Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

'A Virtual World Government Unto Itself': Uncovering the Rational-Legal Authority of the IOC in World Politics

Academic journal article Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research

'A Virtual World Government Unto Itself': Uncovering the Rational-Legal Authority of the IOC in World Politics

Article excerpt

   The IOC has been virtually a world government unto itself and one
   whose authority and autonomy have not been seriously challenged.
   (1)

   The IOC is doing whatever they can. The IOC does not have an army.
   (2)

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) place in world politics is both fascinating and puzzling. On the one hand, the IOC is a fiercely nongovernmental organization (NGO), a status which it has maintained throughout its 116 year history; to this day, the Committee makes quick expulsions of National Olympic Committees (NOC) who it perceives as having been unduly influenced by respective governments and public authorities. (3) This private status and its implications for the IOC's role in world politics is exemplified by the latter statement above (made by John MacAloon) which gave voice to the exasperation the Committee felt in the face of strong criticism over the hosting of the 2008 Games in Beijing. Indeed, the IOC has neither an army, nor many of the other (coercive or non-coercive) institutions common to states and governments. On the other hand, as noted international relations scholar James Rosenau and co-author Hongying Wang have pointed out, the IOC can, at times, behave and be treated by other political actors as a world government unto itself. The Committee enjoys many of the rights and privileges traditionally reserved for public, intergovernmental organizations (IGOs; e.g. United Nations General Assembly or the International Labor Organization [ILO]) and its edicts and norms receive more deference than many such organizations. It drafts public international law, negotiates with the UN Security Council over individuals in genocidal conflict zones, and has even temporarily restrained tyrannical dictators. (4) There are many IGOs who would envy such a record.

Which is it, then? Is the IOC a genuinely private association or has it crossed the threshold into the realm of legitimized, public authority? More importantly, what are the sources of its power to influence world politics, how is that power wielded, and why does it enjoy this measure of autonomy?

What follows is an initial attempt to come to a preliminary understanding of the role of the IOC in world politics, with an eye to its seemingly unique form and its political mission. In contrast to realist and neoliberal theories in political science regarding the establishment, legitimacy, and modus operandi of IGOs, I posit that the IOC, like its public cousins, is, in large part, legitimated by and derives power and autonomy from its adoption of rational-legal bureaucratic forms. As the leading actor in the global sports regime, the IOC's historical adherence to rational-legal forms of authority has grown and evolved and, regardless of the efficiency or success of the associated outcomes, it is this rationalized bureaucratic form that secures for it a measure of autonomy and power in world politics.

In order to unpack the theories that support this conclusion and to briefly elucidate a number of indicative empirical points, I progress as follows: in the following section I give an abbreviated account of the theories of IGO power in world politics for the benefit of those outside of the political science discipline. I next highlight a number of instances in which the IOC has enjoyed and exercised power beyond the capability of most nongovernmental organizations (NGOs); this depth of influence and autonomy is the reason that it is more appropriate to examine the IOC using models designed for understanding public IGOs than those for understanding NGOs. The most important contribution follows on from this by outlining the institutional means by which the IOC has gained power and authority in world politics and ways that it exercises that power. Finally, I conclude by reviewing, and suggesting some directions for further refinement of this understanding of the IOC's place in the world polity.

Theories of International Organization

Formal, public international organizations have long been a topic of fervent interest to political scientists. …

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