Crisis is engulfing the postponed Tokyo 2020 Games – but does the world still need the Olympics?

TV ratings for the Olympics have steadily fallen, especially among the young – as a crisis of relevance and the issues around hosting become too big to ignore.  

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There is no Plan B,” Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told the world on 21 January 2021 amid speculation that this summer’s Tokyo Olympics might be cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic. Unfortunately, this is exactly what Games organisers were saying last March, shortly before being forced to postpone the 2020 games until this year. A small piece of advice to President Bach: probably best not to tell everyone there isn’t a Plan B when you’re already on Plan B.

But logistical semantics is the least of the IOC’s problems. Bach insists that the Games can go ahead as planned, but all around him evidence to the contrary seems to be accumulating. Tokyo is in a state of emergency following a rise in Covid-19 cases over the winter. Japan still hasn’t begun its mass vaccination programme, and will be the last major industrial nation to do so. A Kyodo News poll found that around 80 per cent of the Japanese public were in favour of postponing or cancelling the Games.

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In an attempt to reclaim the narrative, organisers have issued a “Covid playbook” to athletes and officials outlining how they intend to ensure safety. Sightseeing, shopping, using public transport and socialising within the Olympic Village will all be banned. And yet, as the months tick down, the idea of allowing 11,000 athletes (and at least as many coaches, officials, VIPs and media) to congregate in one of the world’s most crowded cities, before sending them all back home again, appears less like a global carnival of sport and more like a giant germ rave.

Even now, a year into the pandemic, after all the other forestalments and deprivations we have endured, the prospect of a cancelled Olympics feels too big and complex to compute. Eight years without a Summer Games. Thousands of careers ruined. Entire sports, many of which are dependent on the Olympic cycle for funding and relevance, in danger of collapse.

The crisis currently engulfing Tokyo 2020 seems to encapsulate all sorts of other questions. How far should health be weighed against happiness? To what extent is sport bound to uphold and fulfil the dreams of athletes who have devoted their lives to it? And, perhaps most crucially of all: well, this whole business of inviting literally every country in the world to gather in a single city. For two weeks. To do sport. Should we perhaps reflect on this a little?

For most members of the older generation, the status of the Olympics has not been in question. In many respects, the past three decades have been the golden age, marrying spectacular commercial success with unparalleled global resonance. Of course, there has still been plenty of scandal, graft and corruption, dishonesty and unfairness, exploitation and waste. But for most of this period, the ideal of the Olympics as a vital and unifying human phenomenon – perhaps even as a net force for good – felt inexorable and went largely unchallenged.

But what’s been true for that generation may not necessarily hold for the next. Television audiences for the Olympics have been steadily falling. The next Summer Games will not be broadcast exclusively on the BBC, which will instead lease a couple of live streams from the pay-TV channel and rights holder Eurosport. In the United States, meanwhile, NBC’s ratings for the 2016 Rio Games declined so much from London 2012 – particularly among younger viewers – that it had to offer advertisers extra slots to compensate.

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Yet while its audience contracts, the Olympics seems determined to keep growing. The number of competitors in the Summer Games increased by a third between Seoul 1988 and Rio 2016, while the number of sports has swollen from 23 in Seoul to 33 for Tokyo, including the new disciplines of karate, surfing, skateboarding and climbing (with breakdancing poised to join the party at Paris 2024).

In large part this seems to be an admission that the traditional Olympic programme – modern pentathlon, fencing, equestrianism, sailing and all the rest – seems increasingly anachronistic to younger generations. Bach has even talked up the possibility of embracing e-sports, riling many of the traditionalists within the Olympic movement.

And so: who is the modern Olympics really for? Certainly not the hosts. The cost of Tokyo 2021 has rocketed; away from the headline figures, Japanese government audits suggest the overall costs have risen from £5.5bn at the time of the bid in 2013 to around £18.3bn today. The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing will take place in the shadow of the country’s numerous human rights abuses, and with the real threat of athlete and sponsor boycotts. The 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics were awarded uncontested to Paris and Los Angeles, the only two cities who wanted to host them.

This is nothing short of a crisis of relevance, one that pre-dated the pandemic but which, like many forces, has sharply accelerated as a result of it. The void of a cancelled Olympics currently looks like the worst outcome. But, taking the long view,  would a joyless bubble-Olympics played out as a made-for-television masquerade against a backdrop of empty seats and without many of its biggest stars (and you could well imagine the pandemonium that would ensue from even a few positive Covid tests) really be any better?

The great sadness is that at its best, the Olympics can represent the best of us. A celebration of diversity and achievement and congregation and the human body: how badly we could do with all of this at the moment. Yes, the world definitely needs the Olympics. But maybe, on reflection, it doesn’t need this one. 

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Jonathan Liew is a sports writer at the Guardian 

This article appears in the 10 February 2021 issue of the New Statesman, End of the affair

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