#Tokyo2020: Rings of Failure

By Lucy Wormald (she/her)

I remember watching the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Summer Olympic Games. I was fourteen. The lights were low and I was sitting on the edge of my beanbag, with bated breath, eyes like saucers. The magnitude of creativity and stupendous effort of the ceremony, for the sake of beauty and brilliance and utter celebration, was moving. In all my innocence, I cried, oddly touched by the humanity of our world coming together to acknowledge our own grandeur.


I remember watching Mo Farah run in the Men’s 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres, unbridled joy in his eyes. I remember watching Usain Bolt win three gold medals. I remember the force of Nicola Adams.


Whenever the Olympics come up in conversation I always find myself fiercely declaring my love for them. I am sold on the dream, drunk on its ideals. But this year, things feel different.


The opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics was guarded. And so was my reaction. A little older, a little less naïve, and tempered by the presence of the pandemic, I could not lean in to what the Games aim to represent. Instead, I found myself uncomfortable with the corruption, the inequality, the health risk, the Games’ budget of $15.4 billion, that have been made stark by the global turmoil we find ourselves in.

In Japan, around 80% of the population have opposed hosting the Games. Terms such as ‘dumpster fire’, ‘cash grab’, and ‘moral disaster’ have been comfortably interchanged when describing the decision to run the Games while the pandemic still storms.

This moment of global unity, of audacious and joyful impracticality, of athletic triumph, now feels as rotten as everything else in our society. In a time where the Games feel reckless and negligent, is it irresponsible to ignore the political framework of the Olympics? Is it possible to still watch in good faith when aware of the complex moral contradictions it poses?


I think we should have known that keeping ‘2020’ at the end of the Tokyo Olympic Games title, despite it now taking place in 2021, was a terrible move that has undoubtedly brought all of last year’s bad juju back for another hot dose of carnage.


And lo and behold... the Tokyo Olympic Games have been fraught more than ever with ethical and social issues. This year’s event has, and will continue to be, severely diseased with inequality and injustice. The most striking of these issues is the choice to host the Games while the globe still battles a constantly changing pandemic.


In Japan, around 80% of the population have opposed hosting the Games. Terms such as ‘dumpster fire’, ‘cash grab’, and ‘moral disaster’ have been comfortably interchanged when describing the decision to run the Games while the pandemic still storms. Scientists and medical officials have been unequivocal in their opposition of the event. In a medical system already overstretched, Olympic officials have estimated it will need the services of 10,500 medical workers to staff the Games.


In the lead-up to the Games, Covid-19 cases were rising by the hundreds in Japan and the increasing allocation of medical staff to the Games is seen as a concerning misuse of resources where people’s lives may be at stake. Organizers have not required athletes to be vaccinated to compete. It appears Japanese residents are being forced to risk their health and the quality and availability of their public resources to ensure the games continue on.


And yet, the Games march forward, torch held high. When it is clear the motivation of the Games disregards the possible cost of human lives and public health, it begs the questions: who and what are these Games for? It is a telling sign of what our world prioritises.


Considering this, the celebration that has beguiled me in years previous suddenly feels hubristic. It is hard to ignore the commercial engine that is driving the Olympics forward in such a time. The International Olympics Committee (IOC) is making serious bank from the Games. Raking in billions, revenue here trickles up, not to the athletes, but to those who manage the Olympics. While the IOC does inject a significant amount of funding into supporting sports, this scale of commercialisation often conspires with exploitation, the pair inseparable forces. The Olympics is no exception. The reality for host cities is that the Olympics accelerates gentrification, displaces communities and increases policing. Social and cultural spaces are erased and commodified. The IOC is essentially handed the city to control and serve its political and economic interests. And this year, the city will not be reendowed for their sacrifices. An Olympic Games without spectators means no flow of patron profits. What is perhaps more concerning is the fact that these outcomes of hosting the Games are intrinsically built into the Olympic system – a feature, not a fluke. The IOC have always instituted these harmful states of exception, thriving off their willingness to exploit both city and athlete for the commercial success of the Games.


The reality for host cities is that the Olympics accelerates gentrification, displaces communities and increases policing. Social and cultural spaces are erased and commodified.

Yet, these are the Games that the IOC promised would be the most innovative, most sustainable, best prepared and the most socially responsible in history. These Games will feature the most female athletes at an Olympics and is hosting 18 mixed-gender events. While this is, in isolation, a positive statistic, the fact it is framed as a feat to be met with applause feels disheartening.


The dismay of this being touted as the most socially responsible in history does not stop there. What have we witnessed in the onset of these Games if not the Olympics’ shameful treatment of our minorities? Swimming caps designed by a black-owned company to accommodate natural black hair have been rejected by the IOC for not fitting ‘the natural form of the head’. Namibian sprinters, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, were banned from competing in the Women’s 400 metres due to naturally high testosterone levels. Female athletes are continuously referred to as ‘girls’, ‘wives’ and ‘mothers’ instead of ‘women’ or ‘athletes’. Transgender athletes have been subjected to pronoun misuse and physical scrutiny.The Olympics present a global opportunity to inspire rectifications of our social norms. This year, it appears to be merely a spotlight for our social failings. Our athletes occupying minority spaces are reduced to arenas in which we negotiate and debate our existential musings on what is socially acceptable, erasing the identities and accomplishments of these athletes in the process.


The tension between supporting the Olympics with my viewership and the pillars of social injustice it perpetuates has been difficult to navigate. It is inevitable that watching broadcasts and consuming media of the Games validates the IOC in its current form and contributes to the revenue that supports it. Watching Simone Biles or Laurel Hubbard perform athletic feats is also being complicit in a corrupt and harmful system.


Yet boycotting the Olympics doesn’t feel like such a clear-cut decision. And that’s because refusing to support the Olympics is also refusing to support Olympic athletes. The Olympic Games are an opportunity for athletes to elevate themselves to the mainstream and make a living. If we deny that to our athletes, are we not also furthering the decay of ideal Olympic values?


We must not avert our gaze from the complexity that the Olympics pose. We must imagine and voice frameworks that support athletes but also extinguish the unjust system they work in.


It’s not ‘where’ and ‘when’ that constitutes the main problem with the Olympics. It is ‘why’ and ‘on whose terms’. If we can imagine an international sporting event that is community-controlled, premised on joy not profit, then we might have a return to the values I initially found so enticing.