Stop the Olympics.
It’s time to press pause and reimagine them. Maybe even give them up for good.
When I wrote that in April and asked for suggestions on how to fix the Games, readers responded in droves with ideas for how the Olympics could evolve to remain relevant and, yes, morally defensible in future years.
It did not take long for a consensus to emerge.
Readers questioned the ethics of holding the Tokyo Games during a summer in which Japan is still grappling hard with the coronavirus pandemic.
They lamented the long Olympic history of bloated budgets, the doping and bribery scandals, the forced removal of residents in host cities to make way for massive new venues, the decision to award the Games to countries with autocratic regimes and shoddy human rights histories, like Russia and China. And that’s just for starters.
Last week the Olympic movement’s image took another hit with the announcement that the star American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson might miss the Games because, horror of horrors, she had been suspended a month for marijuana use.
Still, give the Olympics up for good? That idea didn’t fly. But most readers were not happy with the notion of a future that keeps the status quo.
“When it gets down to it, removing all the trouble, the Games are a celebration of humanity and can be a tremendous force for good,” said Dick Roth of Park City, Utah. He should know. Now 73, Roth won a swimming gold medal for the United States during the last Tokyo Summer Olympics, in 1964.
When I reached him by phone last week, Roth spoke of the connections he made with swimmers from Russia and Japan and of a sense of humanity that he believes has energized his life ever since.
But he was also cleareyed about the fact that time had altered everything, not for the better, and that now the Olympic movement must dramatically alter its course.
Start at the top, with the Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee, which lords over the Games with an amazing tone deafness.
“The I.O.C. from its very beginning comes from the culture of the upper classes in Europe,” Roth said. “They are so out of touch. They need to realize it’s not all about the money, not all about the galas. It’s about the athletes. The competition. That’s what is getting lost.”
It’s not just former athletes who know something is amiss. Carrie Davis, 42, a Spanish teacher in Denver, rarely pays much attention to other sporting events. But ever since she watched the gymnast Mary Lou Retton at the 1984 Summer Games, Davis’s deep reverence for the Olympics has been tradition, one she now shares with her three young children.
These days, though, she worries that the Games are causing more harm than good.
“Let’s face it, the Olympics need some serious changes right now,” she said.
The recommendations she gave echoed what I heard with drumbeat regularity from readers:
No more Olympics hosts with terrible human rights records. No more excess driven by the insatiable desire for shimmering new venues at every stop. The Tokyo Games will cost about $15.4 billion, roughly twice what was expected and more than any other Summer Olympics.
“Nothing that is simply going to benefit rich people and hurt the poor,” Davis said. “Use what’s already in existence, and that’s it. Nothing more.”
I was heartened to hear a significant groundswell of support for an Olympics that smashes the single-city model. In this vision, the events would be held in previously built venues and spread across an entire continent, or across the whole globe. Think swimming in Sydney, boxing in New York, track and field in Eugene, Ore.
Emily Douglas, a 30-year-old bank fraud investigator from Atlanta, took to the idea.
“What’s the benefit of having all of the Games in one place, in one country?” said Douglas, who has fond memories of the 1996 Summer Games in her native city. “Is it in one place so we can have the opening and closing ceremony? Well, those are fine, but to me they are not the highlights of the Olympics. It’s all about the competition, and that can take place anywhere.”
Spreading out the Games could decrease corruption in the bidding process. It could even lessen the power of the I.O.C. to hold a single city or country captive to its whims.
“Decentralize the Games, absolutely,” said George Hirsch, the chairman of the board of New York Road Runners, the organization that oversees the New York Marathon. Hirsch attended his first Games in Helsinki during the summer of 1952.
“We would strip down these enormous costs and commercialism of the Games,” he said. “I put all of this in the category of putting the Games back on a human scale. ”
It’s likely, though, that discussion of what the Olympics should look like, where and how they should be held, is fiddling around the real problem. It surprised me to hear how uniformly distrusted the organizers of the Games are.
I didn’t hear much defense of the I.O.C., a putative nonprofit that reaps riches from the Games while ruling with an elitist, autocratic aloofness that is several decades behind the times.
To wit, the continuing efforts to control athlete protests at the Games.
Consider, too, Richardson’s suspension, announced by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency. A draconian penalty for marijuana no longer makes sense. But if you’re waiting for the Olympic overlords, among the most powerful forces in all of sports, to firmly back Richardson, well, wait on.
In the Olympic movement, the athletes are mere pawns.
Yes, we can alter the way the Games look. But unless the I.O.C. is completely revamped, what will truly change about the entire undertaking?
Plenty of Japanese residents would undoubtedly agree. As polls show that a majority of them do not want the Games to go on this summer, while the pandemic continues, the residents have had to endure a steady slew of thoughtless comments from the czars on the Olympic Committee. For example, one member told The Evening of Standard of London that the Tokyo Games would take place this summer, “barring Armageddon.” That’s one hell of a message to send the only nation on earth to experience the horror of a nuclear war.
“People are resigned to the idea that the Olympics are going to go ahead, but people are disgusted and also afraid,” said Koichi Nakano, who teaches political science at Sophia University in Tokyo.
He said the I.O.C. was creating that fear.
The Japanese people, Professor Nakano said, believe that the Games would be reconsidered more seriously if the host city were London or Paris and the local residents were objecting as strenuously.
“So, we have this sense,” he said, “of an unaccountable, European, snobbish group of people looking down upon Japan.”
“The Tokyo Games,” he added, “need to be canceled.”
Professor Nakano was right. Not that the Olympic overlords will listen. When have they ever done that?