Image from the ‘No Olympics LS’ article, “How to report on the Olympics.”

I realise this might just be me, but I’m finding it hard to love the Olympics this time around. It might be the time zone, although I remember enjoying the Beijing games in 2008. It might be the fact that a significant majority of Japanese people didn’t want the Games to happen, or the empty venues.

Of course, that at least means that spectators holding goods made by the competitors of the Games’ sponsors don’t have them removed at the gates of the venues by the stewards.

Dealing with the devil

The question of whether the Games would go ahead is a reminder that agreeing to host a games is a deal with the devil. As Helen Jefferson Lenskyj explained in The Conversation:

If anyone was unaware of the IOC’s use and abuse of power before 2020, events surrounding the Tokyo Olympics during the COVID-19 pandemic have shed unprecedented light on the organization’s iron grip over host cities and countries…

The host city contract for every Olympics states the IOC is the only party empowered to postpone or cancel the event. The contract has a weak “force majeure” clause that states “if the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants… would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason whatsoever.”

Pulling out

In the Financial Times (paywalled), the sports analyst Stefan Szymanski noted that cities, and citizens, were finding the idea of hosting the Olympics much less attractive:

Numerous cities have pulled out of bidding in recent years, often after fairly decisive citizen referendums, including Boston, Calgary, Innsbruck, Munich, Hamburg, Oslo and Bern. The most embarrassing instance was Denver, which declined after the city had already been chosen. Eleven cities bid for the 2004 Games; 20 years later, only two ended up with their hat in the ring for 2024, Paris and Los Angeles, after other bidders withdrew. The IOC, panicked that the number might fall to zero, hastily awarded one Olympics to each of them, 2024 and 2028. Last week, the IOC announced Brisbane as the winner of the 2032 games — the only competitor left after the committee had excluded all others.

The wrong side

So it seems that the Olympics is losing its shine. An event can only absorb so much venality, after all. In a more politicised environment for professional sport, the Games is on the wrong side—not that it’s just about athletes, as The Conversation article reminds us:

The muzzling of free speech and freedom of assembly extends beyond athletes to residents of host countries and international visitors. The Olympic Charter overrides freedoms that are universally accepted in democracies by prohibiting protests in or near Olympic venues. These areas become de facto IOC territory for the duration of the Games.

And one of those signs that the IOC has a tin ear is represented by the vast pay-TV deal it’s done with Discovery for both this and the 2024 Olympic Games.

Billions of dollars

For most sports, this decision is usually a finely balanced one: pay-TV reduces the appeal of the sport to a wider public, while pumping money into it that the game can use to develop, help smaller teams, or support its grassroots. For a sport like cricket, at least in the UK, the money helped, but pay-TV hid the game from young players, and it’s now finding ways to get back onto free-to-air TV again.

But it’s not exactly clear what the IOC will do with the billions of dollars that it has been paid for Discovery. And impressions of the Games are certainly harmed by the fact that the there’s much thinner coverage on free-to-air television.

Szymanski suggests that it’s time for the Olympic Committee to bring more to its party—pointing to the fortunes it has accumulated—in a way that speaks to the ideals of the founders. First, re-focus on the competitors:

There is a solution. First, scale down the Games so they can turn into inclusive rather than exclusive events… Athletes do not have to compete in palaces and cathedrals. More intimate settings can be more appealing than the glitz that has spread over the Games like a golden fungus.

Second, support the development of the cities who host the Games:

The IOC should also make it its mission to help cities without the necessary facilities — cities that love sport but cannot afford a new stadium… But what if the IOC, rather than demanding public expenditures, offered to contribute more from its huge revenues to finance an expansion of the public transport system; to construct an Olympic Village as affordable housing; and to renovate the venues already in place rather than demand new ones? The question should not be what a city can do for the Olympics, but what the Olympics can do for a city.

No Olympics LA

This seems unlikely to happen unless cities stop bidding completely for the Games, although given the recent decline in interest, that might be a possibility. In the meantime, let me point you towards, a site that is protesting against the 2028 Los Angeles Games. The front page spells it out:

You can’t support both the Olympics and the Movement for Black Lives.

Here’s why. It’s time to #PickASide.

The site has a whole mass of resources, including critiques of the Tokyo Games and a whole lot of press material on the downsides of the Games. It’s worth a look.

Thanks to Peter Curry for the link to No Olympics LA.

A shorter version of this post was also published on my Just Two Things Newsletter.