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Op-eds, Opinions

Simon ’25: Why Olympism isn’t curing us this time

By
OP-ED CONTRIBUTOR
Tuesday, August 3, 2021

The world is on fire, but it’s time to turn on the Olympics again. As our oceans rise and the spread of the Delta variant further exposes deep and defining geopolitical divisions, surfers, track stars and skateboarders from around the world have gathered in Tokyo. Like clockwork, we suspend judgement and spend 15 summer days watching the flashing limbs of the finest athletes in the world perform their scheduled miracles. 

In a polarized age, athletics often feel like one of the few remaining frontiers where hard work, collaboration and sportsmanship are universally appreciated. And nowhere is this more true than at the Olympic Games. The Games are both a thrilling competition and a genuinely international experience — one not based in crisis or conflict.

And yet, something feels different this time around. The Olympics are the latest entry in a long list of institutions struggling to define themselves in a pandemic world. The fact that, in the summer of 2021, the Tokyo Games are still being marketed as the 2020 Olympics feels somewhat symbolic — not only of the effects of COVID-19 but also of a tradition that’s becoming increasingly out of step with the times and, more importantly, the very values it seeks to represent. In order to salvage it, the powers behind the Olympics must make serious changes to the longstanding frameworks of the Games, or risk losing their relevance altogether.

As this year’s athletes converged in Tokyo, they marched into an eerily vacant stadium. When the opening ceremonies of the games were broadcast, the sounds of outside protest from Tokyo residents anxious about the pandemic were audible. And as results begin rolling in, so too do stories about the scandals and disappointments surrounding the games: Sha’Carri Richardson’s controversial disqualification for marijuana use, the decision to fine the Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team for choosing to wear shorts instead of bikini bottoms and a growing number of athletes testing positive for COVID-19. Each new incident further compounds the sense that the Olympics cannot be a space immune from the influence of race, gender and class-based power structures. The pandemic has presented new challenges in health and safety, but it has also shone light on the problems we long took for granted as traditions, as a result of greater scrutiny on the controversial decision to hold the Games altogether.

The force behind said traditions is the International Olympic Committee. The IOC describes its ultimate mission as a promoter of “Olympism” which seeks “to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.” But a foray into the history of the IOC instead shows an organization that is fraught with corruption and dubious ethics, from bribery and money laundering to sexist commentary

None of these issues are necessarily new. There has long been criticism of many of the IOC’s practices. The contentious construction of the Olympic Villages routinely causes extreme disruption to local communities and the environment. (In 2016 alone, the Rio Games resulted in the displacement of 3,000 local residents). The Games feel less like a traveling celebration of multiculturalism, and more like a logistical burden being passed from one nation to the next. And the Olympics’ history with political expression and protest is equally notable. Designed to curtail political propaganda, the IOC’s Rule 50 has long been seen as a muzzle on athletes seeking to use their platforms to advocate for social change. Most famously, it resulted in the controversial expulsion of medalists John Carlos and Tommie Smith from the 1968 Games. 

However, what is new is how these scandals are now situated in a distinctly different social justice landscape. In light of sociopolitical movements like Black Lives Matter and climate activism gaining steam around the world, as well as the continued inequities of the pandemic, fans and athletes are becoming more publicly critical of the power dynamics behind the scenes of swimming heats and soccer games. When describing the IOC’s bidding process, American track star Alison Felix criticized that “the athletes do not have a seat at the table.” A recent statement by the United States’ own Olympic and Paralympic Committee also called out the “dehumanization of athletes that is at odds with key Olympic and Paralympic values,” pointing out IOC’s hypocrisy as an institution designed to uplift athletes while actively exploiting them.

That isn’t to say that the Olympics aren’t evolving. This year, the Japanese government worked to build a more sustainable version of the Games. Groups of Olympic athletes aimed at addressing racial inequality in sports are more empowered than ever to use their platform to speak out. But these positive developments aren’t prioritized by those in charge; their potential is overlooked in favor of television rights and sponsorship deals. Nowadays, the divide between the bureaucratic IOC and the actual people affected by the Olympics feels clearer than ever and the voices ringing through the opening ceremonies have brought a long-simmering question, quite literally, into the spotlight: What, really, is the place of these Games here and now?

I’ve always loved the Olympics. However, what is becoming increasingly clear to me is that what I love are the Olympians. It’s the athletes themselves — their passion, teamwork and accomplishments — that inspire me. The Olympic celebration of common languages and dreams is real and valuable and makes me believe, despite everything, that a better version of the Games is worth fighting for. But serious change needs to happen in order to do so. The IOC continues to expose itself as an institution not quite equipped to handle a world with a growing need for priorities beyond gold medals and sponsorships. We’ve now shared a different kind of global experience, one far more harrowing, and in its wake we find ourselves less willing to escape into a spectacle that harms as many as it inspires. For a better future to be possible, the IOC needs to listen and take actions far more drastic than any it has so far. It has to clean its corrupt leadership, allow athletes to have more agency in their careers and put the money down to prioritize sustainability and human rights over profit. It’s time that the Olympics does the hard and necessary work of better reflecting the principles it was founded on. It’s time to commit to practicing Olympism fully — inside and outside the stadium. 

Alissa Simon ’25 can be reached at alissa_simon@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and other op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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  1. Chairman Mao says:

    Worth mentioning that the next Olympics will be held in a country that is the leading human rights abuser on the planet. Sports ratings have crashed because fans can’t stand virtue signaling athletes who trash the USA but don’t dare speak up about China. Boycott Apple, Nike, and other corporations that profit from exploited labor and a fascist regime if you really want to make a difference.

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