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The Olympic Movement Is at a Crossroads

Since its inception, the Olympics have proffered lofty ideals: international cooperation, societal advancement, human dignity. But between IOC greed, political self-interest, and now a global pandemic, the movement has reached an impasse between its goals and its reality. Can the Games survive it?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

“I declare the Games of the XXXI Olympiad closed. In accordance with tradition, I call upon the youth of the world to assemble four years from now in Tokyo, Japan, to celebrate with us the Games of the XXXII Olympiad.”

So said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, at the Maracanã Stadium in Rio de Janeiro five years ago. This exhortation is a ceremonial, almost liturgical passage that closes each Olympic Games and directs the world’s attention to the next host. The COVID-19 pandemic prevented the youth of the world from taking advantage of Bach’s invitation in the specified time frame. But after a year’s delay, the athletes have arrived in Tokyo at last—and not just for any sporting event, but the latest convocation of an ambitious political experiment.

The IOC’s self-professed mission is not only stewardship of the Olympic Games, but of the so-called Olympic Movement. In founding the modern Games, French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin sought to create a contemporary parallel to the ancient Olympics, which he viewed as a monument to human excellence and peaceful cooperation. Coubertin advocated for international collaboration and the advancement of society through individual self-improvement. Under Coubertin’s leadership, the Olympics handed out medals not just for triumph in sport, but in literature, architecture, and the visual arts.

Any ambitious and idealistic project will have flaws in execution. Many of Coubertin’s principles look outdated now, and he lived long enough to see his utopian vision bent by the exigencies of realpolitik (Coubertin died in 1937). But almost a century later, Bach has invited the youth of the world to an event riddled with scandal and danger, strained to a breaking point by the contradiction between what it professes itself to be and what it has become. The Olympic Movement is fatiguing under that strain.

The IOC has previously canceled its marquee event in time of war, but this is the first Olympic Games to be delayed by a year. Yet that year seems not to have been enough time to put the pandemic behind us. Vaccine distribution has been slowed in the United States by misinformation campaigns designed to fuel public skepticism, and numerous countries—particularly in the developing world—have barely had access to the vaccine at all. In the interim, new and more virulent variants are emerging, and the unvaccinated majority of the global population remains at a higher risk of infection.

The effects of Tokyo hosting a global event under these circumstances have been obvious from the start. Japan is only now ramping up its national vaccination efforts after lagging behind other highly developed countries earlier this year. And after a brief respite this spring, Japan’s infection rates have climbed to almost 5,000 new cases a day, a higher rate than at any point since January. Attempts to create an Olympic bubble include strategies such as holding the Games behind closed doors and restricting international travel, which have generated unintended consequences, like a plan that separated nursing mothers from their young children until Alex Morgan and others pushed for changes and the withdrawal of a Paralympian who is deaf and blind from the Games because she couldn’t bring her personal care assistant. Not that any of those measures did much good—the efforts failed before the cauldron was even lit.

The Tokyo Games have also been preceded by a host of other scandals and bad omens. Last week, Bach thanked “the Chinese” for their preparations to host the Games. The composer for the opening ceremony, Keigo Oyamada, resigned this week after allegations surfaced that he bullied children with disabilities while he was a student. The event’s creative director resigned in March after referring to a popular Japanese comedienne as an “Olympig.” A month before that, the head of the Tokyo organizing committee resigned after making sexist comments about his female board members. Then, just a day before the official opening of the Games, the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee fired the director of the opening ceremony because he’d joked about the Holocaust as a young comedian.

The Olympics are supposed to be an international showcase for the hosts, a chance to present their culture to millions of tourists and billions of TV viewers. The Japanese people, however, would much prefer not to host at all. Toyota has pulled all of its Olympic-themed advertising off Japanese TV, despite sponsoring some 200 Olympic and Paralympic competitors, because public distaste for the Games has reached such a fever pitch. A May poll of Japanese voters revealed that 83 percent of respondents wanted the Olympics to either be postponed or canceled altogether.

On top of these specific problems, hosting the Olympics represents a public policy calamity under the best of circumstances. The promise of an Olympic host city is a sort of pop-up utopia, a combination of the Super Bowl, Disney World, and a world’s fair. For two or three weeks, the city gets an influx of tourists, and afterward is left with improved infrastructure and a new battery of state-of-the-art sports arenas, hotels, and apartments ready to be converted to public use.

The reality is much darker. Just landing the Olympics can be an expensive proposition; in addition to setting up multimillion-dollar bid proposals and lucrative junkets for IOC functionaries, there have been accusations of bribery between would-be hosts and the selection committee. Salt Lake City’s effort to land the 2002 Winter Olympics resulted in two bid committee bigwigs being indicted on 15 counts of fraud, conspiracy, and racketeering in a federal court. Tokyo’s bid has brought up similar accusations of financial impropriety.

All that backroom palm-greasing for the honor of hosting an event that will cost up to $50 billion, and potentially leave behind not a sustainable community hub, but often a collection of ruins. Months after the Rio Olympics, the Maracanã—one of the most historic and beloved sporting venues on the planet—was all but abandoned as various organizations squabbled over a million dollars in unpaid bills. At least it eventually reopened, which is more than can be said for many of the venues in Beijing or Athens.

