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International Olympic Committee: History, Culture and Social Theory Report



Olympic Games have evolved into a significant movement that affects development of societies. Olympic movement is now seen as one of the most potent movements which embrace the entire globe.

First, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was an organization which was responsible for the Olympic Games holding. At present, it includes a variety of bodies with various responsibilities.

The history and culture of this organization can illustrate the practical use of social theories which can help trace the trends which govern the development of organizations as well as societies.

Thus, there are various approaches to understanding of organizations. Functionalist theory is prevailing as it best explains certain trends. However, the development of the IOC confirms that conflict and figurational theories can be applicable as well.

It is necessary to take a closer look at the development of the IOC to consider major trends affecting development of sport organizations and societies.

The history of the IOC and functionalist theory

The nineteenth century

Creation of the IOC is closely connected with the name of the famous French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin. In 1890, he became a secretary-general of the “federation of French sports clubs” (Nauright 2012, p. 23).

Pierre de Coubertin became one of the representatives of the country on the world arena in the sphere of sports.

Thus, he along with the Englishman Charles Herbert and the American William Sloane became an organizer of the International Paris Conference which took place in 1894.

The conference was attended by 78 delegations, which represented eight countries. Interestingly, the initial title of the conference was “The Study and Diffusion of the Principles of Amateurism and the Revival of the Olympics”, however Coubertin changed the title of this conference to “Conference on the Re-Establishment of the Olympic Games” (as cited in Nauright 2012, p. 24).

The conference resulted in the announcement of creation of the International Olympic Committee on June 23, 1894. The first games of the new era were held in 1896 in Athens (Nauright 2012, p. 24). From then on, the IOC have been developing and spreading its influence.

Coubertin saw the organization as a regulatory body of the Olympic Games. He wanted to make sports (or at least) Olympic Games unaffected by any political influences (Liu 2007).

However, this proved to be impossible as the organization was never free from politics. In the first place, the organization includes members coming from different countries. Admittedly, people tend to be affected by their political views when making decisions.

Different countries have often been in conflict with each other. This has often led to conflicts within the IOC and political views of its members as well as political agendas of some countries affected decisions made by the organization.

For example, the organization excluded South Africa completely due to the apartheid, which was considered to some extent as vindictive by the some members of the organization.

At the same time, one of the major principles of the organization is equality of all people and nations irrespective of any “non-sport” factors. Therefore, it is manifest that politics and sports have often been interconnected.

The twentieth century

The significant characteristic features of the organization were revealed in the twentieth century. Liu (2007) notes that the IOC often made decisions that could not be regarded as free from politics.

For instance, Germany, Austria, Turkey, Hungary and Bulgaria were barred from the games in 1920. This was the organization’s reaction to the participation of these countries in the First World War (Liu 2007).

Hitler tried to exploit the Olympic movement to promote his ideas concerning the future of the German people and his party. South Africa was also excluded from the movement due to the country’s apartheid laws.

Obviously, the IOC became a certain tool of influence or rather reflection of the world public opinion in the beginning of the twentieth century.

It is necessary to note that the organization evolved at quite a moderate pace in the first part of the twentieth century. There was no definite list of sports and the hosting countries added some national sports to the Olympic agenda.

In the beginning of the twentieth century first National Olympic Committees (NOC) appeared. These organizations are subordinate to the IOC. These organizations have addressed specific questions like athletes who were to go to the games, etc.

Importantly, in the first part of the twentieth century only rich countries could afford participating in the Olympic Games. Thus, only some European countries, the USA, Canada could equip the athletes and take them to the venue.

Countries of South America, Africa and Asia hardly participated in the Olympic Games until the 1960-1970s (Li et al. 2011). Hence, in 1960 the IOC created the Olympic Solidarity program that allowed countries to participate in the Olympic Games.

