Olympics·100 DAYS TO TOKYO

On troubled road to Tokyo, the Olympic Games must now face moment of truth

In the middle of a global pandemic where cases are surging worldwide, the planet’s greatest spectacle is holding onto the hope that the show must and will go on after an agonizing delay. But there is also the less tangible, more altruistic mission of the Olympic movement which is at stake.

Olympic movement at stake as relevance of Games tested during turbulent buildup

The entrance to the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, is seen before a meeting in March. (Frabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

The clock is ticking on the Olympics and in more ways than one.

In the middle of a global pandemic where cases are surging worldwide, the planet's greatest spectacle is holding onto the hope that the show must and will go on after an agonizing delay.

The conviction being that the rewards entailed in bringing more than ten thousand athletes from more than 200 countries together in Tokyo outweigh the risks involved in that enterprise. The bottom-line amounts to billions of dollars already invested and the grim determination that financial losses can somehow be cut.

But there is also the less tangible, more altruistic mission of the Olympic movement which is at stake. This is the assertion that the peaceful congregation of diverse cultures through the means of sport can somehow help the world begin to heal, recover from difficult times, and promote a common understanding.

This has, for more than a century, been the currency of the Olympic Games. The belief that people have in the importance, goodness, and relevance of the movement.

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Those who have made it their life's work to study the Olympics and the importance of the Games to society in general know that this is a critical time. Not just because of the pandemic but also because of a multitude of challenges which the original vision of this massive undertaking confronts.

"The Olympics are facing a perfect storm of crises — COVID-19, the rising call for sports bodies to protect human rights, including the rights of athletes to free speech, the moral dilemma of Beijing 2022, as well as escalating costs with the attendant public disillusionment in liberal democratic countries," reasoned Dr. Bruce Kidd, a 1964 Olympian, scholar, and professor of sport and public policy at the University of Toronto.

"The Olympic spirit is needed now more than ever but it has been overshadowed by the pursuit of the podium and commercial and state interests.

"How do the Olympics realize their historic mission to bring people from every corner of the world, with many differences together in a spirit of genuine intercultural exchange and education to celebrate our common humanity and strengthen the commitment to the peaceful resolution of conflict? There have been other times when the future of the Games was bleak but that doesn't make it any easier."

Risk vs. Reward

Indeed, the purpose of the Olympics is increasingly being called into question as the Tokyo Games approach.

Is the risk worth the potential reward?

There is no doubt that the athletes have an obvious stake in the matter. For most an appearance at the Olympics is the expression of a life's work and sacrifice. Few would deny them the opportunity to pursue a hard-earned living.

But the leadership, the International Olympic Committee, has come under increasing scrutiny because of a perceived tendency to put the business of the Games above all things. Many contend that the almighty dollar should not be the most important reason to proceed.

WATCH | COC president says Tokyo Games can be 'beacon of hope':

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The president of Canadian Olympic Committee, David Shoemaker, says the delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics will be safe for athletes and are worthwhile holding as a ‘beacon of hope’ during the pandemic.

"Some critics would argue that the decision to continue with the Tokyo Games during a global pandemic betrays the fact that finances are driving decisions, not the health of those involved or the health of the world," said Dr. Angela Schneider, an Olympic rowing medallist at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the Director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies at Western University in London, Ont.

"Now, more than ever, the IOC needs to reach out and support the athletes whom they have never really dealt with in a serious way before. The best option is to turn back to the Olympic Charter and the inherent values for guidance because it is there that the foundation of the Olympic movement rests and that foundation is under siege."

There have always been many obstacles in the way of the Olympic gathering. It's because the Games, by their very nature, aspire to be all things to all people. They claim to accommodate participants of every race, faith, gender, orientation, circumstance and geographic region.

Current importance of Games?

The Olympic Games are more ambitious than any other event ever conceived.

They have overcome political strife before, witness the 1980 and 1984 boycotts, as well as myriad cases of corruption and doping violations.

But this time it seems different. This time the relevance of the Games, the core values, are clouded by the turbulent era the world is embroiled in.

"I think that more pressing issues have relegated the Olympics to far less significance in peoples' lives," said Dr. Kevin Wamsley of St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S., one of the world's most renowned Olympic historians, and the former director of the International Centre for Olympic Studies.

"Those who once had the luxury to consider the Olympic Games culturally significant or an issue of public debate are far more concerned with the pandemic, great disparities in wealth in all countries, violent and systemic racism, and sexualized violence. Issues of IOC corruption, white elephants, doping, and the celebration of athletic excellence seem so far removed from the lived experience that the Olympic Games run greater risk of becoming a non-issue in this world."

Most interested parties would agree there are now just 100 days for the Olympics to find the answers in order to weather the storm and remain committed to the original intent of the Games.

"I believe as an Olympian and as an Olympic scholar, that the Olympic movement can survive because the core values of the Charter and the movement are sound," Dr. Schneider concluded.

"But the leadership of the IOC is critical for the Games to remain relevant and needs to ascend to a level they have not reached yet — an Olympian level."

In other words, on the troubled road to Tokyo, the Olympic Games must now face a moment of truth.


Scott Russell has worked for the CBC for more than 30 years and covered 14 editions of the Olympics. He is a winner of the Gemini Award, Canadian Screen Award and CBC President's Award. Scott is the host of Olympic Games Prime Time and the co-Host with Andi Petrillo of Road to the Olympic Games. He is also the author of three books: The Rink, Ice-Time and Open House.

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