The Olympic mirror.
The Tokyo Olympics are showing us the worst—and best—of ourselves.
It was 1996 and I was 12. The Olympics were in Atlanta. I remember the moment Muhammad Ali — my childhood idol — lit that Olympic flame. Pre-Titanic Celine Dion gave us the soundtrack with “The Power of the Dream.” The Magnificent Seven took home Olympic gold on the heroics of Kerri Strug.
The melding of proximity, pageantry, teenage dramatics, and billion-dollar theatrics have left me a lifelong sucker for the Olympics. As the Tokyo Games begin this week, it’s hard not to feel nostalgia for the Games — or perhaps the moment in time in which I became aware of them. After all, that was 1996, when we thought history had ended, before modern history had started. Since, I’ve lived through 9/11, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Great Recession, the Trump presidency, and the pandemic. I’m not even 40.
It’s eerie to listen to Celine’s timeless voice singing, “You’ll find your fate is all your own creation” — a message that, in hindsight, seems as dated as the Olympic movement itself. A securitized America was transmogrifying its colonial history into a global war on an amorphous enemy. Unchecked corporate power was breaking down the gates that had been erected around it after the Great Depression — a precursor to the way it would ultimately destroy the global financial system. Americans were allowing topical calls for “harmony” to supplant honest introspection about the way that racism had corrupted our soul and a commitment to redress it. The president was declaring that the “era of big government is over” as America’s prison-industrial complex was just taking off — trading welfare for mass incarceration.
Sadly, the Olympics have suffered the same fate. The International Olympic Committee is an undemocratic cabal of the wealthy and well-connected, governing the Olympics by fiat. That’s opened the door to rank corruption in what is, perhaps, the most important choice they make: where to hold the Olympics. The previous process involving host country bids was so corrupted by allegations of vote-buying, bid-rigging, bribery, and geopolitical intrigue that they’ve since ended — without any clear plan as to how to replace it.
Meanwhile, the autocrats and plutocrats who benefit most from gameable, undemocratic processes have benefited handsomely, indeed. Russian President Vladimir Putin allegedly made billions off of the 2014 Sochi Winter Games as they more than quadrupled in cost from an estimated $12.3 billion to $55 billion.
But what of the communities they left behind? While we’ll always remember Usain Bolt electrifying us with his jaw-dropping 100-meter dash in Rio de Janeiro, we’ll conveniently forget the 75,000 people who were displaced to make that possible. Meanwhile, the venues constructed around those events sit in idle disrepair as Brazil suffers through the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic without basic medicines or vaccines — a consequence of a brutal autocrat supported by many of the same people who bankrolled that Olympics.
The athletes — the beating heart of the Games — have almost no say over the decisions. Indeed, Allyson Felix, the six-time Olympic gold medalist competing in her fifth and final Olympics in Tokyo, was involved in the effort to bring the games to Los Angeles in 2028. “My perspective was that the Games were so much about the competition. Being involved in the bid process, you see that the competition and the athletes are a very minimal part. The athletes do not have a seat at the table when the decisions are being made.”
It’s not just that they don’t have a seat, it’s that they don’t have a voice either. As I’ve written in these pages, the bodies that make billions off of athletes see those athletes’ very humanity as a liability and seek to control them. The Olympics serve a case in point. Rule 50 states that the IOC prohibits “political, racial, or religious propaganda.” They argue that this is because the Olympics are apolitical. It’s 2021, y’all. Nothing is apolitical right now. “Apolitical” is just another brand of politics: “we seek to remain indifferent to autocrats, human rights abuses, and racism around the world.”
As usual, “apolitical” falls hardest on those whom our system already marginalizes. Sha’Carri Richardson, the fastest woman in America, will not participate in the Games because she had a blunt after hearing that her mother died. Apparently marijuana now enhances performance? And Sha’Carri’s isn’t the only body being policed. Simone Biles is too good at gymnastics, so they’ve devalued elements in her full repertoire. Olympic hammer thrower Gwen Berry was taunted and jeered by Trumpworld for choosing not to face the flag at the Olympic qualifiers. Two Namibian sprinters were barred from the Games because of naturally high testosterone levels. What do they have in common? They’re all Black women.
And this year, a redo of the Olympics that were cancelled last year as a result of the pandemic is being foisted on the Japanese … even though the pandemic isn’t over. Japanese doctors have urged the government to cancel, citing the dangerous delta variant and the fact that just more than 20% of Japanese are yet vaccinated. Only 22% of Japanese want the Games to go on. Already, 61 athletes and counting in the Olympic Village have tested positive for COVID. As a sop to these concerns, there will be no fans in the stands, casting the Olympics instead as the made-for-TV spectacle that they’ve since become. After all, nearly three-quarters of the IOC budget comes from broadcast rights.
Corporatism, autocracy, a disrespect for individual liberties and human rights, an obsession with money and image: the 21st century Olympics suffers all the same ailments as the 21st century world.
And yet, like the world itself, there is good in it.
The core idea of the Olympic movement — that people from all backgrounds can come together to aspire to compete in human excellence — remains as inspiring today as it was to a 12-year-old kid in 1996, or the people a century before at the first modern Olympic games. Perhaps even more so than the Olympics, the Paralympics remind us of that core human aspiration. And after a global pandemic that each of us has experienced together if apart, a global event like the Olympics still has the power to remind us that we’re not so alone after all.
Watch people do incredible things these next two weeks. And then remember that they do so not because of, but despite, the corruption, the control, and the corrosion that’s happening around them. It should remind us that rebuilding communities and institutions that support the best in us is worth doing, however hard it might be. Perhaps then, after these Tokyo Games, we should start with the Olympics themselves.