Li et al. (2011) compare the IOC to such organization as the United Nations. The researchers note that the IOC has a charter “or constitution”, an anthem, a flag which are recognized as some of symbols of such entities as states or international organizations (Li et al. 2011, p. 223).

These symbols were developed during the twentieth century. The organization acquired a particular structure in the twentieth century.

It includes 25 commissions, which run specific issues and interact with each other, with NOCs and International Sport Federations. Thus, the organization became a structured entity which acquired quite considerable influence on the global scale.

Functionalist theory

It is essential to note that the IOC can be regarded as an illustration of the effectiveness of functionalist theory when it comes to the development of organizations.

Thus, functionalist theory presupposes that all entities tend to be structured (Coakley et al. 2009). Proponents of the theory also claim that each part of the structure tends to contribute to the overall system.

There is some kind of cooperation as all the part of the system agree to act so that the system benefits. Therefore, according to functionalist theory all systems inevitably evolve into perfectly structured entities.

Admittedly, the IOC was a mediocre organization in the end of the nineteenth century. There were almost no subordinate structures and almost no regulations. The IOC was an idea rather than an organization.

Soon it had its Charter which was guidance for the organization and subordinate bodies. The IOC was a creation of several nations in the beginning, but it evolved into a global structure which has penetrated into a variety of spheres of the contemporary life.

The IOC can be regarded as an illustration of one of the postulates of the functionalist theory, i.e. all branches within structures have equal needs and benefit equally.

To some extent, it could note that some organizations have structures, which presuppose flexibility, i.e. this, or that branch can gain more authority at different stages of the development of the organization.

However, when it comes to the IOC, the structure of this organization is stable and is based on the principle of equality. There is a central body which coordinates subordinate branches.

At that, the major aim of the IOC and all its subordinate organizations is to promote the Olympic Movement and all of these branches and subordinate organizations as well as the IOC equally benefit from achieving this aim.

Clearly, promotion of the Olympic Movement empowers the organization and each of its branches.

However, functionalist theory cannot explain certain trends as it focuses on positive changes and development, but ignores conflicts which have been an indispensible part of the human life as well as development of any organization or society.

The history of the IOC and conflict theory

The conflict theory

It is necessary to take a closer look at another social theory which can provide valuable insights into the development of the IOC. Conflict theory is based on the idea of a permanent conflict between underprivileged and privileged classes.

In many cases, the conflict is restricted to the resources (Coakley et al. 2009). Proponents of this theory claim that people strive for resources, which results in change.

The French Revolution can be regarded as an example of the conflict which led to creation of a brand new country. Poor people along with bourgeoisie fought for resources which were in possession of the monarch and aristocrats.

The conflict theory does address certain issues and can explain certain trends when it comes to the development of the IOC. For instance, inequality between genders could be characterised the IOC and the movement at different periods of their development.

As has been mentioned above, only wealthy nations could participate in the Olympic Games in the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century.

Therefore, the IOC was, to certain extent, an organization for the privileged. Decolonization and development of societies changed this peculiarity of the organization.

Apart from conflict related to financial privileges, the IOC was also characterised by specific attitude towards gender issues. Thus, women started participating in the Olympic Games on a regular basis only in the 1924 (Li et al. 2011).

The organization did not promote gender equality in the very beginning of its history. On the contrary, at some points the organization promoted male domination at the Olympic Games.

For instance, in 1954 the organization voted to “limit events for women” to events which are “particularly appropriate to the female sex” (Li et al. 2011, p. 236). However, women have struggled for their right to equally participate in the movement.


The conflict characterized the IOC in the second part of the twentieth century and even in the twenty-first century. The movement was declining in the 1980s and 1990s.

This was the period of scandals, tension and conflicts associated with the Olympic Games. In the 1990 were various conflicts among sponsors took place.

For instance, one of the most remarkable conflicts was associated with basketball games in 1992. There was a conflict between the sponsors of the Olympic Games and the team’s sponsors (Li et al. 2011).

