From the very beginning of our school education, we learn about the impressive and well-deserved legacy of the Olympic Games. Established in Ancient Greece, over the years it has developed into an international event with an ever-increasing number of disciplines and participants. The very essence of competition, determination, devotion and celebration of victory. We wait patiently every two years for these 16 days of emotions, entertainment and broken records. Yet considering that lately they have been bringing more concerns than ever, including COVID-19, rising costs and political concerns, how can we know what the future holds?
The first, most obvious case is the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. Taking place in 2021, but with the same name due to marketing reasons ( confusing - I know). On 18th March 2020, The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo Organising Committee (TOCOG) announced that the event will be postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemics. Even though tremendously disappointing, the decision should have been expected. The costs of the reschedule have already risen up to to $2.7 billion, making it total $15.3 billion. In this way Tokyo took second place on the list of the most expensive Games in history, behind Sochi in 2014 with unbeatable $51 billion.
Development of vaccines by Pfizer, BioNTech and Moderna have changed the decision of Thomas Bach, IOC President, who now claims to undertake every effort to ensure that as many people as possible will arrive vaccinated. With the dose worth $40-$60, it is hard to predict how many will comply and show interest in viewing the event live. Organisers are anyway suggesting limiting the number of participants and attendees, as well as “simplifying” opening and closing ceremonies.
For the past year, we have been watching athletes attempt to do their job, listening to pre-recorded crowd cheers in place of an adoring audience. Still used to greeting their fans after victory, they would often wave at empty seats to realise that times have changed. Yet the Olympic Games are not only about the individual achievements. They are about representing your whole country. And what is better than catching a national flag, given by the person who travelled across the world to see you, on the finishing line of the marathon? It is enough to say it is difficult to imagine. Without the fans, or, in the best-case scenario, carefully kept social distancing measures, it is even more difficult to imagine.
But unfortunately, the Tokyo Games are not an exception. What, if at all, will happen in the Beijing Winter Olympics in two years’ time remains a mystery as well. Back in 2008, when the Chinese capital hosted the Summer Olympics, pro Tibetan protesters clashed with police, desperately trying to bring attention to the human rights abuse. And history likes to repeat itself. In September this year, more than 160 human rights organisations called for a boycott, whereas Republican Senators urged NBCUniversal to support protesters in Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Inner Mongolia instead of focusing on profits from broadcasting. Recognising the increasing tension over the situation, official response and declaration of participation from countries is yet not known. However, there already were attempts of discouraging the key players on the winter sport stage, such as Joshua Wong’s appeal to Canada. Effects would be far more detrimental than in case of Summer Games, where many more countries have opportunities to fight for medals.
The other thing is whether the West wants to accept China as the host in the end. Back in 2008, they marked their entry on the world economic stage. Now, perhaps other Western nations may fear China would dazzle and overshadow struggling competition with innovation, new globalised image, and athletes weighed down with a superior number of medals. It’s no wonder suggestions of changing the location have appeared - they feature neighbouring South Korea, or farther afield in the likes of Sweden, Norway or Canada. They already have the infrastructure and favourable climate conditions, which seems to be a crucial point in the face of an environmental crisis, another key obstacle to be aware of. In such a case, would the name also remain unchanged due to marketing reasons?
But here we assume that these countries are willing to host again. What seemed obvious not that long ago, now poses an increasing number of challenging questions. Ten countries bid for the 2008 Olympics. But in recent years costs have spiralled up and the economic benefits have become less clear. In the past, the Olympics were seen as a chance for international promotion and the development of local infrastructure, providing citizens with world-class facilities to use after the event ends. As great as it sounds, we all know that the reality is different. Rio de Janeiro should be called up. In 2016, with the budget (of course) going above the planned estimates, the best they could do was to shield-off favelas with walls high enough for visitors not to see the dark reality. Russians, on the other hand, will need to pay over $1.2 billion annually in taxes to cover the debt and maintenance costs of the Sochi complex, seeing how it all goes to ruin due to lack of interest. Even London, although praised for the revitalisation of the East End, expanded housing and transport infrastructure is not experiencing desired long-term benefits anymore, and has to bear the costs of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park Complex.
In fact, the IOC should take some blame for it. Back in the happy days of the 90's, the institution took away only 4% of the final profit. Their appetite increased to the point where they grabbed 70% of Rio’s revenue in 2016. As a result, it is increasingly difficult to find a host not chosen in the light of public opposition. Numbers reflect it perfectly. Before claiming the title of 2022 Winter Olympic Games, Beijing competed only with Kazakhstan. Are we nearing the end of this ever-lasting tradition?
It may seem so. And the problem is recognised. In 2014, Thomas Bach set out a plan of 40 actions, such as reducing costs of bidding, assessing bid cities in terms of risk and opportunities and introducing sustainability concepts into the Olympics framework. These high-sounding ideas always look great on paper. Ever since they were introduced, we have rather observed more problems than effective solutions.
It will be true to say that the decision lies in the hands of participating nations and their stage of involvement, and whether they choose to respect the long-lasting tradition and play fair, which Russia has not necessarily abided by. The last thing that the weakened IOC needed was the forced decision to exclude the country's national team until 2023 due to a doping scandal. Athletes not involved in the case are still able to perform, yet not under Russian flag, anthem and without the official state delegation.
Even if some argue that it is a verdict not severe enough, it poses a crucial point in the light of the situation we are facing: how are we supposed to celebrate international integrity if some of participants need to wait for the readmission? What does it say about our capability of cooperation? Are the Olympics still about rivalry in sport or just a background for the political game? In these uncertain times, we face as many doubts as questions, and these doubts may hang over the Olympics for years to come.