Skip to main content
Disband the IOC!

Congratulation to Rio de Janeiro, which will host the 2016 Summer Olympics, having beaten out Madrid, Tokyo, and my former hometown of Chicago for the honor. Rio will be a worthy place to hold the Games, as any of these cities would have been. Nevertheless, it’s worth considering whether the IOC is as just as it could be and what role this played in the defeat of Chicago and the other cities.

Here are the home continents of the 108 current IOC members:

More Politics

Europe, needless to say, has a very healthy representation. Although North America has 12 percent of the seats, the United States itself has just 2 out of 108 — as many as Morocco, and fewer than tiny countries such as the Netherlands (3) or Switzerland (5) or the much less populous Australia (3). The United States is not the only country which is underrepresented — China, which represents about one-fifth of the world’s population, also has just 2 seats, although the number rises to 4 if you count Hong Kong and Taiwan. Japan has just 2 seats, as does Brazil; India, the second-most populous country in the world, has only 1.

Aggregating things back up at the continental level, we see that it’s Asia that is especially underrepresented:

Arguably, however, this is not the right metric. We can look at something like the number of participating athletes in Beijing instead:

This is quite a bit more proportionate. Likewise with the number of medal winners:

On the other hand, it’s money that makes the world go round — especially in the Olympics — so perhaps rights fees should be taken into account instead. And there, North America takes the cake — the United States itself pays in about half of all broadcast rights fees for the Summer Olympics.

If we average these four metrics, we get the following:

Asia and North America can make a good case for more representation; Europe and Africa should probably have less. It’s extremely bizarre, for instance, that Africa has almost as much representation on the IOC as Asia when Asia has about four times as many people, sends twice as many athletes to the games, and wins six times as many medals.

If we were using this formula to determine the number of seats for the United States in particular, it would argue for 20 seats of the 108 — not the 2 they actually hold. And were that the case, Chicago would very possibly have won the Olympics, rather than being the first country eliminated. Here were the voting totals by round:

We see that Rio’s total exploded in Round 2 after Chicago was eliminated — almost all of the people who had voted for Chicago originally transfered their votes to Rio — and then again in Round 3 after Tokyo was ousted (somewhat bizarrely, Tokyo actually lost two votes from Round 1 to Round 2 after Chicago was eliminated). Had Rio been the first eliminated rather than Chicago, those votes might have gone to Chicago instead. And, obviously, if there were a more proportionate number of delegates from the United States, Chicago’s chances would have been very strong.

The headline aside, the IOC probably does not need to be disbanded. But we should recognize that the organization is in essence a cartel, and sets the rules as it pleases — and has goals that appear to be pretty far removed from any sort of proportionate representation of its member countries. A number of relatively obvious reforms could be adopted:

1) Apportion IOC membership on a formula basis, in reflection of population, participation, revenues, and possibly other objective metrics;
2) Publish the votes of individual IOC members;
3) Adopt a true Instant runoff voting system, rather than let the delegates switch their votes from round to round, which increases the likelihood of gamesmanship and deal-making;
4) Adopt a rule, as FIFA uses for the World Cup, that the Summer Olympics cannot be held on the same continent on successive occasions (something which has not happened since 1948/1952 anyway, when London and Helsinki hosted the games in consecutive Olympiads).

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.

Comments Add Comment