Olympics urged to adopt ‘too big to fail’ concept

The RusSki Gorki Jumping Center in Sochi Ria Novosti

Sheer gigantism characterises the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Two innovative minds from the Swiss sports scene call for a new Olympic reality, with key concepts being “fair trade” and “too big to fail”.

This content was published on January 14, 2014 - 11:00

“Sochi is an abuse of the Olympic ideal, gigantism in several respects and rather crude propaganda,” says Arturo Hotz, a critical thinker in the Swiss sports world.

The budget for Sochi is reportedly around $50 billion (CHF45 billion), making it the most expensive Olympic Games ever.

The emeritus professor of sports science at the University of Göttingen in Germany is himself divided over the question of gigantism. The romantic in him – childhood memories of the 1948 Games in St Moritz were a formative experience – had been looking forward to the 2022 Olympic Winter Games in canton Graubünden. Plans for this were dropped, however, when locals voted against the idea in March 2013.

Compared with Beijing 2008, the credibility problem of the Olympics has become even greater. Hotz sees the origin of the problem in the way the Olympic Games have been instrumentalised. 

“The consensus is that it cannot go on like this,” he told “The question is what do we really want? Could the Olympic spirit not build bridges even in the non-sports sector?”

He particularly deplores the commercialisation of the Games, which he says is contrary to the Olympic ideal of founder Pierre de Coubertin as a “celebration of youth” and of “human flourishing”, adding that this was also explicitly aligned with humanitarian as well as the ethical and educational elements.

Fewer athletes

Hotz is convinced that from an ethical point of view the Olympic spirit and billion-dollar business are incompatible.

“It’s like trying to nail jelly to the wall. The IOC [International Olympic Committee] could curb the gigantism. But who wants to give up the money that can be earned from it?”

His appeal should really be heard in Lausanne, because in 1998 the IOC honoured Hotz’s life’s work with the Ethics Cup.

His idea for downsizing the Games would involve reducing the number of participating athletes. Hotz was inspired by the Games in Sapporo in 1972 and in 1994 in Lillehammer. “Those were more modest Games with fewer athletes, but is this still meaningful and feasible today?”

Hotz also proposes pre-Olympic selection competitions, which would mainly take place in former Olympic stadiums. “These could be revived and used sustainably.”

Another advantage of pre-Olympic qualifying competitions, he says, is that an Olympic mood among the public could be built up over time – currently qualification is a matter of quotas.

Two innovative minds

Arturo Hotz, 70-year-old emeritus professor of sports science (University of Göttingen), is one of the most versatile and interesting minds in Swiss sport.

His specialty, the qualitative research movement, characterises his hermeneutic approach to sport.

Before his academic career (since 1980), he was among other things a successful bobsleigh trainer and head coach of the Swiss alpine ski team as well as a department head at the Swiss National Science Foundation.

Heinz Keller was director of the Federal Sports Office from 1985 to 2005. Before that, the 71-year-old avid orienteer and outdoor athlete was head of gymnastics and sports teacher training at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich.

The concept developed under him in 2000 for a sports policy in Switzerland still influences the development of Swiss sport to this day (expansion of sport schools).

In 2007, he received an honorary doctorate from the University of Bern. Today, Keller offers management consultancy in the fields of administration, higher education and culture.

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Financial lessons

Heinz Keller, director of the Federal Sports Office from 1985 to 2005, also calls for a thorough re-examination of the trend when he says “the Games must be smaller, more sustainable, more honest, more sophisticated – and stay perfect on the sports front”.

What is needed, according to Keller, is not a new Olympic utopia but rather a new Olympic reality. “Too big to fail” – the key issue from economic and financial policy – must be the central concept for the Olympics, he says.

If the financial sector can succeed in gradually finding the “correct” type of banks, placing assets more sustainably, working more transparently and developing again a banking culture, “then it must be easy to do so even better in sport”, he concludes.

On issues such as tax propriety, financial transparency and fair trade, Keller sees an obligation not only for the IOC but also for international sports federations in general.

He particularly recommends that the IOC observe carefully and critically not only   the commercial aspect but also the issue of fomenting nationalism. “The IOC has to think about its own influence and the impact of sport.”

On the issue of commercialisation, he takes a more open stance than Hotz. “There’s nothing wrong with earning money through sport – it’s just the amount which makes it improper. Being ripped off by an organisation is unsportsmanlike.”  

The IOC has pulled out all the stops in this respect. Essentially it is committed to the staging of human values ​​in sport and at the same time to the ruthless collection of giant advertising and television contracts for its activities. “That’s unsportsmanlike conduct,” reckons Keller.


With the Olympic Games as the biggest sporting event in a globalised world, fair play needs to be supplemented with fair trade in future, demands Keller, who for a long time was Switzerland’s highest sporting official.

If the 2022 Games go to Kazakhstan or Ukraine, he says the IOC must ultimately demand such fair trade and sustainability criteria for the people, nature and environment – and itself set an example of transparency.

“The world has changed for the IOC” – that much is clear for Heinz Keller.

This means in particular the inclusion of critically reflective groups, the questioning of resource consumption and answering questions of sustainability for the local population, nature and the installations.

He does, however, agree with Hotz that the IOC must increasingly respond to the criticism, which is growing ever louder in connection with the Olympic Games.

“With today’s Olympic Games, the pure sports-commerce event is no longer sufficient for many people. It is missing social, health, ethical, cultural and humanistic values,” Keller says.

Especially in terms of cultural values, he wishes that the host countries of future Games include people engaged in the cultural sector of that country. “Both sides can win from this – but especially the sport.”

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