Dogged by corruption and politics, the Olympic Games may seem outmoded. But their ideals survive, and the Games motivate athletes and excite fans.
Greek actress Xanthi Georgiou lights the Olympic Torch, Athens, Greece, 19 March 2020. (EPA-EFE/ARIS MESSINIS / POOL)
Until COVID-19 uprooted life as we know it, the place of the Olympic Games at the pinnacle of the international sports calendar looked unshakeable.
Yet the postponement of last year’s Summer Games in Tokyo and rumblings over their uncertain future have prompted a previously barely whispered question: “What is the point of the Olympics?”
Burdened by their chequered history and weighed down by puzzling traditions, the Olympic Games’ survival into the 21st Century seems a modern miracle when viewed under the spotlight.
If the Olympics did not exist, would there be a clamour to invent them? That’s a tough question to answer in the affirmative.
Yet, I suggest it would be unwise to underestimate the validity of the Olympics or their unique values.
The Olympic Games refuse to give up on their ideals.
First, full disclosure. I am an unabashed Olympics fan. As a journalist, I covered 17 Summer and Winter Games between 1984 and 2014. I saw first-hand how laudibly high-minded sporting ideals can fall foul of drug cheats, corrupt officials and unprincipled coaches.
I have witnessed well-intended attempts by Olympic chiefs to promote peaceful political initiatives come to a grinding halt.
But, like a dogged athlete who turns failures into eventual success, the Olympic movement refuses to give up on its ideals. I think this is what I admire most.
With the exception of the minority who declare no interest in sport, most of us took inspiration when we were young from sporting heroes. I looked to Hungarian soccer captain Ferenc Puskas, Brazilian tennis star Maria Bueno and Australian middle-distance runner Herb Elliott.
But few of us realise that the sporting hero pre-dates the modern mass media by some 2,000 years and is rooted in the Ancient Olympics.
Athletes were feted throughout Greece.
Recognised as beginning in Greece in 776 BCE, the Games were at once a test of sporting excellence, a political tool used by city states to assert dominance over rivals, a religious festival and an excuse for a huge party.
Staged at Olympia every four years, the Games endured for more than 1,000 years until they were banned for religious reasons in 394 CE.
Contestants had to be male — and were obliged to prove it by competing naked. There were races, throwing disciplines, combat sports and eventually equestrian events, including chariot racing.
Early sporting heroes included runner Leonidas of Rhodes, who won 12 gold medals, a feat unrivalled until American swimmer Michael Phelps secured his 13th Olympic title in 2016.
Leonidas and other victors such as wrestler Milo of Croton and boxer Theagenes of Thasos were feted for their deeds throughout the Greek world with the same hero worship major athletes receive today.
Elements of amateur days remain.
The idea of a modern Olympics was the brainchild of French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, an idealist who saw the importance of promoting physical education among the young. He believed athletic competition could promote cross-cultural understanding and peace, and he was convinced there was nobility in the struggle to overcome an opponent.
For de Coubertan, doing one’s best was more important than winning.
Through 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 look outmoded. He followed the ancients in seeing sport as the preserve of males, and no women participated in the inaugural 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 bar paid athletes, and some, notably boxing and wrestling, did so for some time.
Still, elements of the amateur days remain. Advertising billboards, commonplace in sports arenas everywhere, are not allowed in Olympic stadiums. Sponsor names are not displayed on team kit, and no prize money is paid by organisers to 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 staged without sponsors. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) raises a large part of its funds from selling marketing rights to a handful of global corporations, such as Coca-Cola, in deals worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
Prize money may not be on offer, but many individual national Olympic Committees pay athletes lucrative bonuses for the medals they win.
A touchy relationship with politics
If the Olympics have a slightly awkward relationship with money, they have an even more delicate one with global politics.
The Games provided a surrogate 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, notably East Germany, poured resources into sport to demonstrate the supposed superiority of the Communist system over the Capitalist West.
