Conceived as an embodiment of fair play and to showcase the best of human endeavour, the Olympics has, instead, long been tainted by scandal, hypocrisy, arrogance and money lust.
Not only have the Games always been inherently skewed, with the balance of power and finance overwhelmingly in favour of rich old suits over (mostly) struggling young athletes, they have also added legitimacy to some of humanity’s worst tyrants.
While this divide is nothing new, in three weeks we will experience something unique. An Olympic Games that’s not only missing fans from around the globe in the stands, but will take place without many supporters of the concept at all in the host city.
It seems a critical moment for the Olympic movement, and its future, with many dissenters believing the Games, as an event, has run its race.
“The Olympics kill the poor, they accelerate inequality, policing, and displacement everywhere,” says NOlympics LA, an action group set up to fight the Games going to Los Angeles in 2028.
“They are gambling with global public health, and the world is rejecting them.”
While IOC leaders Thomas Bach and John Coates have caused some offence in Japan with their nsistence that the show will go on at any cost, there was a glimmer of hope this weekend that they may at least be prepared to cede some power to that show’s stars, with concessions made over potential protests.
Hosting an Olympics is ridiculously costly and disruptive to many layers of the host society. The Associated Press reported the Rio Olympics cost the Brazilian government $17 billion and many of the venues are unused wastelands today.
But as parties go, an Olympics can be as good as it gets, as anyone who found themselves at the Heineken Bar, Darling Harbour at 4am on any random day in late September 2000 can attest.
With billions of dollars in play, the Olympic hierarchy has marched towards the starting line again despite widespread condemnation by the understandably COVID-fearing citizens of Japan – including polls showing 80 percent disapproval – and some of the event’s biggest domestic corporate sponsors.
With Tokyo under a state of emergency, and Japan having suffered 14,788 COVID deaths, no one on those islands is thinking about the party, just stressing about what horrors the unwanted guests might bring.
In the past, Olympic leaders have swatted aside links to dictators, and inquests into their corruption to preserve their place at the top of the tree, or, rather, the top of the world’s most expensive hotels. This time they haven’t let COVID or the people of Japan.
In 1936 it was thought that Adolf Hitler had failed to acknowledge the black American sprinter Jesse Owens when he dominated in front of the Fuhrer in Berlin. Owens, though, later revealed he was more disappointed in his own president Franklin D. Roosevelt.
“Hitler didn’t snub me—it was [Roosevelt] who snubbed me,” Owens said. “The president didn’t even send me a telegram.”
Not only that, Roosevelt invited white Olympians from the 1936 Games to visit the White House, but none of the 18 black athletes were extended an invitation. It wasn’t until 2016 that Barack Obama made some belated amends, welcoming the snubbed athletes’ relatives at the same White House.
At the 1968 Games, two African American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos held their fists aloft in what was described as a black power salute (although Smith later described it as a “human rights” salute).
They were joined on the podium, after the 200m final, by Australian silver medallist Peter Norman, who kept his fists by his side but wore a human rights badge on his green and gold tracksuit.
The IOC ruled Smith and Carlos were guilty of “a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit.”
The IOC president Avery Brundage, who had the American athletes expelled from the 1968 Olympics, had been president of the United States Olympic Committee 32 years earlier and had backed the right of Hitler and others to proffer Nazi salutes during the 1936 Games.
Norman – who became involved in indigenous rights causes on his return home – was ostracised from the Australian Olympic movement.
He never represented Australia at an Olympics again (although did go to the 1970 Commonwealth Games), and while a case could be made for his non selection on results, none could be made for the way he was eliminated from the conversation.
It wasn’t until October 9, 2019, 13 years to the day after Smith and Carlos carried his coffin to its final resting place, that Norman was finally honoured with a statue in Albert Park Melbourne.
Mark down my own relationship with the Olympics as complicated. As a 14-year-old middle distance runner I stayed up all hours, sitting on the brown shagpile carpet of my suburban Brisbane bedroom (climbing into bed would have been fatal mistake), gripped by the ABC radio’s calls of the Moscow Olympics 800m and 1500m battles between Seb Coe and Steve Ovett, oblivious to the decision by many countries and athletes to boycott those games over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
Those broadcasts, along with the cricket Tests of the day and the magnificence of Wally Lewis in a Fortitude Valleys jersey, are why I’m still sitting here tapping out words for cash.
And the Games since then – of which I have been to four – have given me some of my greatest life experiences.
I can still feel a jolt when I think of Spanish archer Antonio Rebollo sending his flaming arrow through the cauldron at the 1992 opening ceremony.
I’ll never forget jumping the fence at the closing ceremony to get on the field to interview Australian athletes.
