Which soaring ideals survive?
The Olympic Games have been at a crossroads for a while—long before COVID-19 forced the unprecedented postponement of Tokyo 2020. Rampant doping, skyrocketing costs, deeply embedded global inequities that profoundly impact athletes’ training, and scandals within sports themselves—including sexual abuse and assault on the women’s side, especially—mar Pierre de Coubertin’s 1896 vision to bring the children of the world (or at least white males, since he considered women’s sports “the most unesthetic sight human eyes could contemplate”) together every four years in the name of fair competition.
The intonation that “The Games Must Go On”—famously stated by the devoutly racist and anti-Semitic International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Avery Brundage after the 1972 massacre of the Israeli team brought the Munich Olympics to a standstill for a few days—has allowed the IOC to march through some of the world’s worst storms in the name of sport. Indeed, the only outright cancellation of the event came at the hands of World War II.
The world is again at war. In addition to the many ongoing conflicts that engulf the globe, we are battling a war against a novel virus. While the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t the worst in history, it has taken a devastating toll. A few months ago I was passionate in my take that the Olympic Games should not proceed as planned. But the window for that opinion has closed: The Olympic Games are taking place in Tokyo. What is left for the world to do now is hope for the best, especially for the Japanese hosts and the athletes they welcome, and figure out what it might all mean.
Sport can do one of two things: bring people together or push people apart. When I find another Red Sox fan in Yankee Stadium, for example, we are instant friends. When I am seated next to a Yankee fan in Fenway Park? No dice.
But the ancient Olympic Games understood athletic rivalry in a different vein, at least in theory. The Greeks imagined competition within the frame of their polytheistic beliefs, starting with the first foot race in 775 BC. Men, regardless of their personal fortune or lack thereof, participated as a means of honoring the gods (particularly Zeus) on the hallowed grounds of Olympia, thinking that athletic accomplishment granted some kind of immortality.
Central to these competitions was the concept of ekecheiria, or truce, which connected both physical and spiritual triumph to diplomatic relationships across the usually warring Greek states. King Ifitos instituted athletic competition as a means for diplomatic peace, albeit temporary, when the oracle at Delphi advised him to do so, using sport as a means to interrupt ongoing wars every four years. In its idealized form, the Olympic Truce lasted for months, allowing athletes and spectators alike to travel to and from the Games safely—and to understand what it felt and looked like to live in a peaceful society, at least momentarily.
In 393, Emperor Theodosius banned athletics along with all other so-called pagan cults, ending the ancient Olympics. When de Coubertin resuscitated the idea in the late-nineteenth century, the potential for sport as a tool in international relationships was part of his dream—to interrupt life as usual and create something almost other-worldly. Olympic rituals, for example, especially the opening and closing ceremonies, are designed to create symbolic breaks from everyday life, including the conflict that often escorts it.
We cannot, of course, take a break from a global pandemic. The battle against COVID-19 remains whether Alyson Felix runs or not, and it will undoubtedly make the Olympic spirit, such as it is, even harder to find.
The International Olympic Truce Center, founded in 2000 in a joint agreement between Greece and the IOC, claims commitment to the promotion of international understanding and friendship, seeking to incorporate the concept of ekecheiria more directly into the modern Games. But the tension between Olympic values and Olympic realities runs deep, particularly as the IOC swings wildly between the political fence-sitting that brought the world the Berlin Olympics in 1936 with Hitler at the helm, and progressive political advocacy, such as its stance against apartheid in 1968 and its creation of a refugee team more recently.
But just as a few weeks of sport did little to persuade the ancient Greeks to lay down their swords in any meaningful way, Tokyo 2020 will not make a dent in global conflict. Further, its potential impact on the state of the COVID-19 pandemic remains unclear and rather frightening, especially for the Japanese people, who have kept their infection rates low with vigilant mask-wearing protocols, but who have been among the slowest in the world to vaccinate.
Money remains the perpetual elephant in the stadium. The IOC makes approximately seventy-five percent of its cash from broadcast rights, almost forty percent of which comes from NBCUniversal, which has the broadcast rights locked up through 2032. With the Japanese lockdown on international spectators and the limitations on local ones, broadcast rights are one of the only remaining profit margins for these Games, as the so-called legacy effects for the host city—hotels, food, merchandise sales, word-of-mouth tourism —will be virtually nonexistent.
While pitting profit against public health is hardly the only moral dilemma to consider when looking to Tokyo—issues of fair play and competitive advantage are always central in any conversation about sports ethics—it may be the most central. While we are done asking if the Olympics will take place in Tokyo, we can continue to ask if the Olympics should take place in Tokyo. Market forces unquestionably have transformed sports from a communal pursuit of excellence into a commodity. As such, the Olympic Games are as much an industry, a commercial institution, as they are a source of global community, exhilarating stories, and elite athleticism. As sports ethicist Robert Simon and his co-authors have argued, “the commercialization of sport, the transformation of elite sport into a product that can be bought and sold, corrupts sport.” The corruption thesis sees sport as falling away from its original, allegedly noble purpose, with commercialization undermining fair competition and sportsmanship and putting the majority of our focus on a handful of star players.
Yet the Olympics paints with a broader brush than just its stars. Along the way we meet those who never see the victory podium but become Olympic heroes of a different sort, including Eric Mussambani, Derek Redman, Gabriela Andersen-Schiess, Lawrence Lemieux, Tiffany Foster, and Michael “Eddie the Eagle” Edwards. These athletes, ones who make a splash without necessarily winning much of anything, ensure that the Olympics are never a zero-sum game for us, regardless of the circumstances. So while the playing fields of Tokyo rightly remain filled with apprehension and speculation, we can only hope that the coming together of the world, such as it is, takes place safely, keeping hosts and athletes out of harm’s way.
Amy Bass, Ph.D. is Professor of Sport Studies and Chair of the Division of Social Science and Communication at Manhattanville College. She is the author of several titles, most recently One Goal, and took home an Emmy for her work on the London Olympics in 2012. She’s on Twitter at @bassab1.