The Olympics in the Year of the Pandemic
I never cared for the Olympics — and I’m a sports fan! The Tokyo Games, though, really take the prize. And here’s why.
The Games must go on!
Well … here’s an Olympics story for you. It explains, at least in part, why I’ve never been a fan of the Olympics, least of today, right now, during these Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, in the Year of the Pandemic.
(The official name is Tokyo 2020, actually. The IOC stuck with the original name, out of respect for the original plan.)
Our story begins with a host city. The original host city, in fact, The entire organizing committee has resigned, before the Games have even begun, because they’ve decided the job is going to be impossible. The host country, in the words of host country’s prime minister, is “regretfully bankrupt.” As opposed to being, you know, flamboyantly, ecstatically bankrupt.
The economic situation is such that there’s no possible way the Games can go ahead.
The IOC’s big boss, a guy with a European name — Pierre, to be exact — pushes ahead regardless, by hook or by crook, convincing, cajoling, browbeating. Oh but you must, he says. You have commitments. You have obligations.
The media are unimpressed — as they often are. “The Games will be a disastrous failure,” one editorial begins. The public have doubts. The money can be better spent elsewhere, they say, and they’re right. Costs escalate, and politicians weigh in on all sides of the political divide. No one wants it, they say. The polls are leaning 70% against, and higher.
The IOC are unmovable. You agreed to this, they say. Too late to change course now.
And so the Games go ahead. The city is Athens, the year is 1896, and nobody dies. (That we know of.)
Fast forward 125 years.
The Olympics have survived a lot over those 125 years. A massacre in 1968, in Mexico City, when the government killed more than 100 protesters. A massacre in 1972, in Munich, Germany, when Palestinian terrorists held Israeli athletes hostage, then murdered them during a botched rescue mission by German police. A US boycott in 1980, over the host nation Soviet Union’s invading Afghanistan, followed by a tit-for-tat Soviet boycott in 1984, when the Games were hosted in Los Angeles.
Then there was the $2bn debt left by Montreal in 1976, back in a time when $2bn meant something. There was the pipe bombing in Atlanta in 1996 — by a weirdo this time, not a political bombing — and a sea of debt, waste and corruption left in Rio, and the doping scandal in the 100 meters in Seoul, Korea, when stanozolol became a household word. More doping scandals in London in 2012 — and don’t get me started on the Winter Olympics, where it’s news if doping does not become an issue.
My own personal antipathy toward the Olympics — and I consider myself a sports fan — is the brazen hypocrisy of it all. Young athletes, men and women, perform for fat old men in suits, and they are expected to do it for free. If you think college athletics are hypocritical from the point of view of financial renumeration for the athletes, college sports have nothing on the Olympics. The Olympics celebrate the amateur ideal — even as world TV networks and their advertisers line up billions of dollars in sponsorship revenue. I admire the athletes, I appreciate their ability and their performances, and there are some truly inspiring, wonderful, human stories there about overcoming the odds on the way to the podium.
I’ve lost track, though, of the number of horror stories, of athletes being taken advantage of and abused — physically, emotionally and sexually. The only wonder about the US women’s gymnastics scandal is that it took that long for the story to get out; now that story is seemingly being repeated over and over, the world over. I’ve lost track of the number of countries now dealing with their own scandals. It’s a question of power, or rather the imbalance of power. The athletes have none.
I am most angered, though, by the financial unfairness. Years ago, a young woman in my home city won an Olympic medal once in the long jump; she later had to buy a used baby carriage from a work colleague of mine, because she couldn’t afford to buy one new.
People who know me know that I’m a huge soccer fan, of the English Premier League in particular. Few realize that soccer is an Olympic sport. The amateur aspect gets a bit weird here, as with basketball and other team sports, most of the players involved play professionally. So the rules are a strange soup of quotas and age base and prior appearances for their home nation. This is one of the few sports where whoever cashes the player’s paycheck gets first say on a player’s participation. So Pedri, the young breakout star of last month’s Euro 2020 championships, is playing for Spain in the Tokyo Olympics, over the misgivings of his parent club Barcelona. Mohamed Salah, star forward for Liverpool, would have played for Egypt, his home country, but Liverpool said no. I’m sorry, but I’m with Liverpool — and I understand Barcelona’s misgivings. Liverpool and Barcelona start their new seasons soon, and those seasons will involved 50 or more high intensity, high impact games played over a 10 month period. The Olympics don’t rate.
The Olympics were always about individual athletics, in any event. That was the whole point back in the days of Ancient Greece. The marathon, and track and field, were the star events when Athens squared off against Sparta during ancient times — and for good reason. The marathon came about because it was a matter of life and death, during a time in human history where a messenger was expected to run 26 miles with a vital message that could decide the fate of an entire military campaign.
All that — and there’s a lot to unpack there — pales in comparison to the Tokyo 2020 Games being staged in the middle of a pandemic, though.
Olympic events are being held in front of no fans, but it’s still a TV spectacle, and that matters because TV is paying the bills. If the Olympics had been cancelled —as they should have been, in my view — the TV networks would have been in line for refunds and rebates, and they in turn would have had to pay back their advertisers.
As it stands, though, the real numbers — in terms of human lives — are sobering. They’re throwing a party in the middle of a global pandemic with 100,000 guests, even without fans, with 10,000 or more athletes, more than 50,000 officials, support staff and media types, anchored in a city that has experienced a surge in Covid infections, in a country where no more than 20% of the population is fully vaccinated, and where 80% of the people have said that, well, thanks guys, but no thanks.
Never mind the frontline medical workers, or Japan’s aging population — the age group most vulnerable to Covid’s effects, prior to the younger skewing Delta variant, anyway — or Japan’s doctors union, which is already stressed to the max.
The IOC president has been dismissive of concerns, saying that you can’t decide the fate of an event “followed by billions of people worldwide” and longed for by thousands of the athletes themselves, by holding a poll.
Never mind that, so far, prime Olympic advertiser Toyota has announced it’s pulling all its Games-related ads off TV — a little like what would happen if Ford or GM pulled ads off a US-hosted Games, having outbid automakers’ competition in the first place — followed by Procter & Gamble and Panasonic’s decision to pull out of the Opening Ceremony.
These Games may prove a success yet. The 1896 Games were a huge success, despite initial misgivings, in no small part because when Greek runner Spyridon Louis, the winner of the marathon, ran into the host stadium in Athens ahead of the pack, he was greeted by 80,000 screaming, delirious, overjoyed Greek fans.
One thing about the Covid Games in the Year of the Pandemic, regardless of how successful these Games are, insofar as success can be measured when so many lives are at stake: There won’t be 80,000 fans, or even 8,000 fans, or even 800 fans, to greet any winner of any event.
I know this makes me sound like a crank and a sourpuss but these Games should never have been held in the first place. I’m waiting for the Premier League, and La Liga. Go Liverpool, and go Barcelona.