And I just can’t shake – no matter how hard I try – the mental image of the Oarsome Foursome rowing team striding down Barcelona’s majestic Las Ramblas wearing nothing but budgie smugglers and red and yellow surf lifesaving caps hours after that closing ceremony. Let’s just say ‘coxless four’ did them a disservice.
In 1996, I was bashing out some words about javelin silver medallist Louise McPaul, when my AAP colleague Louise Evans punched me in the arm and demanded I stop and watch Michael Johnson break the 200m world record.
I can shut my eyes now and see the explosion of camera flashes, hear the insane noise. That same week, out the back of the Atlanta main stadium stands, I stood pinned to a wall as Muhammad Ali drifted up the hall, dozens of people crushing in close on him, stuck tight like barnacles on an old shipwreck that was moving across the ocean floor.
In 2000 it was sitting above the home straight to cheer Cathy home, and sitting stunned to see Eric the Eel labouring up the length of the pool, thinking, ‘is someone going to jump in and save the poor sod’?
In 2016 I got to go back one more time with Fox Sports. High above the finish line at the main track to see Usain Bolt win it all, there to watch Michael Phelps glide over water, sitting behind Neymar’s freekick in the gold medal game at the Maracana, craning my neck in the mixed zone to hear what Andrew Bogut was saying way up there.
So, I’m no enemy of the Olympics. It’s just its politics I can’t stand and never could.
In September 1999 (22 years ago!), I wrote a story for The AP that started like this:
“SYDNEY, Australia — Ian Thorpe broke a world swimming record at the Pan Pacific Championships while Phil Coles watched from a private box, eating sushi and drinking white wine.
“Yet the crowds cared much more about Australia’s star athlete than the disgraced Olympics official.
“And that’s just fine with organisers of the Sydney Games.”
IOC officials have enjoyed a lot of sushi and white wine in lot of glamorous towns the past 22 years, while the fans have been distracted by the athletes.
The wife of Coles, an Australian IOC executive, admitted receiving gold and diamond jewellery from a man involved in Athens’ failed bid for the 1996 Olympics. Coles was also accused of receiving $64,000 as part of a voting scandal that saw the 2002 Winter Olympics given to Salt Lake City and predicated a change in rules for the bid process.
Coles denied any wrongdoing and stayed in the IOC until 2011, becoming an honorary member in 2012.
Check out his Wikipedia page. I just did. There is not one single mention of any of those scandals. That is elite online reputation management.
The IOC, and their powerful national affiliates, have never been a world leader in athletes’ rights, or their right to a voice, although there was an encouraging, albeit slight, shift in tone this week.
They released new guidelines offering Olympians a chance to “express their views” before the start of a competition, including during athlete introductions. The change means athletes can take a knee, raise a fist or make another symbolic gesture, as footballers have being doing in the English Premier League and Euros.
Pointedly, however, the podium is to stay free of demonstrations of any kind.
“The small but symbolically significant concession softened the IOC’s longstanding rule against protest at the Games, but it fell short of what many athletes, including many from the United States, had called for in recent months,” reported The New York Times on Saturday.
“The IOC’s firm stance against any forms of protest or activism had seemed to put it at odds with rapidly changing attitudes across the sports world, particularly in North America, where scores of athletes — everywhere from the professional ranks to small town high schools — felt compelled to join the broader protest movement against racism and police brutality that filled the streets of American cities last summer and soon spread around the world.”
We can only wait and see if athletes are mollified by the change, and what the IOC decides to do when their relaxed rules are broken, as they surely will be.
Last month US sprinter Noah Lyles wore a black glove and raised his fist before a 100m race, echoing Smith and Carlos.
“We’re still dying in the streets,” Lyles said. “Just because we stopped talking about it in the news or just because the Olympics are going on, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. I am black.”
While the IOC has taken a step towards the athletes, it’s clear they have a lot more ground to make up before they walking side by side with them on many issues.
Last week American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson was banned from the 100m event after she admitted to smoking marijuana, having heard her mother had died.
“It definitely triggered (me),” she told the Today Show. “From there, just blinded by emotions, blinded by badness, blinded by just hurting. Hiding hurt, honestly. I know I can’t hide myself, so at least in some type of way, I’ll just try to hide my pain.”
Sure, 100 percent, she should have known better, should have known the risks to her Olympic place, even though pot is legalised in 18 US states including the one where she took it – Colorado.
But as The AP’s Tokyo correspondent Stephen Wade put it on Twitter…
American Sha’Carri Richardson isn’t allowed to run 100 in Tokyo — she smoked some weed — but Russia can send 300 athletes to Tokyo Olympics despite Russia’s systematic state-backed doping system. Remember. Russia was to be barred from Olympics. But not really. IOC Hypocrisy.
— Stephen Wade (@StephenWadeAP) July 3, 2021