Michael Jordan chose to cover logos of the then sponsor, Reebok, of the Olympic Games with the US flag as he did not want to be seen wearing logos of the competitor of his sponsor, Nike.

This resulted in a new regulation which requires “all U.S. Olympic athletes” to wear the official apparel which is provided by the official sponsor of the Olympic Games “on the podium without exception” (Li et al. 2011, p. 231). As a result, the code of conduct was also amended.

The new regulations were quite strict and forceful. The IOC management ensured an equal opportunities for sponsors. They also ensured respectful practices employed by sponsors. Again, conflict of economic forces came into play.

The theory and the organization

Coakley (2008) notes that sports are sometimes seen as a perfect example of domination of the strong over the weak. Therefore, the IOC promotes sports and should also be regarded as a promoter of domination.

However, this is a bit extreme representation of sports. Admittedly, sport is the victory of the strong. Nonetheless, this victory should not be seen as domination.

The victory is manifestation of humans’ achievements. Moreover, one of the mottos of the Olympic Movement is that those participating in it are already winners.

On the whole, it is necessary to point out that conflict theory does provide valuable insights into the development of the IOC. However, it touches upon marginal trends. The conflicts which have been a part of the organization and its history did not affect the organization’s aims and aspirations.

The conflict did result in certain changes in the IOC and the Olympic Movement. Thus, women have obtained equal opportunities with males at Olympic Games. However, the major aim of the organization remained unchanged and it is development and promotion of the Olympic Movement in the world irrespective of gender, race, age, etc.

Culture of the IOC and figurational theory

Culture of the IOC

The IOC has overcome the major issues and has evolved into an influential organization which runs one of the most significant movements in the beginning of the twenty-first century. Admittedly, there are still various issues to address.

Thus, gender equity is still a problem to be solved. The IOC also addresses environmental issues. The organization binds countries to follow specific environmental standards when preparing facilities for the games.

In fact, the country hosting the Olympic Games should be responsible in many respects and the organization controls construction of facilities making sure that all latest environmental norms and requirements are met (Zemel 2011).

As has been mentioned above, it runs a variety of funds which support the process of sport development in various countries.

Many accuse the organization of its commercialization. Some state that the organization has become an entity which has little to do with sport and is all about business and politics (Boudreau 2012).

Admittedly, the IOC can hardly be seen as a purely sports organization. The organization should be seen as a body which incorporates sports into all spheres of people’s lives. Notably, the organization describes itself:

As the “supreme authority” of the Olympic Movement, which supports a philosophy of life, in which the blending of sport and culture with art and education aims to combine in a balanced whole the human qualities of body, will, and mind. (Li et al. 2011, p. 233)

Liu (2007) claims that the IOC has become a potent tool to struggle for human rights. As has been mentioned above, the IOC has exploited boycotts to encourage nations to adopt values proclaimed in such documents as Declaration of Human Rights.

The attitude of the IOC towards South Africa is one of the most typical illustrations of the impact the organization has on the human societies.

It is also important to note that the interrelations between media (television, to be more precise) and sports contribute greatly to the development of societies as well as spread of influences of the IOC (Kamberidou & Patsadaras 2007).

Now Olympic Movement is seen as something positive and encouraging. The movement helps nations promote healthy life styles. Admittedly, this helps the nations evolve.

However, the interrelation is not confined to sport activities and living healthy lives. The IOC promotes ideas of equality (gender, racial, etc.), cooperation, tolerance, commitment, etc.

Many researchers claim that interaction between the IOC and media also leads to commercialization of the Olympic Games and sports (Kamberidou & Patsadaras 2007). Notably, commercialization has become a characteristic feature of the contemporary world so sports, being a part of the contemporary society, could not be left aside.

After all, development of sports and sport organizations is a reflection of the development of society to a great extent.

Figurational theory

All these elements of the organization’s structure confirm that there is room for the figurational theory which can complete the analysis.