Promising athletes were identified at young ages and introduced into a state system of full-time training, while being labeled students, soldiers or state employees to skirt a ban on professionals. There were always widespread suspicions of state-sponsored doping programmes, some of which came to light years later.
The tensions exploded with tit-for-tat boycotts in the 1980s. First, the United States and some other Western nations refused to take part 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 Olympics in Los Angeles.
The Olympics were already on their knees after a Palestinian assault on the Israeli team at the 1972 Olympics in Munich had ended in a deadly shootout with German police. Eleven Israeli team members died as well as five of the Black September guerrilla group and one policeman.
Four years later, most African nations refused to take part in the 1976 Montreal Games to protest against a New Zealand rugby tour of then apartheid South Africa.
Some grand gestures flopped.
The Olympics might well have gone under. That they did not is often attributed to the calm leadership and diplomatic skill of Spaniard Juan Antonio Samaranch, who took over as IOC president in 1980, introduced reforms and stayed for more than two decades.
Nevertheless, some IOC grand gestures flopped. Seoul was awarded the 1988 Olympics in the hope that this would lead to the reunification of North and South Korea. In the end, despite some frantic diplomatic activity, North Korea declined to participate, and the opportunity disappeared.
Twenty years later, for similar reasons, the 2008 Games went to Beijing in the hope that this would lead to the opening up of China to the world and increased respect for human rights within its borders.
It all went wrong early on when China’s pledge to allow free internet access turned out to be not what it seemed. Internet access within the Olympics was not matched elsewhere in the country, with restrictions retained among the population in general.
The IOC itself has hardly been beyond reproach.
In 1998, a whistle-blower revealed that members of the IOC had taken bribes or received gifts from officials of the Salt Lake City Olympic bid team for the 2002 Winter Games. The affair lifted the lid on an ongoing scandal around Olympic bids. Ten IOC members were expelled, 10 more sanctioned and reforms were made to ensure no repeat.
There have been great successes.
But it would be wrong to dwell on failures when there have been great successes. Progressive strides have been made on gender equality towards the ideal of a 50-50 split between male and female competitors. At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, there were more than 5,000 female athletes, some 47% of the total.
The Olympic movement has been a world leader in disabled sport. The Paralympic Games, which started in 1960, have become a huge global event, with more than 4,000 athletes participating in the last Summer event in Rio.
My personal conversion to the Olympics started with a reporting assignment to the Olympic village in Sarajevo in 1984. Seeing the excitement of hundreds of Olympic athletes from all over the world eating together in a mass canteen, playing ping pong and exchanging experiences despite language barriers was eye-opening.
There are exceptions, but to this day most Olympic athletes prefer living in a village with thousands of international competitors rather than being isolated in a five-star hotel. It is hard to imagine a better way to promote international friendship among young people.
The unique atmosphere of an Olympics permeates host cities. I never imagined that the vibrant ambience I had witnessed in Barcelona, Sydney or Vancouver would prevail when in 2012 the Olympics came to my then home city of London.
But Britons’ natural reserve evaporated as Londoners celebrated with almost wild abandon, showing generous hospitality to international visitors that was not always evident in the past.
It is probably only the Olympic Games that could achieve that.
Three questions to consider:
- Can the Olympics justify its leading place on the world stage or has it become too costly, unwieldy and environmentally unfriendly?
- Should the Games be awarded only to countries with a strong human rights record?
- Should athletes found guilty of doping or other forms of cheating be barred for life, or should they be allowed to take part in the Games after they have completed a term of suspension?
Former global sports editor at Reuters, Paul Radford has covered 17 Olympic Games, seven World Cups and numerous world championships in more than 20 sports. He was sports editor for 12 years at the end of a career that included assignments in Germany and Paris. Formerly a consultant to the International Olympic Committee, he served on the IOC’s press commission for 15 years and was editor-in-chief of the official Olympic News service at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.