The Olympic Games have concluded, but their legacy lives on. Theoretically, at least. Barely out of their shadow, we can already anticipate the imminent Paralympics, alongside a mere six-month wait for Beijing and three-year gap until Paris.
It’s always an exciting time to be a sports fan. For an all-too-brief fortnight, however, the Olympic Games represent the pinnacle of sporting achievement. Despite the challenges of this year, the promised ‘Beacon of hope’ was, in many ways, delivered. There have been plenty of special moments, and we can be thankful of that.
Still, something about these Olympic Games has felt different. Remaining invested in the athletes proved more challenging, and a muted Closing Ceremony attracted little fanfare.
Whether the immense, popular opposition to hosting the Games within Japan, the crowd-less stands, or the IOC’s blatant hypocrisy in the face of their own, espoused values, something foul lingered dangerously close to the surface. It bodes poorly for the organisation’s future. By extension, it negatively reflects on our capacity for international cooperation.
The Olympic Games are about unity. Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together. The best of human achievement culminating in a spot on the podium.
It’s a fragile mirage, shimmering translucently above a hostile desert of the real world. In an increasingly divided globe, the Olympics this year felt equally torn between disparate threads.
Ultimately, changing the Olympic motto perhaps best summarises the IOC’s superficial efforts alongside an absence of attempts to do anything real.
The Olympic Legacy
In the immediate aftermath, the legacy of Tokyo 2020 has unfortunately been a rising COVID-19 caseload. Such was the danger of hosting a major international event amidst a deadly pandemic.
Speaking in a broader sense, the full impact of the Olympic Games on Tokyo obviously has yet to reveal itself. In recent years, however, hosting an Olympics in general has overwhelmingly proved an expensive way to postulate on the world stage, without benefitting local residents. Ignoring the vast populace opposed to these Games for different reasons, no modern Games has generated economic growth, increased levels of skills or employment, raised tourist income, or productivity. There is no correlation between hosting the Olympics and improved sporting engagement amongst the wider public.
The reality sees people displaced and their businesses destroyed in favour of the usual customers, in major corporate sponsors.
Rio involved the forced removal of 60,000 people, evacuated from their homes and businesses under intimidation and relocation to inferior housing. Corrupt politicians and officials handed out lucrative contracts to property developers, whilst security contractors were granted a total of $2bn. Community sporting facilities were not constructed. The Olympic stadiums have subsequently closed over safety concerns.
The regeneration of Stratford after 2012 has been equally ineffective. Many long-term residents have been forced out by gentrification. In lieu of the stadium sitting embarrassingly empty, we the UK taxpayer have now effectively subsidised the home of West Ham FC for the remainder of the century.
Distractions from the sport
My ranting about Olympic failures aside, why did this Games feel so acutely distasteful? The various distractions from the sport cannot have helped.
It was completely impossible to overlook the derailing impact of the pandemic, and the restrictions imposed as a result. Don’t assume I mean we should have forgotten the pandemic, since it very much is ongoing, but only that the escapism potential was thoroughly depleted. It was hard to lose oneself in the Olympic fantasy with cheers echoing through empty stadiums, and sweaty athletes begrudgingly donning masks before interviews.
That competitors in group or team events could give each other their medals on the podium was an enjoyable trend. Any individual champion was out of luck, and the pressure on athletes to refrain from hugging or touching each other was an extra dose of demoralisation.
The Olympics are stumbling down a treacherous road in which the value of ‘spectacle’ is heightened over that of the actual sport. True, they’ve always been about more than simply competing, but this is typically represented positively.
Tragically, the ‘greatest show on earth’ is growing more synonymous with overspending and corruption. The self-contained IOC finds itself under no obligation to share the burden of any costs, whilst receiving millions from submitted bids, whereas the Tokyo organisers managed to eviscerate their projected $7.3bn budget, spending almost $28bn.
The usual corruption of these Games has also been documented, involving a Japanese businessman revealing the Tokyo Olympics committee paid him $8.2mn to lobby for their cause. But the deviance and dishonesty has felt especially distasteful this year. The whole point, fundamentally, is providing an audience with sporting content and special moments. Why, then, were the broadcasting rights sold away?
I mean, I know why. Money. But ‘why’ in a rhetorical sense. How could it possibly not have been understood as so blatantly disregarding the IOC’s own values?
It was significant, of course, in the context of trying to enjoy the Olympics. The BBC persevered admirably with what scraps it could eek out from Discovery, but the true fault lies with the IOC. They should never have been permitted to make such a transaction, nor should they have ever sought to do so. We as consumers were left with the uncomfortable decision between missing the action, or spending extra for an unwanted subscription we would immediately delete. You might have thought, upon spending $1.2bn, Discovery would have seized the opportunity. Instead, they displayed a bland, categorised list of commentary-free feeds. The entire process felt cold.
In a very cynical sense, these athletes are a commercial product. They are a brand. The perfect advertising opportunity.
