Why I’m Morally Conflicted About Watching the Olympics

Let’s get one thing straight: I don’t care about sports. I am not entertained by people chasing balls or running really fast in circles. I barely have the emotional energy to watch The Bachelorette, much less scream and wail over the outcome of a sporting event. And keeping track of rankings and hitting averages? I’m smart enough to recognize math camouflaged by jerseys when I see it. So yeah. Sports are not my thing. But—and this is a pretty big but—despite my apathy towards all things athletic, I love the Olympics.

When I say I love the Olympics I mean it. I’m talking the truly, madly, deeply, with my whole heart, for my whole life, “I do” kind of love. During the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, I didn’t leave my couch for two weeks. I put in 16 hour days watching riveting events like curling and figure skating. Bob Costas is the voice of the  Olympics like Morgan Freeman is the voice of God and it broke my heart when he had to leave early because of an eye infection.

The Olympics are different from other athletic events because they aren’t as much about sports as they are about national pride, global relationships, and personal excellence. When people chase balls and run in circles for these causes, I am enthralled.

I’ve been preparing for the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro for months. I’ve scouted the bars in my neighborhood, researched the athletes who will be competing, and coordinated my social calendar around when gymnastics is airing. I even considered paying for cable so I could record the events I’ll miss because of work. If that isn’t a sign of devotion I don’t know what is.

Despite my preparations, my Olympic fervor has been diminished by the negative press Rio has been getting for months. Brazil has been in a recession for two years and the city declared a state of “public calamity” in June, saying Rio needed extra resources from the federal government to ensure the Olympics ran smoothly. There’s also the Zika virus and presidential impeachment.

As if that weren’t enough, human rights violations have been rampant. Poor people have been kicked out of their homes to make way for luxury developments. Amnesty International reports that the number of people killed by police has doubled. Extreme pressure from international sporting organizations (Brazil also hosted the World Cup in 2014) has led to working “conditions analogous to slave labor,” according to the Mega-Events and Human Rights Violations in Rio de Janeiro Dossier.  

The problem isn’t just in Rio. Countries that host the Olympics consistently violate human rights in order to achieve the insanely high level of infrastructure necessary to host the games. With many democratic countries opting out of competing for the chance to host, there is more room for developing countries—countries that often have fewer resources to protect human rights—to host.

Few cities boast an economy that can support the number of stadiums hosting the Olympics requires once the games are over so they either rot or cost millions of dollars a year to maintain. Host cities have generally not benefitted economically and tourism may actually decrease because of the event.

I visited Athens in 2013 and saw firsthand the havoc hosting the Olympics can wreak. Beneath the shadow of the monumental Acropolis was a grimy city, coated in graffiti and dust, with poverty visible on every corner.

The city spent €9  billion to host the Olympics in 2004 (double the projected budget), much of it taken directly from taxpayer’s pockets. Since hosting the games, the country has been thrust into an economic crisis and nearly kicked out of the European Union. Obviously, the Olympics did not cause all of these problems, but hosting the games provided an excuse for the country to borrow and spend money recklessly.


I believe my decisions have consequences and so I try to make ethical decisions. I don’t eat meat. I recycle. I boycott things that I think are morally wrong, even though I know an individual boycott is probably pointless. Football causes brain injuries? I don’t watch it. Studios are breaking movies into two parts to squeeze more money out of consumers? I won’t pay to see them. (I’m claiming personal responsibility for part two of Allegiant being downsized to a TV movie. You’re welcome.)

I think about those empty stadiums in Athens and I wonder if my convictions are meaningless. Rationally, I know it doesn’t make much of a difference. The games will go on. Rio’s money has been spent and advertisers will profit from the eyes of viewers whether mine are watching or not.

Let’s be honest though, even if it did make a difference, there’s no way I wouldn’t watch. I’m dying to see Simone Biles in action. I want to join in the raucous cheering I know will be flooding the streets of my neighborhood. It might be my last chance to see Bob Costas hosting (Bob, if you’re reading this, please consider never retiring). In an election season that has thrived on division and nationalist politics, I want a reason to be proud of my country.

There are cruel working conditions and a looming economic collapse and wasteful stadiums built so that people can watch other people kick balls and run in circles.

It’s a high price to pay for two weeks of global sentimentalism, but I, apparently, am willing to pay it.



Scroll To Top