Reinventing the Olympic Games
Photo: Val 202/Flickr
The Sochi Olympics are over. They have broken all records for a Winter Games, most notably by having the first Olympic park of impressive ice rinks and arenas to have been built entirely from scratch on the Black Sea side. According to the Russians’ own figures, the budget for Sochi 2014 was much higher than the cost of even the last two Summer Games, Beijing (2008) and London (2012).
Two years away, Rio 2016 is facing a difficult time and the future is uncertain. The new president of the IOC (International Olympic Committee) has understood this, which is why at the end of this year he will be putting forward his “Agenda 2020” program to preserve the uniqueness of the Olympic Games and make easier to manage gigantism.
However, media reports suggest that the IOC’s brainstorming session, held just before the Sochi Games, generated few new ideas. For example, it is difficult to see how reinstating visits to candidate cities by IOC members, and raising or abolishing the age limit for IOC members will make running the Games easier or cheaper, even if it would not be too difficult to persuade current IOC members to pass these measures. The old but effective idea of spreading the Games over an entire country (using existing facilities), which is already practised for football, would mean abandoning the idea of a unique Olympic village where athletes from around the world can come together (as it has been already done at the Winter Games).
The main risk that must be avoided is no longer having enough bids for future Olympic editions because of the difficulty of hosting the Games. Four or five cities are bidding for the 2022 Winter Olympics, two (Lausanne and Brasov) for the 2020 Winter Youth Games, and, currently, just one (Doha, Qatar) for the 2024 Summer Olympics. Rome, Vienna, Dubai, and Toronto, for the Summer Olympics, and St. Moritz, Munich, and Stockholm, for the Winter Olympics, have recently withdrawn their bids. This is reminiscent of the post-Montreal syndrome (only one candidate for the 1980 Winter Olympics and only one for the 1984 Summer Olympics), with mayors or ministers being unconvinced of the worth of bidding for or hosting the Olympics, as, after Sochi, the prestige that goes with being an Olympic city or country will no longer be guaranteed.
The real problem for the long term is to keep the Olympic Games in phase with the society in which we are living. This is where significant innovation is needed. In the 20th century, the success of the Olympics following the Great War was largely due to the rise of nationalism combined with the emerging spirit of the League of Nations. Then, after World War Two, the Cold War made the Olympics the only place where the Soviet and western blocs could confront each other peacefully.
Today, the spirit of competition between cities and countries or athletes that the Games promote has weakened. People still enjoy peaceful contests between nations, but their fervor has waned. In Europe, people at the grass-roots level of sport are abandoning sport clubs where competition is a prime motivator, preferring to do their sport individually or in popular mass-participation events.
At the Olympics, on the other hand, it often is no longer taking part that counts, but winning (sometimes at any price, even if that means doping or cheating). There is also a growing discrepancy between the Olympics and the society that finances them through sponsorship and television. Some TV channels are finding that covering the Games is no longer profitable. The 14 February (apex of the Games) edition of the French sport newspaper L’Equipe dedicates only 4 pages out of 22 to the Games. Of course, this cannot continue forever. Soon, we may be facing a similar situation to the Ancient Olympics, which disappeared painlessly in 393 AD.
But the modern Games must be safeguarded, as they are one of the very few examples of peaceful coexistence we have, as was demonstrated by the presence of the UN Secretary General at the Sochi 2014 opening ceremony. The IOC is lucky enough to control two universal symbols of this coexistence: the five interlinked rings (omnipresent at the Olympic venues and on television during the Olympic fortnight) and the flame relay (which precedes the Games and finishes at the end of the opening ceremony). These symbols, which help finance the Games, deserve protection as part of the world’s heritage.
Consequently, we need to bring the Games back in step with the spirit of the 21st century by putting greater store on truly sustainable development, human rights, fair trade, etc. perhaps even reducing their size and/or cost, instead of putting competition and growth above all else. Rather than insisting on elite sport only, more space needs to be made for adaptive, paralympic sport (in the main program, possibly extended to three weeks), grass-roots sport (e.g., a mass-participation marathon), culture (as at the Francophone Games), non-Olympic sports (as at the World Games), and the young (as at the Youth Games and renewed Universiades), etc. Great inspiration for ways of keeping the modern Olympics unique could be drawn from other multi-sport games. In fact, the IOC has created a working group to see what lessons they can learn from such events.
It should also be possible to regularly reuse the vastly expensive Olympic parks built since Sydney 2000 for the Summer Olympics and since Sochi 2014 for the Winter Olympics. Courbetin’s vision of a modern Olympia, a permanent summer Olympic site that was to be built at Lausanne-Dorigny at the beginning of the 20th century, is no longer realistic. But it should not be out of the question for the Olympics to move from park to park, from continent to continent, as almost every continent (except Africa and North America) already has one or more Olympic parks.
It is only through such major reforms that the Olympic Games will once again become, as they have always been, in tune with the spirit of the times, thereby ensuring their continuing longevity.