Personally, I feel intensely unsettled at scenes of athletes interacting with their families or pouring their hearts out whilst swamped by photographers. These are private scenes into which we delve as uninvited spectators, basking in their glory and holidaying in their lives. These are people, often suffering emotional extremes, paraded like zoo animals.
In light of conversations surrounding mental health, I’ve paid keener attention to the occasionally horrifying interview questions. The most heart-breaking was Dina Asher-Smith, though she sustained a brave face for most of the questions. In that specific example, I don’t blame the interviewer, but our demands for a person to articulate devastating feelings whilst at their most raw.
Obviously, I want to watch the sport. I’m a fan of the Olympic Games. I wouldn’t complain about the lacking coverage if I weren’t. I just don’t understand these elements, where the sport spills into ‘dramatic spectacle’, forcing athletes to reflect on a journey involving years of training culminating in a single moment, expressing their thoughts before they can even contend with the results themselves.
In a cynical sense, their professions exist solely to entertain us. But that dynamic should not bestow upon us the power to freely exploit them, nor to make demands beyond their involvement in the sport.
Autocracies: the face of the Games
Let’s once more ponder the Olympic values. Together. Unity. Solidarity. You might stretch that to, Equality, Freedom, Peace?
Well, in six-months, Beijing will receive the honour of hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. Wonderful. Apparently, staging the Games invites authoritarian nations to adopt international norms, whilst opening them to global scrutiny. That theory has arguably been undermined by China’s continued autocracy since 2008. Now, we will have the delight of the Winter Olympics coexisting with the genocidal repression of Uyghur Muslims in concentration camps.
Moral grappling is an issue not confined to the IOC. Back in the spring of 2019, Volkswagen’s chief executive, Herbert Diess, was asked about his company’s factory operating alongside the so-called ‘re-education camps’. His solution was to proclaim ignorance, even as the situation was helpfully explained to him. Working with China has many benefits, undermined by their questionable human rights policies. The parallel here is interesting, since Volkswagen was originally established under Nazi leadership and benefit from forced labour. The Olympics were also infamously staged under a Nazi government in 1936. They did so in the interests of cowardly shying away from conflict.
Ongoing genocide cannot be overlooked out of convenience. The IOC cannot pretend to champion equality and simultaneously permit a nation actively pushing genocide to host an Olympics. That’s a pretty major conflict.
My point, dragging Volkswagen into this fray, is that we as responsible nations cannot abide by silently sending athletes to compete. More than anything, it would be unfathomably disrespectful to current victims in China.
Bleeding into the Olympic Games
The IOC appears unbothered by such reports, happily forging ahead with unsavoury partnerships. Of course, I’m not suggesting the Olympic committee is responsible, but it’s certainly failing to lead where it certainly has the opportunity, and most likely the obligation. At the very least, the IOC did defend a Belarusian sprinter fearing for her life, rescinding the accreditation of two coaches and sending them home. That story was especially unnerving in the wake of a separate Belarusian dissident found hanged in Ukraine. It remains insufficient to overhaul their entire image, however.
As ever, the issue is partly structural. Consisting of 102 members, involving former Olympians, presidents of international sporting federations, and some royalty, the IOC is far from the pinnacle of democracy. Selecting its own members with no requirement for each nation to be represented and accepting no accountability, there’s no room for criticism. They are the supreme authority of sport, bowing to no power but their own, insulating themselves from any outside speculation.
Membership in the Olympics demands compliance with the Olympic Charter, established by the IOC. It’s a detached body wielding immense influence over the world, accruing huge sums of wealth whilst answering only to itself. With no established checks or balances, the IOC does not allow for regulation.
This attitude bleeds into the Olympic Games themselves, most prominently exhibited through mitigating athletes’ individual expression, being particularly sensitive to protest.
Here, the IOC is claiming a false neutrality. They claim restricting formal protest removes partiality. But there is such thing as being objectively right on certain issues. I hope I’m not being controversial when I say, genocide is bad.
Suppression of Protest
Perhaps the most frustratingly egregious crime of the IOC is their suppression of protest.
“Given the diverse participation in the Olympic Games, the IOC must remain neutral on all global political issues”IOC spokesperson to The Atlantic
That’s fair. They shouldn’t be partial towards or against any nation. People are entitled to their political beliefs. My objection is where statements fall out of politics, and into the realms of basic human rights. Players taking a knee in support of the BLM movement are hardly issuing a political statement. Raven Saunders crossing her arms on the podium was appealing to solidarity, yet is facing pending penalisation. Should athletes inevitably oppose the ill-treatment of Uyghurs, how can they themselves expect to be treated?
By the IOC’s failure to act, the onus shifts towards individual athletes, unfairly delegating a huge responsibility. Assuming they will face censorship or removal from the Games for protesting, they’ll have to decide between commitment to their sport or opposing genocide.
