Until COVID-19 uprooted life as we know it, the Olympic Games‘ place at the top of the international sporting calendar seemed unwavering.
Yet the postponement of last year’s Summer Games in Tokyo and rumors of their uncertain future prompted a previously barely whispered question: “What are the Olympics for?”
Overwhelmed by their turbulent history and weighed down by confusing traditions, the survival of the Olympic Games in the 21st century seems a modern miracle when viewed in the spotlight.
If the Olympic Games did not exist, would there be clamor to invent them? This is a difficult question to answer in the affirmative.
Yet I suggest that it would be unwise to underestimate the validity of the Olympics or their unique values.
The Olympic Games refuse to give up their ideals.
First, full disclosure. I am a huge fan of the Olympics. As a journalist, I covered 17 Summer and Winter Games between 1984 and 2014. I saw with my own eyes how laudable and noble sporting ideals can fall prey to cheaters in matters of drugs, corrupt officials and unscrupulous coaches.
I have witnessed the abrupt cessation of well-intentioned attempts by Olympic leaders to promote peaceful political initiatives.
But, like a relentless athlete who turns failure into success, the Olympic movement refuses to give up its ideals. I think that’s what I admire the most.
With the exception of the minority who say they are not interested in sports, most of us were inspired when we were young by sports heroes. I turned to Hungarian soccer captain Ferenc Puskas, Brazilian tennis star Maria Bueno and Australian middle distance runner Herb Elliott.
But few of us realize that the sports hero predates modern mass media by around 2,000 years and is rooted in the ancient Olympics.
The athletes were celebrated all over Greece.
Recognized as having started in Greece in 776 BCE, the Games were both a test of sporting excellence, a political tool used by city-states to assert dominance over their rivals, a religious holiday and an excuse for a big party.
Held in Olympia every four years, the Games lasted over 1,000 years until they were banned for religious reasons in AD 394.
Competitors had to be men – and were forced to prove it by competing naked. There were races, throwing disciplines, combat sports and possibly equestrian events, including chariot races.
Among the first sports heroes was runner Leonidas of Rhodes, who won 12 gold medals, a feat without equal until American swimmer Michael Phelps secured his 13th Olympic title in 2016.
Leonidas and other victors such as wrestler Milo of Croton and boxer Theagene of Thasos were celebrated for their deeds in the Greek world with the same cult that great athletes receive today.
Elements of amateur days remain.
The idea of ââthe modern Olympics was conceived by French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, an idealist who saw the importance of promoting physical education among young people. He believed that competitive sports could promote intercultural understanding and peace, and he was convinced that there was nobility in the struggle to defeat an opponent.
For de Coubertan, doing your best was more important than winning.
Thanks to his efforts, the modern Olympics were launched in Athens in 1896. Barring two world wars and now a global pandemic, they have been held every four years since.
De Coubertin’s sporting ideals largely persist to this day, although some of his beliefs may seem outdated. He followed the elders by seeing sport as the prerogative of men, and no woman participated in the first Games.
He believed in the purity of amateurism. It was not until 1986 that the decision was made to admit professionals to the Games. Even then, individual sports were allowed to ban paid athletes, and some, notably boxing and wrestling, did for a while.
However, elements of the amateur days remain. Billboards, commonplace in sports arenas everywhere, are not permitted in Olympic stadiums. The names of the sponsors are not displayed on the team kit and no prize money is paid by the organizers to the competitors.
In reality, these ideals are somewhat undermined by the harsh economic reality that a gigantic global event involving more than 10,000 athletes cannot be organized without sponsors. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) raises a large chunk of its funds by selling marketing rights to a handful of global companies, such as Coca-Cola, in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Cash prizes may not be offered, but many individual National Olympic Committees pay athletes lucrative bonuses for the medals they win.
A delicate relationship with politics
While the Olympics have a somewhat awkward relationship with money, they have an even more awkward one with world politics.
The Games provided an alternate battleground during the Cold War between the Soviet bloc and Western nations. In the second half of the 20th century, the Soviet Union and its allies, especially East Germany, invested resources in sport to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the communist system over the capitalist West.
Promising athletes were identified at a young age and brought into a state full-time training system, while being labeled students, military, or state employees to circumvent a ban on professionals. There has always been widespread suspicion about state-sponsored doping programs, some of which came to light years later.
Tensions exploded with tit-for-tat boycotts in the 1980s. First, the United States and some other Western countries refused to participate in the 1980 Moscow Summer Games on the grounds that Soviet troops were occupying Afghanistan. . In retaliation, the Soviet Union and most of its Eastern European partners boycotted the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.
The Olympics were already on their knees after a Palestinian assault on the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich resulted in a fatal shootout with German police. Eleven members of the Israeli team died as well as five members of the Black September guerrilla group and a policeman.
Four years later, most African nations refused to participate in the 1976 Montreal Games to protest a New Zealand rugby tour of apartheid-era South Africa.
Some great gestures have failed.
The Olympics may well have failed. What they did not do is often attributed to the calm leadership and diplomatic skills of Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch, who took over the IOC presidency in 1980, introduced reforms and stayed for more than two decades.
Nevertheless, some great gestures of the IOC have failed. Seoul hosted the 1988 Olympics in the hope that it would lead to the reunification of North Korea and South Korea. In the end, despite frenzied diplomatic activity, North Korea refused to participate and the opportunity vanished.
Twenty years later, for similar reasons, the 2008 Games went to Beijing in the hope that this would lead to China’s opening up to the world and increased respect for human rights at home. of its borders.
Everything went wrong at first when China’s pledge to allow free internet access turned out not to be what it appeared to be. Internet access during the Olympics was unmatched elsewhere in the country, with restrictions maintained among the general population.
The IOC itself has hardly been faultless.
In 1998, a whistleblower revealed that IOC members had accepted bribes or received gifts from officials of the Salt Lake City Olympic bid team for the 2002 Winter Games. lifted the veil on an ongoing scandal surrounding the Olympic candidacies. Ten IOC members were expelled, 10 others sanctioned and reforms were made to avoid repetition.
There have been great successes.
But it would be wrong to dwell on failures when there have been great successes. Gradual progress has been made on gender equality towards the ideal of a 50-50 split between male and female competitors. At the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, there were more than 5,000 female athletes, or 47% of the total.
The Olympic movement is a world leader in the field of disabled sports. The Paralympic Games, which began in 1960, have grown into a major global event, with over 4,000 athletes participating in the last summer event in Rio.
My personal conversion to the Olympics began with a reporting mission to the Olympic Village in Sarajevo in 1984. Watching the excitement of hundreds of Olympic athletes from around the world eating together in a mass canteen, playing ping-pong and chatting. experiences despite language barriers was eye opening.
There are exceptions, but to this day most Olympic athletes would rather live in a village with thousands of international competitors rather than being isolated in a five-star hotel. It is difficult to imagine a better way to promote international friendship among young people.
The unique atmosphere of the Olympic Games permeates the host cities. I never imagined that the vibrant vibe I had witnessed in Barcelona, ââSydney or Vancouver would prevail when the 2012 Olympics were held in my hometown of London.
But the British nature reserve evaporated as Londoners celebrated with almost savage abandon, showing a generous hospitality to international visitors that was not always evident in the past.
It is probably only the Olympics that could achieve this.