IOC relying on Olympic athletes to win the public over

Opposition to Covid-era Games jars with real argument for staging them: the bottom line

A young woman walks past a Tokyo Olympics countdown clock indicating the remaining days until the opening ceremony. Photograph: /Franck Robichon/EPA

A young woman walks past a Tokyo Olympics countdown clock indicating the remaining days until the opening ceremony. Photograph: /Franck Robichon/EPA

 

A quick look at the “playbook” for the Tokyo Games this summer invites a question about how many of the International Olympic Committee’s own members will notice a significant difference between those four weeks and the 200 others in the Olympic cycle. So they’ll be cut off from all contact with an outside world, confined to business hotels, chauffeur-driven cars and stadiums. This is an organisation, remember, whose list of “recommendations” for candidate cities does not just include the use of exclusive car lanes for IOC members, but guidance about the contents of their hotel mini-bars and the quality of the canapés they’re served in the VIP lounge.

What’s another month in a bubble when you already live in one all year round? The crowds will likely be smaller in Tokyo, but given the IOC is pressing ahead with all this even though polls show 80 per cent of locals would rather it didn’t it’s touch and go whether it will notice what the wider public’s up to.

The Olympics rolls on, inexorable as a toppling boulder. The torch relay just reached Hiroshima, which is currently in a state of emergency. They’ve recorded twice as many new cases there in the past week as they have in any other seven-day stretch since the start of the pandemic. Thomas Bach, the IOC’s president, was supposed to go, but was wisely advised to postpone the trip. Instead, he sent a video message, explaining he was “there in spirit”.

“I wanted to express my admiration for your perseverance, which made Hiroshima a city of peace, it is exactly this commitment to peace which bonds you and us, the International Olympic Committee, closely together,” Bach explained, from a wood-panelled set situated somewhere inside the IOC’s new $150m headquarters, which may or may not be concealed inside a hollowed-out volcano. “This contribution to peace by the Olympic Games was the guiding principle for Pierre de Coubertin when he created the International Olympic Committee in 1894,” he continued, “this peace mission is at the heart of the Olympic Games.”

Hiroshima

There you have it then, the bombing of Hiroshima turned into a backdrop to Bach’s campaign to win the IOC a Nobel prize by bringing peace to the Middle East through the medium of Greco-Roman wrestling. Given how often it’s been repeated in recent weeks that the only years in which the Games were ever actually cancelled were 1916, 1940, and 1944, you’d think he might have grasped that it’s war that tends to stop the Olympics, rather than the other way round. As for the current crisis, Bach hardly mentioned it, except for a polite aside about “these challenging times”.

The World Athletics president, Sebastian Coe, did go. He was in Sapporo (also currently in a state of emergency) watching the test event for the marathon. And he, at least, seems to get it.

“The Games will most likely begin with a larger part of the population preferring to sit out the dance and that strain of public opinion has only hardened since my October visit,” Coe wrote. “The former politician in me says we in the Games ecosystem need to show empathy to those communities who are nervous about an influx of athletes, coaches and support staff. And I have to say that has not always been messaged as sympathetically as it might have been.” Only he rather undermined his point when adding: “The world does need to keep moving, and the Games will bring optimism to the watching world.”

500 spare nurses

More “sympathetic messaging” might have been to lay off the platitudes about the power of sport. There’s a time for the Olympic spirit, and a place for getting swept up in the joys of synchronised springboard diving and three-on-three basketball, only it’s probably not Osaka this summer, where people are currently dying in their beds because the hospitals are all at maximum capacity. More “sympathetic messaging” might have grasped how local people would feel about the IOC’s request for 500 spare nurses to volunteer to work at the Games, and its announcement that it has signed a deal with Pfizer to ensure all competing athletes get vaccinated when only 3 per cent of the Japanese population has received a vaccine and the country has the slowest rollout of any member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Thomas Bach (on screen), the IOC’s president, makes an address from a wood-panelled set situated somewhere inside the IOC’s new $150m headquarters, which may or may not be concealed inside a hollowed-out volcano. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool/AFP via Getty Images
Thomas Bach (on screen), the IOC’s president, makes an address from a wood-panelled set situated somewhere inside the IOC’s new $150m headquarters, which may or may not be concealed inside a hollowed-out volcano. Photograph: Yoshikazu Tsuno/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Of course sport can play a role in the recovery. I’ve reported myself on the effect the Rugby World Cup had on the regeneration of Kamaishi after the 2011 tsunami, and the way the tournament organisers rallied after typhoon Hagabis. But there is a simple difference between doing it after a crisis, and doing it during one. Coe argued it would be odd to stop the Games when “football, rugby, tennis and athletics are all back functioning”. But the Olympics are a global event. English TV viewers may be hungry for Olympic content; does anyone imagine people in India are?

The real argument is the one Coe neglected to mention: the bottom line. Although given that most of the shortfall would land on Japan, and that the IOC has both a billion-dollar cash reserve and event insurance, you can forgive him for not using it to try to win over public opinion. The IOC is really banking on the idea that people will come around when the Games starts, which is the way it usually works (half of Brazilians polled objected to Rio 2016 three weeks out from those Games).

Olympic researchers say the pattern of public opinion has three phases: pride at being selected, doubt and apathy as the Games grow closer, joy and euphoria when they finally arrive. The IOC is relying on the athletes to win the public over for them all over again, just like it did in Rio. – Guardian

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