The Olympic Games are, in theory, maybe one of the best ideas of all time. Countries from around the world send in their best and brightest and come together to engage in friendly competition, spectate, cheer, rejoice, mourn, and share in a once-in-a-lifetime event that’s about both celebrating excellence and finding commonality. That all sounds pretty freaking cool honestly.
The 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, in theory, could have been one of the best Olympics of all time. Imagine it: On the “other side” of a devastating pandemic, after a full year’s delay, the Games would have served as the perfect balm. The Summer Olympics. The Olympics of skin and sweat. Of gymnastics, swimming, and track. Of new sports like skateboarding and surfing! What better way to celebrate, distract, and channel our collective energy than a global event showcasing the best of what the human body has to offer? That also sounds pretty freaking cool honestly.
This isn’t the case, though. Because like a star athlete who chokes when it matters the most, the Olympics have royally fucked this up.
They fucked this up, first and foremost, by pushing forward with staging the Games in the summer of 2021. COVID-19 is still an active threat, especially in Japan, where vaccine rollout has been slow. No one there wants the Games, thousands of volunteers have quit, there won’t be any spectators, and that’s all before we get to the bullshit surrounding Sha’Carri Richardson’s ridiculous exclusion, the ban on swimming caps made for Black hair, and the ban on athletes protesting during events and medal ceremonies.
The runup to the Olympics is a mess. And it’s making the case for the Games themselves as an outdated institution that does more harm than good.
The Olympics have long existed in a state of perpetual duality, a kind of globally accepted phenomenon of marketing vs. reality. As the event has grown, so have its ills. And they are plentiful! You know them. The Olympics are nationalistic, discriminatory, militarized, racist, and a money-fueled act of myth-making. They represent a faux meritocracy and push phony narratives about athletes without actually functioning to support them in any real way long-term. Hosting the Games costs countries billions of dollars, frequently runs over budget, and poses a huge financial risk that often lands cities in debt in the hope of transformation, a tourism bump and the chance to be part of something legendary. They’re indisputably inhumane for unhoused citizens, lead to gentrification, and displace residents. They foster corruption and the International Olympic Committee itself is a crooked and problematic institution.
Despite overwhelming evidence that cities across the globe don’t want the burden of the Olympics, the Games continue on. This isn’t even the first time they have forged ahead in the face of a widespread health crisis! And as is the case with every massive organization or policy or bureaucratic behemoth that continues to exist despite widespread public opinion against it, it’s blatantly obvious that money, power, and politics are to blame. Or as the writer and anti-Olympics activist Molly Lambert so aptly put it: “[The Olympics are] a scheme routinely carried out by a consortium of grotesquely wealthy oligarchs and war criminals (like Henry Kissinger), who use sports as a pretext to extract capital from poor communities around the world.”
The next two Summer Olympic Games will be in Paris and Los Angeles, and as with Tokyo and other cities before it, the event is facing pushback from residents. Los Angeles won’t host the Games for another seven years, but the effort is already hitting every single predictable beat: it’s proving costly despite a supposedly “sustainable,” “no build” approach and a promise of $1 billion profit from Mayor Eric Garcetti, and will undoubtedly be horrendous for the city’s unhoused population (and in fact, already is). At this point, the entire exercise has become a remarkable, bald-faced display of prioritizing pomp, circumstance, and cash over people.
In initially preparing to write this blog, I had expected to dive deeper into the history of the Games themselves. There’s obviously a lot to explore there and indeed, an entire Wikipedia page dedicated to a “List of Olympic Games scandals and controversies.” There’s even an entire page dedicated to “Concerns and controversies at the 2020 Summer Olympics.” The fountain of shit coming out of the Olympic Games is an endless well, and we could be here all day wading through the slop. Yes, naturally, there are shameful pieces of history, perhaps most notably The Nazi Olympics (and along with it, a history of eugenics-friendly attitudes ), but frankly, focusing on them feels beside the point here in 2021. People suffered in the past and that deserves its own reckoning, but there are living humans who are also suffering now. Cities we’re destroying now. A planet we’re destroying now. All for a little entertainment,
All that said, this wouldn’t be a No Heroes installment if I didn’t sincerely acknowledge that elements of the Olympic Games absolutely rule. I’ll never forget being a kid (and budding figure skater) and watching Nancy Kerrigan, Tonya Harding, and Oksana Baiul battle it out in 1994, or seeing Kerri Strug land her second vault on one leg after injuring her ankle in 1996. I’ve cheered on and become obsessed with athletes every four years since I was born, just like everyone else. The Olympics are a beloved institution and it’s frankly pretty easy to compartmentalize the bad stuff and embrace the good. That of course, is also what makes the Games (and much of the professional sports world) so difficult to parse and impossible to resolve. Even the media coverage of the Olympics is schizophrenic. While researching this piece, I found myself on many Olympics landing pages where criticisms of the Games ran alongside breathless coverage of trial events. This isn’t a criticism of those outlets—their coverage perfectly exemplifies our relationship to the Games.
This might be actually the first time we’ve done a No Heroes about people who so actively embody the designation of a “hero” in the moment. And of course, this screed isn’t about them at all. We can all agree that the athletes themselves are absolutely incredible and inspiring. The Olympic institution is a disservice to their natural talent and hard work.
So what do we do? As the conversations around reforming the Olympics ramp up, the solution of a single permanent host city or a few host cities is popping up more and more. (Athens seems like an obvious choice, though the effects of climate change and our ever hotter planet would require considerations.) That solution would certainly help alleviate many problems surrounding infrastructure, astronomical bills, and human displacement, but it would not solve the massive ethical issues within the IOC, and would permanently alter the host cities. Personally, I would not want to live in a place that hosted the Olympics every four or eight years. There are surely improvements that can be made in how the Games operate, but there are also lingering ones that are both specific to the Olympics and endemic to the business of sports. Maybe we should reincorporate music, oratory, and theater performances? I don’t know. When you start to pick it all apart, the protest refrain of “No Olympics Anywhere!” feels more and more correct. It’s tough and it sucks.
This might only be true in my bubble, and is almost certainly a result of a global pandemic and a yearlong delay, but it feels like we’ve reached a turning point when it comes to the Olympic Games. This year, the standard hum of excitement leading up to the opening ceremony has shifted to bursts of excitement, bursts of disappointment, a lot of general confusion, and a broader sense that this just ain’t it. I imagine we’ll all still watch clips and marvel at the feats of athletes around the world and experience some sense of pride in them, but the Olympics have started to feel like a classic fashion trend that suddenly looks ugly as hell. Everyone is trying to muster excitement that isn’t there. The cognitive dissonance we’ve been experiencing for years is giving way as the bad more overtly overtakes the good. Like the bright, crisp, HD footage, beaming out of a widescreen TV, it’s becoming crystal clear that the Olympics might be an ancient idea that’s finally run its course.