Few Human Endeavors Carry Such Contrasts
A Reminder as to How All This Began
The Olympic games were an invention of ancient Greece, one of the wonderful things that civilization left us. The idea was to foster peaceful competition and to celebrate youthful excellence, dedication, and skill. It was a noble and inspiring idea that was restarted in the modern era, for all the right reasons.
The Power and Beauty of Youthful Athletes
It would be difficult to not admire the skill and remarkable dedication of Olympic athletes. For most of them, competing in the Olympics is the culmination of years of work, begun when they were children. They put endless hours into training, sacrifice much of what we would consider normal childhoods, and do so realizing that the chances of winning a medal in such exalted competition are small at best. Yet, they dedicate themselves to it, as do their families, who also make great sacrifices.
When such athletes are unable to compete for some personal reason or because the games are caught up in political issues, it is heartbreaking. Many will not get a second chance.
All the above is true, and always has been. And yet, it is difficult to feel good about the games overall. Too much has gone too wrong for too long.
Start with the IOC (International Olympic Committee). For many years it has been generally viewed as isolated from reality, as arbitrary and nontransparent in its decision making. Stories of graft and corruption, and a blind eye toward abuse of athletes have been with us for a long time. It seems an organization more interested in its own power than the athletes or the spirit of the games.
Then we come to the host countries. Some really go the full distance to use the games for political propaganda, overwhelming the chance for international good will. Remember Hitler and the Olympic games? How about the Russians, some decades ago whose judges opened stadium doors when their pole vaulters were competing, giving them a bit of a tail wind. They called it using “socialist winds.” More recently Putin used the games to burnish his image from what he has been doing in Syria and elsewhere. Depending on what sins the host has committed of late on the world stage, there are frequent calls for boycotts. Too bad, young athletes.
Other hosts wind up spending fortunes they cannot spare and displace many of their citizens, often the poor, to host the games. In most cases, the promised residual benefits do not happen, at least not at the scale that would justify the expenditures.
The Tokyo Games are a Perfect Illustration
Look at the games about to begin. Tokyo is in a declared state of emergency, with a new surge in the COVID pandemic. Most Japanese citizens and the civil authorities in Tokyo do not want the games to go on as scheduled. Turns out they have no say. The contract says only the IOC can cancel the games and they are not about to do that. A lot of money is on the line and there is a mentality that the games must go on, following earlier delays, no matter what.
At one time, the plan was to allow only Japanese citizens to attend the games. Then they were told they could come but could not cheer or do anything that might cause them to breathe excessively on each other. Finally, they were told no audience at all would be allowed, including the families of athletes.
This is a perfect illustration of a system badly broken on many counts. The athletes and fans deserve better than all this.
Two changes would solve this mess once and for all. Neither should be all that difficult to bring about.
One, retool the IOC. Incorporate more former athletes into the IOC (the current head of the IOC is a former athlete, but there are very few others) and set up some accountability and transparency protocols. Independence is one thing. Unaccountability is quite another.
Two, quit moving the games around. Permanently locate them in places that make sense. This includes not putting them in large, powerful countries prone to actions that irritate others and lead to calls for boycotts. China, Russia, and the US should not be hosts. How about putting the Summer games where they began, in Greece? The Winter games could be spread among the Scandinavian countries. I recognize this leaves Africa, Asia, and the Americas out of hosting, but having two permanent sites outweighs any disagreement over being left out. And all those other places can continue to host other world and regional sporting events.
As a final note on this location step, let’s follow the UN peacekeeping model. Each member of the UN pays in, as part of its annual dues, funds to support peacekeeping. Amounts are based on GDP and other economic factors. We could do the same for maintaining the permanent Olympic sites, thus unburdening the host nations.
The Olympic Idea
Taking such steps would go a long way towards getting the Olympics back to their original values. This would eliminate much of the corruption and politization of the current mess. They would properly honor our young athletes. Let the games begin!
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