Given the IOC’s record on protests, it’s unlikely they’ll proffer any defence. Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter currently prohibits athletes from any demonstrations of ‘political nature’, involving hand gestures or kneeling, which are expressly forbidden. Images of players taking the knee were originally banned from social media, though this decision was reversed. Most famously, John Carlos and Tommie Smith were crushed in 1968 for what emerged as an iconic, anti-racism statement. In that same Olympics, then-IOC president, Avery Brundage, ignored attacks on protestors by the Mexican government too. Despite never apologising for their treatment of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, the two were actually promoted as ‘legends’ on the Olympic channel. Quite the turn-around, without ever actually crediting the athletes.
Fundamentally, the issue derives from the IOC’s false neutrality. It justifies tolerating autocracies by legitimising them as alternate political structures. Standing idle is not neutrality but a weakness in leadership, obliterating their own Olympic mission, facilitating human rights abuses.
A legacy of hypocrisy and eroded values
Again, I love sport. I love the Olympics. Were it possible to fixate solely upon the athletes in a vacuum, I would be describing an overwhelming success.
I found it more challenging than usual to stay excited about the Olympic Games this year, however. In the build-up, I was thrilled. It’s exactly what last summer was missing – a beacon of hope to distract us from our circumstances. Of course, those circumstances are ongoing. The lack of crowds surely didn’t help, but the Games just felt empty. It didn’t help that viewing rights had been sold away in a bidding war. The endless posturing about fair play felt a lot harder to stomach, especially with the inclusion of the ‘Russian Olympic Committee’ and their success. Naturally, I sympathise with athletes not involved in the state-sponsored doping. I still can’t evade the sense of ridiculousness at the superficial name change. This, too, is saying nothing of the issues linked with pollution. Time is running out in the effort to reverse climate change.
Hearing the empty rhetoric on unity and clean sport is growing wearisome. I hope they don’t insult our intelligence in the Winter Olympics.
One final note related to Team GB is, congratulations on an impressive medal haul. It’s nice to see our athletes performing well. A special congratulations to everyone who did so with little to no funding. Though it’s outside of my memory, the gold rush hasn’t always been so consistent, but is feeding upon its own momentum now.
How the general Olympic legacy manifests in upcoming years will be intriguing to watch. I do wonder if significant change is looming.
Wider equality concerns
Though the issues I’ve outlined seem very much ingrained within the IOC, they are not particular to the Olympics. Sport has a lot of room for improvement.
Having mentioned the Winter Olympics in Beijing, it would be remiss to omit mention of the 2023 World Athletics Championships, to be held in Hungary, where laws have been introduced to discourage LGBTQ+ rights. One bright outcome from these past ‘Rainbow Olympics’ has been the at least 172 LGBTQ+ and out athletes competing, with special attention awarded to Tom Daley by UK viewers. He was able to discuss, after his victory, his husband and son with a Chinese journalist, where same-sex marriage is still illegal. A gay footballer was able to discuss homosexuality with the opposition Iranian team, where it’s punishable by death, whilst Polish rower Katarzyna Zillmann thanked her girlfriend after winning a silver medal, hoping to combat waves of homophobia in Poland.
Such actions, by no means limited to the examples I’ve listed, could propel momentum heading into other events like the 2022 World Cup, set to be hosted by Qatar, where homosexuality is also criminalised.
Let’s hope sport can be a catalyst for change.
Thanks for reading! Though the tone has shifted since my last Olympics post, I still enjoyed the sport element of it. I just wanted to address my other concerns. Please, share any of your thoughts or sporting highlights below! Alternatively, why not check out my blog, travel posts, or short stories? Feature image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
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An interesting perception. I feel sorry for British athletes as they struggle to find funding while footballers get paid millions for sitting on a subs bench. Thanks for adding details I never knew.
There are certainly some major wealth discrepancies in sport unrelated to success or performance, but popularity, which makes a depressing kind of sense
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Excellent blog, thank you for this. It seems there’s a lot that I wasn’t aware of, I’m glad I now know more.
I’m glad you found this informative
capitalism leeches into everything, even into sports, and has turned competitions about recognizing talent into money-making. this was very insightful in discussing that!
We watched the Olympics, in the past, for two reasons: 1) Amazing competition, and 2) Pride in our country. The latter was waning because the athletes, all too many, don’t appreciate our amazing country, so we read books about patriots.
As a usually avid watcher/fan of the Olympics since my early childhood, it certainly felt really different to me this time. The athletes are incredible, but as you mention, there was much going on around their performances that just — stunk, for want of a better word. When Sha’carri Richardson was banned, it kind of opened my eyes to other issues within the Olympics. There seemed to be so much control going on and a distinct lack of unity. You’ve shared some more points I hadn’t considered here so thanks for the info!
Sha’carri Richardson was treated especially harshly given that marijuana is legal in parts of the US. It will be interesting to see how she performs against the 100m medalists in the imminent Diamond League meet
Brilliant blog – IOC does seem hopeless and toothless and fails to understand their responsibility in controlling the olympics- selling out to discovery was appalling – and recognising Russia when banned simply shows lack of courage.
Thanks – hopeless and toothless feels very apt!