Is it time to reimagine the Olympics?

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“The 360” shows you diverse perspectives on the day’s top stories and debates.

What’s happening

The Summer Olympics are in full swing in Japan. While there will be memorable performances and breakout athletes, the lasting memory of the Tokyo Games will almost certainly be the specter of the coronavirus pandemic hanging over the event.

The Games were supposed to be held last summer, but were delayed by a full year, as the first wave of the virus spread around the world. When cases began to spike in Japan this spring, serious questions were raised about whether the competition should be delayed again or canceled entirely. Organizers were committed to going forward, despite billions of dollars in cost overruns, the lack of spectators and widespread opposition among the Japanese people.

The challenges facing Tokyo 2020 are entirely unique, but just about every modern Olympics has faced unique difficulties. Many have argued over the years that hosting the Games is more of a curse than a blessing. The International Olympic Committee pitches the Olympics as an opportunity for cities to expand their global profile, while making a healthy profit and building facilities that can be used for decades.

In reality, it’s been 37 years since an Olympic host city ended the Games with a budget surplus. According to one analysis, every Olympics since 1996 has gone over budget, sometimes incurring tens of billions of dollars in debt. Hosts are also frequently saddled with the costs of maintaining “white elephant” stadiums that sit empty after the Olympics have ended. The need to create space for these facilities occasionally means that thousands of residents — often in lower-income neighborhoods — are displaced from their homes. The IOC has also courted controversy by granting hosting duties in countries run by authoritarians, like China and Russia.

Why there’s debate

The struggles in Tokyo have revived a debate that happens every two years, over whether major changes are needed in running the Olympics. A good place to start, many argue, is for athletes, host cities and the general public to take power away from the IOC — whose members are frequently accused of using the glory of sports to fuel their greed and corruption. Another common suggestion is for the Olympics to be held in a set location, rather than rotating from place to place. That plan, supporters say, would put an end to the endless cycle of billion-dollar cost overruns that have burdened the Games’ hosts, and would allow the competitors to become the focus of the Games.

Another school of thought argues that the Olympics can’t be fixed and should be abolished entirely. This point of view maintains that reforms, as beneficial as they might sound, are next to impossible, given the powerful interests that are making enormous profits from the current system. Others claim that the Olympics are unnecessary, since global competitions for most sports already exist, without the baggage that comes with the Games.

Although few have positive things to say about the IOC, there are still many people who say that the Olympics are worthwhile as they are. It’s possible, they argue, to celebrate the extraordinary achievements of the athletes without endorsing the corrupt forces that make the Games happen. Others note that change is already in motion. The next two Summer Olympics were awarded to Paris and Los Angeles, two cities that have laid out plans to dramatically lower costs by using existing venues and relying heavily on private funding.

What’s next

Amid debates over the Tokyo Games, more controversy could be in store in the lead-up to the Winter Olympics, which are scheduled to be held in Beijing in February. The United States Olympic Committee is already facing pressure to boycott the Games over the Chinese government’s persecution of Uyghur minorities in northwestern China.

Perspectives

There’s value in pitting the world’s best athletes against each other on a global stage

“I still think I understand the appeal, and even the utility, of having some kind of venue for determining who is the best in the world at given athletic pursuits. That doesn’t obligate anyone who cares not for such things to do so. But a wholesale condemnation of aspiring for athletic excellence seems like an overreaction.” — Jack Butler, National Review

Host nations should take the authority to run the Games as they see fit

“If ever there was a time and place to remember that the IOC is a fake principality, an oft-corrupt cash receptacle for peddlers with pretensions of grandeur, this is it. The IOC has no real powers, other than those temporarily granted by participant countries.” — Sally Jenkins, Washington Post

The Olympics should be abolished

Of course Tokyo 2020, as it’s still officially named, should be canceled. … There's no justification for holding it. But that’s also true of every summer and winter games for decades, and likely will be until the end of time. Cancel the Olympics—for good.” — Nathalie Shure, New Republic

Tokyo may prove to be a positive turning point for the Olympics

“If nothing else, Tokyo 2020 may end up being remembered as the wake-up call everyone needed to realize that major international sporting events have become a little too big, too cash-laden, and too corporate. Perhaps future prospective host cities and nations will look back on these stripped-down Olympics, and their budget of $15.4 billion, and realize that less can sometimes mean more.” — Dan Orlowitz, Philadelphia Inquirer

A single permanent Olympic host should be chosen

“The Olympics were conceived in 1896 as a sporting event, and they’ve become a construction event. We need to return them back, and the way to do that is to find the permanent venue that has the necessary sporting infrastructure, transportation, communications, [and] hospitality infrastructure. It’s doable; it will save economically, it will save environmentally, it will save socially, and it will reestablish the positive imagery around the Olympics.” — Andrew Zimbalist, historian of the Olympics, to Marketplace

Upcoming Olympic Games could be better

“Even if Tokyo’s Olympics turn out to be the debacle residents seem to fear, I don’t think it will necessarily damage the Olympics’ credibility for other potential host cities. Instead, the coming decade will determine whether the event will keep going in the future. Will the Paris Summer Games in 2024, the Milan-Cortina Winter Games in 2026 and the Los Angeles Summer Games in 2028 be success stories? These events promise to be less expensive, as they will make use of venues built for past events, use temporary facilities and integrate long-term local needs into their construction plans.” — Mark Wilson, Conversation

The athletes make the Olympics worthwhile

“The appeal of the Games has never really been the Olympics as an institution; it’s the Olympians themselves. And since I was a kid putting their photos on my walls, the Olympians haven’t really changed. These athletes still showcase extraordinary human achievement from around the world.” — Lindsay Crouse, The New York Times

It’s unfair to use Tokyo as a model of Olympic challenges

“The coronavirus makes comparisons to previous Games all but impossible. The problems facing Tokyo’s Olympic organizers are a combination of the familiar—public opposition, budget overruns, logistical inconveniences, scandals—and the unprecedented hazards of holding an international sporting event amid a global pandemic still very much not under control.” — Matt Alt, New Yorker

Ending country-based competition would excise most of the corruption for the Games

“We’re not suggesting the Olympics should die. … But all the flags and anthems and parade nonsense should go, because they are the gateway drug to all the many layers of corruption, chemical abuse, and self-important suits that have made international sport a graft machine with athletes hanging off the end. It’s the general sleaze of college football, only for everyone in the world.” — Ray Ratto, Defector

Athletes must have more power over how the Olympics function

“Delivering more excellence and less sideshow will probably require giving athletes a bigger voice in how the Olympics are run. The athletes will have to fight for that voice. Nothing happens quickly or by accident in the IOC’s world.” — Ryan Heath, Politico

The IOC must be dissolved

“Sport does offer an extraordinary canvas for the celebration of human possibilities. It is a universal language in a perilously fragmented world. It deserves better than to be captured by the IOC, better than to be drowned in its pieties and bound to its pernicious business model. … The IOC should dissolve itself and its assets be passed to a new democratically constituted body for global sport.” — David Goldblatt, Guardian

Sports would be just fine without the Olympics

“Some leagues have developed distinct world-level competitions on a par with the Olympics. Soccer’s quadrennial World Cup is one example. … What’s more, the proliferation of streaming services and their enormous appetites for programming also should make it easier for niche competitions to find viewers and advertisers. The next Simone Biles and Katie Ledecky will be discovered and showcased without the IOC.” — Pete Sweeney, Reuters

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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Getty Images

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