Thus, according to proponents of the theory, everything is interconnected and interdependent in the society (Coakley et al. 2009). Nations interact and develop. Sport affects societies and societies influence sport, which leads to the constant change.

Admittedly, the development of the IOC can be regarded as an illustration of the major postulates of the proponents of the theory. When the organization was created, it was a union of a group of people who decided to run certain sports events.

However, commercialization of the world affected the organization which has become one of the most significant businesses in the world (Boudreau 2012). The organization, in its turn, is affecting societies.

In the first place, the organization promotes the Olympic Movement, development of sports and healthy life style. The organization also provides financial support to some nations.

The IOC initiates a variety of programs in Africa, South America and Asia to promote development of sports: sport schools are being built, talented youth obtain the opportunity to study in developed countries, etc.

The IOC also provides financial supports to national committees. This aid enables countries to send their teams to the Olympic Games.

Therefore, interaction and interconnection are obvious, so the figurational theory is applicable. However, the figurational theory does not answer one of the main questions people ask. It does not explain why this interaction occurs. Thus, it is possible to state that figurational theory is descriptive in character.


On balance, the history and culture of the IOC can be considered in terms of several social theories. Functionalist, conflict and figurational theories can be applicable. However, these theories address different aspects (and even stages) of the development of organization.

At present, many people focus on commercialisation of the organization and the overall Olympic movement. Many state that the organization is becoming a conventional example in terms of the conflict theory.

The organization is believed to struggle for power and influence in various spheres of people’s life. However, the conflict theory can hardly be applicable even if when it comes to commercialization.

Thus, the major aims of the organization remain unchanged: the IOC is promoting healthy life style and the Olympic Movement. There are no meaningful conflicts within the organization.

By meaningful conflicts, significant conflicts which affect the organization’s aims, principles and objectives are meant. Commercialization of the organization can be regarded as one of the means to achieve the major objectives of the IOC.

Notably, there are certain conflicts within the organization as it is constituted by individuals having different cultural backgrounds. Sometimes these conflicts result in introduction of specific policies applicable in this or that case.

However, the organization itself has not been changed by the conflicts. The conflicts within the organization resulted in changes in society rather than in the organization.

Thus, conflicts of political views of different members of the IOC often resulted in boycotts of certain state policies (in case with Nazi Germany or South Africa). Of course, it is impossible to state that these policies alone led to positive changes in societies, but these policies have become one of the factors that affected the development of this or that society.

Gender conflicts within the IOC have also contributed to the actual liberation of women. Nonetheless, as has been mentioned above, the major principles of equality and development of the Olympic Movement which have been characteristic features of the organization never changed.

The organization as well as each of its branches strived for balance and development which proves relevance of functionalist theory when it comes to such organization as the IOC.

Reference List

Boudreau, J 2012, ‘Olympics global in economic impact: $7 billion in direct spending estimated’, Calgary Herald. Web.

Coakley, J 2008, Sports in society: issues and controversies, McGraw Hill, Sydney, Australia.

Coakley, JJ, Hallinan, C, Jackson, S & Mewett, P 2009, Sports in society: issues and controversies in Australia and New Zealand, McGraw Hill, Sydney, Australia.

Kamberidou, I & Patsadaras, N 2007, ‘A new concept in European sport governance: sport as social capital’, Journal of Biology of Exercise 3.1, pp. 21-34.

Li, M, MacIntosh, EW & Gonzalo, B 2011, International Sport Management, Human Kinetics, Lower Mitcham, South Australia.

Liu, JH 2007, ‘Lighting the torch of human rights: the Olympic Games as a vehicle for human rights reform’, Northwestern Journal of International Human Rights 5.2, pp. 213-235.

Nauright, J 2012, Sports around the world, ABC-CLIO, Santa Barbara, CA.

Zemel, M 2011, ‘How powerful is the IOC? – Let’s talk about the environment’, Chicago-Kent Journal of Environment and Energy Law 1.2, pp. 173-220.

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