In order to construct extremely expensive Potemkin villages as needed, local authorities sometimes engage in the forced relocation of the city’s most vulnerable populations. In advance of the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta police arrested and/or relocated thousands of poor and unhoused residents in order to keep them out of sight when the tourists rolled in. One activist for the unhoused recalled finding a stack of unused arrest citations with “homeless” and “African American” already filled in, leaving the police officer with nothing to add but the name of the person he or she wanted to remove. In Rio, poor communities were razed in order to accommodate new construction, which lined the pockets of real estate investors and developers. A burgeoning protest movement is trying to prevent the Olympics from happening in Los Angeles in 2028. And while the honor of hosting an Olympics used to attract dozens of takers, on Wednesday, the IOC awarded the 2032 Games to Brisbane, Australia, the only country to submit a formal bid.

The athletes themselves often fare little better than the host cities. The Olympics have cosigned “gender verification” for female athletes via testosterone testing. The IOC’s guardianship of trademarks and exclusive sponsorship deals has made it difficult for Olympic athletes to capitalize on their own fame. And until the 1990s, Olympic athletes were subject to amateurism rules even stricter than those enforced by the NCAA.

One of the hallmark shifts in the sporting landscape since Rio has been the actualization of star athletes as political figures. This is by no means a new concept—one of the most famous Olympic images of the 20th century was Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s Black Power salute on the medal stand in Mexico City, a gesture for which then–IOC president Avery Brundage banned the pair from the Games. But from Colin Kaepernick to Marcus Rashford to Megan Rapinoe, some athletes have actively sought out that power in an effort to leverage their on-field accomplishments for humanitarian ends. Other athletes have made a statement just by appearing at the Games and marking milestones in gender, nationality, and racial representation. Sports, particularly international sports, are inherently political, and athletes understand this better than most.

The IOC has struggled to catch up. The organization has loosened its restrictions on political statements in the hope of cordoning protests off in some safe, noncontroversial venue. But if this effort fails, it will instead heighten the contradiction between the stated values of the Olympic Movement—fairness, universal human rights, living with dignity—and the IOC’s treatment of those who protest in favor of those values.

The IOC is hardly the only organization with a history of associating with kleptocracy and corruption. But the ideals of the Olympic Movement make its real-world shortcomings all the more offensive.

Compare the IOC to an American professional sports league. When such an organization protects criminals, cheats governments, or immiserates workers, it’s merely pursuing the interests of a coalition of for-profit businesses.

The IOC, however, is clothed in loftier principles, which are spelled out in the Olympic Charter. According to that charter, “Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy of effort, the educational value of good example, social responsibility and the respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” Sports are “at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” Every human being, regardless of identity or nationality, has the right to participate in sports, and to be protected by the “spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play.”

Once the Olympics hand the show over from the functionaries to the athletes, the result is an unparalleled sporting spectacle, one that’s exciting and entertaining enough to justify its own existence. There’s no concrete humanitarian purpose to having Simone Biles bounce off the vault or seeing Usain Bolt eat up 100 meters of track in about nine steps, and there shouldn’t have to be—these are thrilling, awe-inspiring events on their own merits. On top of that, the surrounding festival is a summit of global cultural exchange and friendship, not among governments, but among people, serving as a grassroots avenue for international cooperation and understanding.

By building its reputation on the principles of the Olympic Charter, the IOC accepted a responsibility of stewardship—to its members, the subsidiary national committees, its hosts, and its athletes. And also to people who believe in international cooperation and cultural exchange, in pursuing and celebrating the advancement of humankind, and in ensuring fairness, peace, and human dignity. But the staging of the Games can too easily enable greed and corruption among city governments and others.

And so the Olympic Movement faces a crossroads. The contradiction between its ideals and what it results in have never been clearer, and if it’s still possible to reconcile that contradiction, it will not be for much longer.

Reflecting on the legacy of Coubertin in the age of the Tokyo Games calls to mind one of the most famous quotations from another 19th-century idealist: Abraham Lincoln. Every American knows the line, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” which has been decontextualized and repurposed into a vague platitude about compromise and unity.

The true meaning of the quote comes two lines after: “I do not expect this Union to be dissolved—I do not expect the house to fall—but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

This semi-dialectical framework is playing out before our eyes in the Olympics. The Olympic Movement cannot espouse fairness, cooperation, and advancement if the staging of the Games can lead to greed, moral compromise, and the reification of existing social inequalities. Sooner or later, either the rhetoric or the actions have to change. Otherwise, the global public that has embraced the Olympic Movement’s principles for 125 years will increasingly condemn the IOC’s behavior. Public disapproval in Tokyo will turn into protests in Los Angeles and apathy by Brisbane, leaving the IOC as a rump organization left scrambling to find a place in a world suddenly devoid of suckers to exploit.

The youth of the world will always receive the invitation of the Olympic Movement. But unless something changes, they might stop answering.