International Olympic Committee Reform Needed Now More Than Ever | Opinion

It's time to overhaul the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IOC recently selected Brisbane to host the 2032 games, leaving some of us to question if the 2.3 million resident metropolis on Australia's east coast is actually the best site for the world's most prestigious sporting event. I worry it isn't.

The chief question that should matter to IOC members is, "What is best for the participating athletes?" But many times, it appears that this question is an afterthought. Historically, the host selection process has been marred by cronyism, sweetheart deals and even outright bribery.

As an Olympian, I find the status quo troubling. I speak from experience. The IOC chose Mexico City as the site for the 1968 Olympics, despite the fact that it is situated at over 7,300 feet of altitude, giving a massive advantage in the endurance events to athletes born at altitude. Imagine being me, the world record holder at the mile, 1500m and half-mile at the time, knowing that the playing field was not level.

My coaches and I realized that we couldn't do anything about changing the site, so I began altitude training in 1966. While it certainly helped, it takes decades for endurance athletes to fully adapt to running that high, as there is less oxygen.

I ended up finishing second, managing to run the equivalent of a 3:54 mile. Though run under extremely difficult circumstances, I consider it to be one of my finest races.

The Olympics are supposed to allow the best in the world to compete against each other on a level playing field. It's also about the athletes who participate in the Games showcasing the best values of our society. Yet all too often, the IOC leadership showcases the worst. For the sake of athletes and fans everywhere, we need to clean house at the IOC.

While many of the IOC's 103 members represent a diverse cross-section of society, its leadership is not. According to the IOC, it "recruits and elects its members from among the people it deems qualified." Basically, it's an opaque, members-only club that has faced allegations of shady activities. The experience of the U.S. Women's Gymnastics Team at the hands of Larry Nassar and the blatant bullying from a powerful Australian Olympic Committee official leading multiple women to quit their jobs suddenly are merely two prominent examples that show the systemic problems in international sports.

No wonder, then, that when it comes to choosing host cities for the Olympics, the IOC has a dreadfully suspect record. As Ivan Sascha Sheehan recently explained in The National Interest, in 2019, IOC Vice President and executive board member John Coates—an Aussie—rewrote the rules of the host city bidding process to allow ad hoc panels to review candidate host cities. The panels can recommend a host city without a full IOC vote. Brisbane became the 2032 host city through such a panel vote, with the executive board confirming the choice later. The full IOC vote in July was a mere formality.

This isn't the first time Coates has seemingly put his thumb on the scales. When Sydney wanted to host the 2000 Olympics, Coates gave $70,000 to two IOC members in order to put Sydney over the edge. He also gave in-kind gifts to other IOC members.

Olympic rings logo
The Olympic rings logo at the entrance of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Lausanne. FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the "horse-trading" among IOC members, athletes ultimately don't care where the Games are held if, of course, the venue is fair. The Olympics remain the best place to showcase their abilities, and they'd compete in North Korea if the IOC told them to.

But because it appears the IOC cares more about its members' pocketbooks than athletes' well-being, Olympians suffer once they get to the Games. Both the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, and the 2016 summer games in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, came with inadequate accommodations for athletes. Olympians suffered from dangerous courses, inedible food, unflushable toilets and more.

The through-line in all these horror stories is clear: The IOC gives Games to cities and countries that are good at backroom wheeling and dealing, rather than the ones that are actually best prepared to host.

Fortunately, there's hope. Countries and other stakeholders can reform the IOC through a few straightforward actions.

First, consider FIFA, the other international organization that stages games every four years. The U.S. attorney general led an international effort to prosecute key leaders for racketeering, wire fraud and money laundering conspiracy in 2015. The scandal took down former FIFA President Sepp Blatter, who was banned from world football for years.

Governments have similar recourse with the IOC. The Americans and Brits can work with other governments to prosecute huckster IOC members and jail them for any uncovered crimes.

Sponsors play another crucial role. Since the IOC funds itself through TV rights and advertisements, broadcasters and corporate sponsors can band together and demand more from the IOC before it picks host cities. They can start by refusing to renew contracts until leadership resigns. They then can urge the IOC to appoint leaders that are younger and more diverse—and demand more transparency.

Viewers and athletes alike deserve the best the Olympics has to offer. With the current IOC leadership, we're not getting it. It is time to put the athletes' interests first.

Jim Ryun participated in the 1964, 1968 and 1972 Olympic Games, winning a silver medal in the 1,500-meter run in 1968. He served five terms in the U.S. Congress, representing the Second Congressional District of Kansas.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.