The Tokyo Olympics: athletic brilliance but mixed legacy

Carlton Joseph

By: Carlton Joseph

The Tokyo Olympics, which started one year later than planned, and took place while Tokyo was in a state of emergency because of the coronavirus pandemic, concluded with a spectacular closing ceremony with the theme “Worlds We Share.” 

In spite of calls for a cancellation or second postponement because of a resurging pandemic, and plagued by months of administrative problems, unprecedented logistical and medical obstacles, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese government decided that “the show must go on.”  And it did, under what might be the new normal if the world population is not protected from the mutations of the coronavirus.

It is considered a great honor for a country to host this spectacular event that most of the world’s population eagerly watches, but hosting the event costs billions of dollars that taxpayers in the host country must pay.  Politicians spend as much as 100 million in consulting fees just to bid to host the Olympics, hoping to make a profit from the event.  If you don’t win the bid, the financial pain is experienced taxpayers, if you win the, profits from the event rarely or never find their way into government coffers.

Regardless, Olympics is a multi-sporting event that captures the imagination of people around the world. It doesn’t matter if one is a sports enthusiast or a “couch potato,” or whether your country sent a team or didn’t win a medal, everyone is involved mentally, physically and emotionally.

The gold, silver and bronze medals awarded to competitors at the games represent the highest levels of athletic achievement. Additionally, for Caribbean and other small countries, it’s an opportunity to be on the world stage and get name recognition.  For the large countries, it’s an opportunity to demonstrate that their particular form of government or economic system is superior.  For them, medals are proof that their systems and way of life are “superior.”

Olympics is a microcosm of the world; this year all 197 countries plus nine National Olympic Committee (NOC) countries participated.  The IOC, hoping to send a message of hope to all refugees, allowed, for the first time, 29 refugees who lacked “the right to compete”, representing 13 nationalities to compete as the Refugee Olympic Team. 

The growth of the Olympics has created numerous challenges and controversies including doping, boycotts and bribery. It also exposed the enormous pressure placed on athletes to compete hard and succeed at almost any cost. In return the athletes gets an opportunity to attain national and sometimes international fame and fortune.

The Olympics has been used by Athletes to protest against the IOC, against racial discrimination in their countries or supporting discriminatory practices outside their countries.  Despite the IOC re-affirmed that it would not allow any kind of protest, it later allowed athletes to engage in “non-disruptive” demonstrations.

US Silver medal winner Raven Saunders, and bronze medal winner fencer Race Imboden protested with an X, Saunders explained that the X represents “the intersection of where all people who are oppressed meet.” Also, US women’s soccer team and players from across the globe took a knee in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. 

These Games exposed and generated serious conversations about mental health when gymnast Simone Biles, considered the world’s best gymnast, stunned the world when she withdrew from the team gymnastic final, citing the emotional toll of the games.  After psychological counselling and family tragedy, Biles fought back her fears and returned to the balance beam competition to win a bronze medal.

Canada, known for its winter sport dominance, improved its performance over the 2016 summer Olympics, placing 11th in medal standings, winning 24 medals including 7 gold.  Jamaica, as usual performed well above her population size, winning 9 medals, including 4 gold medals; Bahamas won 4 medals including 2 gold.  Cuba and Venezuela, despite US sanctions, won a total of 19 medals.  Cuba won 15, including 7 gold, Venezuela 4 including 1 gold.

As the Tokyo Olympic came to an end and the pro-athletes and cameras depart the country, Tokyo must now try to find new purposes for the Olympic venues.  Historically, most Olympic venues don’t find new uses and are abandoned, graffitied or repurposed at significant costs; sometimes they comes in handy as tourist attractions.  I recall visiting the winter Olympic Village in South Korea, now a tourist attraction.  What a colossal waste of money, empty luxury hotels, closed up restaurants and a ghost village. 

In Brazil, the venues were abandoned after the 2016 games even as  Brazil’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) contracted by 3.3% in order to stage the games.  Russian taxpayers will pay almost $1 billion annually for many years to come to pay off the debt from the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi. Athens spent $15 billion hosting the 2004 Olympics; no doubt it contributed significantly to Greece’s massive debt crisis that followed.  It took 30 years for Montreal to the clear the debt it incurred in hosting the 1976 Olympics.  

Initially, five cities submitted bids for the 2021 summer Olympics – Paris, Los Angeles, Budapest, Rome and Hamburg.  When three cities withdrew, it was agreed that Paris will host 2024 and LA the 2028 Games.  This is a precursor for future Games.  Cities are realizing that unless it has the existing infrastructure to support the Games, hosting is a money hemorrhaging endeavor.

It is time for the IOC to reevaluate the bidding war approach to hosting the Olympics.  It’s obscene to expect cities to spend $5 to $50 billion in unneeded infrastructure to host a 2 weeks event.  Also, the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions reported that the Olympics displaced more than two million people over two decades, often disproportionately affecting disadvantaged groups.

Hosting the Games is economically and financially extremely risky and yield relatively few tangible benefits in return.  The Olympics have been hosted on every continent except Africa and unless the IOC decides to spend its own money to develop the infrastructure like roads, upgraded airports, rail lines, housing for athletes, 40, 000 or more available hotel rooms, and special facilities for the events, African countries should not bid to host this event. 

IOC claims that the games provide an opportunity to bridge divides and build unity amongst citizens within and across nations.  Poor countries believe that hosting heralds the country’s arrival on the world stage.  Economic reality is that the only winners are the IOC and the multinational and national corporations that specialize in building these massive infrastructure projects.

The IOC needs to identify 5 permanent venues that has the necessary sporting infrastructure, transportation, communications, hospitality infrastructure for the summer and winter Olympics.  One of the venues should be in Africa and the IOC should bear the cost for developing the needed infrastructure.

The Tokyo games revealed that modern technology can take the Olympics to the rest of the world, and that the games can go on even in a pandemic.  The permanent venues approach would then make economic sense, be environmentally friendly, and allow for effective planning and implementation. 

IOC must acknowledge that no matter the geo-political, cultural or economic background of the athletes, the Games give everyone a feeling of belonging to something much larger than themselves or their countries.   A feeling of belonging to one beautiful world.