Do The Tokyo Olympics Still Matter?

In the midnight almost two years in the past, development crews gathered close to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple and a well-liked vacationer website. The streets have been empty, the air was sultry and the employees hoped it will not rain. Machines rumbled to life.

It was a bit factor, barely observed. But it was an indication of the typically futile and farcical lengths taken to placed on the largest present in sports activities.

More than 1,000 Japanese had died of heat-related causes in July and August of 2018 and 2019, and a number of other Olympic check occasions in Tokyo had made athletes ailing and had scuttled schedules. Drastic measures for the upcoming Olympics have been required.

Among them was this venture, resurfacing the 26.2-mile marathon course with a shiny, reflective coating meant to bounce the warmth away. It was a small expense for an occasion that might value billions, and officers weren’t completely certain it will do a lot good. But inch by inch, with giant machines making whooshing noises over a number of sizzling August nights, the marathon course was unveiled in a silvery stripe.

There were 241 athletes, all white men. (Tokyo will have about 11,000 athletes, almost half of them women, representing more than 200 countries.) One event, a bit of a lark, was invented in 1896: the marathon, which attracted at least 80,000 spectators to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.

The Olympics were a surprising success, and their basic idealism, structure and pageantry endure.

“The inauguration of the revived Olympic games today was a delight to the eye and an impressive appeal to the imagination,” The New York Times reported in 1896.

Today’s Olympics remain immensely popular, if broadcast contracts are trusted indicators. Hundreds of countries maintain huge organizations solely for the Olympics, and athletes all over the globe share some vision of an Olympic dream — a fairy tale idealism that persists as the best buffer to cynicism.

In some ways — too many ways, critics argue — the Olympics are stuck in time, a 19th century construct floating through a 21st century world.

“They’ve evolved, or not evolved, this system completely separate from the rest of society,” said Han Xiao, a former member of the United States national table tennis team who is now active in the Olympic movement. “And that’s where a lot of the problems come in, whether it’s with corruption or imbalances in power that lead to athlete abuse or human rights violations. If you’re not keeping up with the advances that other areas of society are making, or you’re not subject to the oversight of society as a whole, it’s kind of predictable that these things are going to happen.”

In short, the Olympics are built on excess, tangled in geopolitics, rife with corruption and cheating. Each Olympic cycle raises uncomfortable questions about sustainability, environmental damage and human rights.

The Games are presented as apolitical, but that is both impossible and untrue. The honor of holding them has faded; the Olympics strain to attract host cities, which are often left staggering in the aftermath. Climate change is shrinking the map for viable locations, especially for the Winter Games.

In its charter, the I.O.C. has granted itself “supreme authority” in all Olympic matters. It answers only to whim.

“The International Olympic Committee is probably the most pervasive sport infrastructure in the world and arguably the least accountable, and that’s saying a lot when there’s a group called FIFA in the world,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University and the author of several books on the Olympics.

As mere entertainment, the Olympics thrive largely on nostalgia and collective memory. Their key conceit is a nationalism fueled by parades, anthems, flag-raising and other ceremonial flourishes that feel detached from global trends. They package harmony without depth, inclusion without context.

“The diversity of thought, the diversity of cultures, the diversity of youth today — they’re a little bit behind the curve,” Moses said of the Games.

Tailored over the past 50 years for appointment television, the Olympics perpetuate hoary competitions even as they desperately chase younger audiences. The Tokyo Games will include the debuts of skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, with gold medals awarded in those sports on the same days, respectively, as in shooting, fencing and modern pentathlon.

Few people favor abolishing the Games. The Olympics still represent the pinnacle for most of the sports. To athletes, the Olympics can mean everything — a lifetime’s work, the height of achievement. Few, if any, decline invitations on moral grounds.

Six months later will come the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which have been threatened by a rising cacophony over human rights in China and suggestions that the Games be boycotted.

“The real thing to differentiate is the competition and the idea of what the Olympics are,” Xiao said, “versus all the things that go on around them and the way they’re done.”

Interviews with those steeped in the Olympics — historians, academics, athletes, officials — yield at least one consensus: No one thinks the Olympics operate just fine the way they are.

Key complaints fall mostly into three categories: corruption in host bidding, a lack of I.O.C. accountability and a dearth of athlete rights.

Buying votes for a bid is an Olympic event in itself. It did not end with the scandal before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Vote buying appears to have occurred in securing the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Tokyo Games.

The I.O.C. has awarded the Games to hosts with autocratic tendencies, like Russia (Sochi in 2014) and China (Beijing in 2008 and 2022).

The Russians used the Olympics as a $50 billion showcase for President Vladimir V. Putin while the country undertook an extensive doping program and, just as the Olympics ended, invaded Ukraine. The Russian flag and anthem were barred from the 2018 Winter Games and from Tokyo, but the country’s athletes are allowed to compete individually (in Tokyo, under the banner “ROC,” for Russian Olympic Committee) if they meet certain conditions.

China’s human-rights record, including the crackdown in Hong Kong and what a State Department report called the genocide of Uighurs, will certainly get fuller attention before February. In 2013, Bach presented President Xi Jinping of China with the Olympic Order, the highest honor of the Olympic movement.

“Bach, somewhat inexplicably and in basically a fantasy land, still insists that the Olympics are not political,” Boykoff said. “Where any neutral observer would come along and see the political implications everywhere in the Olympics.”

Despite the see-no-evil approach, host selections are hardly global. Only three Olympics have been held in the Southern Hemisphere — two in Australia and one in Brazil. No Olympics have been held in Africa.

“Can you imagine in Beijing next winter if, say, an American athlete protests publicly on the podium the human rights abuses in China?” said Noah Hoffman, the two-time Olympic cross-country skier who helped start Global Athlete, which aims to amplify athletes’ views on critical issues. “Not only is the I.O.C. not going to protect those athletes, they’re going to be part of the system that’s punishing the athlete.”

Athletes are becoming ever more aware of the defects in the Olympic system. Allyson Felix, the American track star who will be making her fifth Olympic appearance, was part of a push to get the Summer Games for Los Angeles, which will host in 2028.

“Seeing more of how the International Olympic Committee operates, it’s not what I thought it was,” Felix told The Times recently. “My perspective was that the Games were so much about the competition. Being involved in the bid process, you see that the competition and the athletes are a very minimal part. The athletes do not have a seat at the table when the decisions are being made.”

But will this growing awareness ultimately help preserve the Games?

“We’re in for a very, very, very rough and turbulent couple of decades in terms of global change and what this planet means,” Goldblatt said. “And I just wonder: What is the Olympics going to look like in the face of that? It already looks like an absurdity to me. And I wonder what a generation, 30 years younger than me, will be thinking while the world’s on fire.”

For now, though, absurdity rests squarely in Tokyo. It can be found in the meandering, unexplained silvery stripe that snakes through the city, underfoot and under tire — an idea with good intentions, now fading with time.

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