successful Olympics in 1932 and 1984. The USOC has worked diligently to position itself to win, compromising on a thorny revenue-sharing dispute with the IOC and embedding its people into key positions in the IOC.

But the USOC should be spurned. The United States’ horrific human rights record breaches the Olympic Charter’s fundamental principles of Olympism (PDF), which calls for leading by example, social responsibility and respect for universal ethics. The objections over the awarding of Olympic Games to other human rights violators such as China and Russia should also apply to the United States. In fact, the U.S. is a ghastly maverick in many respects. Look no further than the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba, where more than 100 detainees — most of them without a single charge — continue to languish.

Since former President George W. Bush opened the Guantánamo facility in 2002, nearly 800 people have passed through its gates. The U.S. government’s treatment of the detainees, including torture and the force-feeding of hunger striking inmates, offends against the Olympic Charter’s insistence on “the preservation of human dignity.”

In his first week in office, President Barack Obama promised to close Guantánamo in the first year of his presidency. Six years later, the gulag remains. “The Obama administration’s interagency process for closing Guantanamo is an incoherent mess,” Omar Farah, a lawyer at the legal advocacy group Center for Constitutional Rights, said in August. He was being generous. The U.S. should be ineligible to host the Olympics until it closes Guantánamo.

The U.S. is also notorious for imprisoning its own citizens. With only 5 percent of the world population, it is home to almost a quarter of the world’s prisoners. The U.S. “stands virtually alone in the world in incarcerating thousands of prisoners in long-term or indefinite solitary confinement,” according to the human rights advocacy group Amnesty International. “More than 40 U.S. states are believed to operate ‘super-maximum security’ units or prisons, collectively housing at least 25,000 prisoners.”

Human Rights Watch has argued that such solitary confinement can even amount to torture. Coincidentally, on the same day of the City Council’s Olympic vote, California agreed to move thousands of prisoners out of solitary confinement, but only after years of contentious litigation.

The U.S. prison system is deeply racialized: African-Americans make up about 13 percent of the population, but nearly three times that in U.S. prisons. California’s prison system is particularly appalling. Historically, the state has imprisoned African-Americans at a rate 6.5 times that of whites. It’s hard to square all this with the principle of Olympism, which forbids racial discrimination.

The United States is also a major outlier on the death penalty. Nearly two-thirds of the world has outlawed the practice. The U.S. is one of the top five executioners along with China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Iraq. Even a recent spate of “botched” lethal injections has not prompted a rethink.

It’s easy to single out Russia and China as major human rights violators that do not merit hosting the world’s top-flight Olympic athletes. But the United States deserves similar condemnation. Americans should not allow historical amnesia and the tendency to root for the home team to cloud their vision. It’s time to face facts: The U.S. is a human rights outlier.

Sorry, Los Angeles, but until the U.S. government cleans up its act, the Games should go somewhere else.

This essay was originally published in Al Jazeera America.

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