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Is it time to consign the Olympic Games to history

The lack of transparency in the ballooning budgets for the Olympic Games, as well as the misallocation of this money to an extravaganza that ruins cities for local communities, is, unfortunately, a part of the legacy of what was once supposed to be an event to celebrate excellence and bring people together

March 28, 2021 / 09:16 AM IST
Olympics has had a truly chequered history

Olympics has had a truly chequered history

Shamed by doping scandals, suspended due to wars, and finally postponed by a freak virus, the Olympics has had a truly chequered history. Indeed, for an event that is referred to as the Summer Games, the Olympics has been anything but sunny. With the organisers of this year’s games in Tokyo announcing that no international spectators will be allowed into the stadiums, the tradition of the quadrennial event facing some hitch or the other is being unfortunately maintained.

Already delayed by a year following the COVID-19 pandemic, the worldwide vaccination drive had raised some hope that the Japanese government would permit fans from abroad after the necessary checks. It wasn’t to be, as rising cases across the world, particularly in Europe, put paid to those hopes.

Now, only spectators from Japan, and that too in limited numbers, will be allowed into the stadiums. With the 600,000 tickets that had already been sold to buyers from abroad having to be refunded, the event is sure to run into massive losses. Earlier, Katsuhiro Miyamoto, a professor of theoretical economics at Kansai University, had estimated that holding the games (including the Paralympics which were to follow the Olympics) without spectators would result in a $23.1 billion economic loss for Japan in related expenses, as well as knock-on effects on household consumption.

The final number will hopefully be much lower with Japanese spectators expected to take up some of the slack from the missing international spectators; but even they can’t compensate for the loss to hotels, restaurants, transportation, and other tourist-related services.

Tokyo’s tryst with the Olympics has been ill-fated. The first time it sought to play host was in 1940, but the first Olympiad to be hosted in a non-Western country was cancelled under strange circumstances. By the time the Japanese were selected to organise the games, the country’s invasion of Manchuria and its withdrawal from the League of Nations had already tarred its reputation.


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When Adolf Hitler turned the 1936 games in Berlin into an occasion to trumpet the Nazi cause, it was evident Japan would do something similar. Yet it wasn’t the International Olympic Association that took the proactive step to cancel the games. Rather, it was the Japanese government preparing for a war against China that decided to forfeit when it faced an acute shortage of resources like steel required to build the stadia.

Sadly, the war ensured that Helsinki, which was asked to step in, couldn’t organise the games either. Ironically, the last time there was a cancellation of the event because of war was in 1916 when the Olympics was to have been held in Berlin. Of course, with World War II raging there was no chance of the games returning in 1944 and even though the war ended in 1945, its overhang was felt in the 1948 event in London where Germany and Japan were barred from competing.

Internecine battles continued to keep countries out of subsequent editions with politics often overshadowing the games. Given these regular disruptions coupled with the constant struggle to prevent losses in the face of crippling cost spirals, there have been insistent calls to scrap the games altogether.

In July 2019, a year from the scheduled Olympics in Tokyo, anti-Olympics activists from Rio de Janeiro, Pyeongchang, Tokyo, Paris, and Los Angeles had hosted the games or would in the future, along with others from those bidding for them, gathered in Tokyo. Through a series of protests, occupations, and academic symposia they tried to draw attention to the ill-effects of the Olympics on residents of the host city. It was organised by NOlympics LA, a part of the Housing & Homelessness Committee of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America in 2017, as well as Hangorin no Kai, a group of unhoused and formerly unhoused people based in Tokyo.

The thrust of their protests, the lack of transparency in the ballooning budgets for the games, as well as the misallocation of this money to an extravaganza that ruins cities for local communities, is, unfortunately, a part of the legacy of what was once supposed to be an event to celebrate excellence and bring people together.

Instead, what we have is host cities still reeling from the financial distress caused by the games and expensively-built facilities rotting under the weight of their maintenance costs. Time, perhaps, to end this spectacle.
Sundeep Khanna is a senior journalist. Views are personal.

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