Photo By: Bryan Turner from Unsplash
Sports have always been, and will always be, political. This is especially true of international sporting events like the Olympics that promote a sense of loyalty to one’s own country. The Olympics are not simply about sports; the decision to host an Olympic Games, or even participate in them, can have long-lasting effects on a city and even a country as a whole.
This summer, after being postponed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Tokyo Olympics went on and took centre stage in world news. At the time, Japan was experiencing another wave of COVID-19 cases and polls conducted before the games showed that the majority of Japanese citizens believed that the games should have been postponed or abandoned entirely. There were protests against the arrival of thousands of foreign athletes into a country that, up until that point, had been under strict quarantine.
It’s not just Tokyo and COVID-19 that are the problem for the Olympics however. There has always been controversy about Olympic hosting bids and there has always been fallout in the aftermath. In Rio 2016, walls were constructed between the shiny new buildings in the Olympic village and the favelas (a type of slum, specific to Brazil) where nearby residents lived in poverty. Thousands were displaced to make way for the games and when the athletes left and the festivities were over, the once state-of-the-art facilities were left unmaintained and unused.
In 2014, gay rights activists targeted the Sochi Olympics. It was unethical, they believed, to hold the games in a country like Russia with such blatant anti-homosexuality laws. The list goes on and on and on. However, interestingly enough the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has policies that effectively bar athletes from making any so-called political statements, such as a raised fist, on the podium.
Already there are calls to boycott the 2022 games in Beijing in the name of human rights, climate advocacy and a whole host of other issues (most of which are nothing new when it comes to host country controversies).
All of that is to say that there has never been an Olympic Games that has not, in some way, done harm. And yet, I still watch the games, every time, and love them.
It’s become more of a love-hate relationship in recent years. I hate what the Olympics can do to a community, I hate blind and unexamined displays of patriotism, I hate how the IOC ignores human rights violations when they’re choosing a host country. There are a lot of things I hate, that I disagree with on a basic human level.
But there are a lot of things that I love. I love turning on the TV and getting to watch a sport that I’ve never heard of before and getting invested anyway. I loved when the Canadian women’s soccer team that I’ve been watching since I was 11 years old won gold for the first time at a major international tournament. I loved watching Christine Sinclair, my favourite athlete of all time, stand on top of the podium while the national anthem played, tears in her eyes as she achieved the one thing I feared she might retire without doing. I love Penny Oleksiak, Andre De Graase, and Evan Dunfee, the race walker who stole my heart with a bronze medal and a self-deprecating Kraft Dinner commercial.
So, while I hate what the Olympics do, I love watching them too. I love seeing people achieving childhood dreams, I love watching years, sometimes decades, of hard work pay off. I love sports and I love friendly competition. I loved watching high-jump and seeing two athletes tie for first place, and rather than going to a jump-off, requesting that they be allowed to share two gold medals, embracing when they found out that was possible, and draping the medals over one another’s necks on the podium.
With so much that I love, I find it hard to abandon these events completely, even if there are so many good reasons to. The Olympics are important to me in a way that feels personal, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who feels that way. I’ve seen every single winter and summer Olympic Games in my lifetime and I watched the Olympic running of the torch through my hometown in 2010. When people ask me when I started to really love sports, my answer will always be the gold medal game of the men’s hockey tournament at the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.
When you love something though, you should want it to be better for everybody. I want the Olympics to achieve the goal of uniting people through sport, rather than making a hollow promise about international camaraderie. I want the people who live in the cities that host the games to feel excitement, or at the very least, not dread for the games. I want infrastructure that host cities build to be repurposed, to be used for generations for the betterment of the people who live there, not abandoned after the closing ceremonies.
Call me an optimist, but I think it’s possible to change the Olympics for the better. Short-term solutions like mandating that athlete accommodations be turned into affordable housing units after the games or turning event venues into community-accessible sporting facilities are all possible. Longer-term, doing away with host-city bids could be beneficial. Having one designated site for summer and winter Olympics, or rotating through a few designated host cities with pre-existing infrastructure is also not out of the realm of possibility.
On a personal level, think about how you engage with the games. Will you celebrate the games? Will you celebrate the hosts? The athletes? The sport? Canada? Is there a difference? I don’t know the answer to that, but I know that it’s worth thinking about.
In 2022, Beijing will host the winter Olympics, and though there have already been calls for Canada to stage a boycott, in all likelihood, I’m sure that they won’t, and in all likelihood, I’ll be sitting in front of the TV in February, still loving something that desperately needs fixing.