From global politics to the pandemic, problems abound for the Tokyo Games. Next year, when Beijing hosts the Winter Olympics, things could get messier still.
BEIJING — After a five-year wait, the Tokyo Olympics are finally underway, but the challenges remain palpable. Delayed for a full year, the event has been agony for Japan, audience ratings are down to all all-time low, and politics continue to cast a shadow over what is supposed to be the world's premiere sporting event.
Three days before the Games began, the International Olympic Committee, the IOC, voted on July 20 to add the word "together" to the Olympic motto "Faster, Higher, Stronger." This is the first time in more than 100 years that the motto has been changed, underscoring the fact that in the context of the pandemic, the global political environment has become more complex. The political meaning behind this addition is obvious.
The Olympics can never be separated from politics. Even without going further back in history, there were several boycotts of the Olympic Games in the latter half of the 20th century. Such was the case with the 1980 Moscow Games, when the U.S.-led Western countries launched a boycott and dozens of other countries, including China, joined in, and with the Los Angeles Games four years after that, when the Soviet Union, East Germany and many other socialist countries refused to participate.
The myth that the Games are apolitical has been well and truly dashed by their involvement in grubby geopolitics.
Tokyo 2020 comes with its own complicated backdrop of world geopolitics, especially with regards to Sino-U.S. and Russian-U.S. relations. Adding to the unrest are issues related to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
This April, the IOC banned protests and campaigns during Tokyo 2020, but the rules were changed in July, allowing athletes to kneel in protest before the games, but prohibiting actions during the games and on the podium, including wearing clothes with the BLM slogan. Early on in the Games, Hong Kong badminton player Angus Ng Ka Long was caught in controversy as he was wearing a black shirt in combat, and many claimed that a black shirt relates to the protests in Hong Kong, therefore making it a political act.
LGBTQ issues are at play as well. The Tokyo Games mark the first formal admission of transgender athletes, and in total, 135 participants belonging to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender community are competing. The emergence of transgender athletes has drawn widespread skepticism, though most critics take issue with the IOC, rather than the athletes themselves. They accuse the Committee of compromising fairness. Supporters, on the other hand, argue that the participation of transgender athletes paves the way for a more inclusive future in sports and can inspire young LGBTQ people around the world.
Female athlete participation in Tokyo 2020 stands at 49%, a great achievement for gender equality. And for the first time in history, the IOC required participating delegations to have at least one female and one male athlete, and encouraged delegations to have one male and one female flag bearer at the opening ceremony. In addition, nine new mixed-gender events were added to the Olympic Games, including mixed pairs table tennis and mixed swimming and running relays.
"There's considerable tension between the notions of fairness and inclusion, and the desire and need to protect the women's category," the IOC acknowledged in a statement published by CNN.
Fireworks during the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony — Photo: Daniel A. Anderson/ZUMA Press Wire
The Olympics are caught in a dilemma, in other words, over whether to be more inclusive or more protective of women's rights. Many fear that the fame and fortune that come with the Olympics will encourage more men to compete as transgender, and that women, who have always aspired to gender equality, will ultimately pay the price.
There's another shadow on the horizon, as talk has already surfaced in some Western countries about boycotting the Beijing 2022 winter games. China, for its part, strongly opposes "politicizing sports." So far, there are no IOC members or athletes joining the boycott in public but many reports suggest that the U.S. and the EU are preparing bills to resist Beijing. There's also been pressure on British government officials and members of the royal family not to attend.
Even without a formal boycott, this tense political environment will still be projected onto the Olympic world, and that can have a direct impact on sports, as exemplified by the National Baseball Association's situation in China. This is not a big international picture that the IOC is happy to face.
"The myth that the Games are apolitical has been well and truly dashed by their involvement in grubby geopolitics. The way they sanitize despotic regimes make us all unwittingly complicit in repression," columnist Melanie Phillips wrote in the British daily The Times.
The good old days
It's worth, therefore, asking the question of how humanity welcomed the modern Olympics in the first place. "The inauguration of the revived Olympic games today was a delight to the eye and an impressive appeal to the imagination," The New York Times reported in 1896.
The modern Olympics, wrapped as they were in the banner of idealism, were a phenomenal success.
It was a beautiful moment of history that lasted two weeks, wrapped in the aristocratic atmosphere of Europe, and that coincided with the so-called Belle Époque, the "Gilded Age" of European and North American optimism and colonial romance. It was also the golden age of the World's Fair, a time of social dynamism. Those first modern Games, in Greece, came at the right time, in other words. And although only 241 white men competed, the marathon event drew 80,000 spectators to the Pan-Athenian Stadium.
The modern Olympics, wrapped as they were in the banner of idealism, were a phenomenal success. And in the century that followed, the Games — despite being repeatedly hit hard by politics — were still seen as a common dream by athletes around the world. As time went on, the Olympics also became a valuable and successful commodity.
Even so, critics still believe that the event is trapped in time. As The Japan Times suggested: "It is a 19th century construct floating through a 21st century world."
Japan's Naohisa Takato defeats Kazakhstan's Yeldos Smetov in the men's judo semifinal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. — Photo: David G. Mcintyre/ZUMA
In an interview, former U.S. table tennis player Han Xiao described the Games as a system that is completely separate from the rest of society. "And that's where a lot of the problems come in, whether it's with corruption or imbalances in power that lead to athlete abuse or human rights violations," he said. "If you're not keeping up with the advances that other areas of society are making, or you're not subject to the oversight of society as a whole, it's kind of predictable that these things are going to happen."
This then leads us to a question worth pondering: Does humanity still need a sporting event with such a hefty program and bloated schedule?
For the many people struggling right now, there is no way to watch the Olympics with pleasure.
Truth be told, people may not really need the Olympics that much anymore. Many of the events aren't all that exciting, and the schedule is dense. All of that affects the viewing experience. It appears, in other words, that the Olympics are gradually losing their meaning. Their idealistic color is faded. They're no longer a symbol of world peace, and their importance as a source of national pride has diminished.
And then there's the pandemic, which has widely affected the global economy. For the many people across the world who are struggling right now, there is no way to watch the Olympics with pleasure. The modern Games were a product of the "good times." But now, in this not-so-good time — coupled with all the other problems affecting the event — the Olympics find themselves inevitably on a dangerous and rugged road.