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  • OpEd: Questioning the Relevancy of the Olympics


    (ATR) I spent my Christmas morning going back and looking through the stories I wrote this year.

    The reason was twofold. First, it was for a recent annual list I’ve been putting on Twitter of the best pieces I believe I wrote in 2018.

    In a time where journalists continue to be criticized from all angles, and more and more people tell you how to do your job, it can be nice to have a short moment of pride in your work. Also, being a journalist active online in 2018 means promoting your work relentlessly at times.

    The second, more relevant reason was born out of a conversation that I had earlier this month in Tokyo.

    A non-journalist colleague was discussing how journalists these days focus on the negative side of sport too much. Never mind the seemingly endless number of scandals that sport continually deals with, the colleague was upset with the lack of coverage of the good that sport bodies do.

    Why, he asked, do journalists focus on the stories stemming from controversies, and pay less attention to the humanitarian efforts the IOC and international sport federations take on? At its heart, these sport bodies are NGOs tasked with expanding the universality of sport, and attempting to bring it to everyone.

    Weeks after the conversation I looked back at the more than 420 stories I had bylines on. What I found were a lot more positive stories from big events than I expected, given the inherent cynicism that comes from reporting about the Olympic Movement on a daily basis.

    I reached out to a friend for some perspective because, let’s be honest, some of the biggest stories in sport this year were about the awful malfeasance that pervades this industry. Despite that, the world keeps coming back to the Olympics. No matter the grousing, no matter how little benefit of the doubt journalists give to explanations handed to them, the spectacle of elite sport continues to pique interest worldwide.

    Closing ceremonies for PyeongChang 2018 (ATR)
    “[It’s] because there's nothing like it,” says Bruce Arthur, a columnist at the Toronto Star and someone who’s seen more than his fair share of brilliant events over the years.

    I met Bruce at the Rio Olympics, having followed him online for a number of years before that. We spent much more time together in PyeongChang where I was constantly in awe of the stories he was able to produce. He may be even more cynical than me about the state of sport's interaction with the world, yet on deadline he has you cheering for his subjects harder than anyone.

    “Nothing takes almost all the relevant athletic threads on earth and weaves them together for such a focused, brilliant period of time like the Olympics do,” Bruce added. “It's like a wedding: it's one of the only chances to get almost all the people you care about in one room. And really, the key to the Olympics is it's really selling human possibility, and the athletes never fail to deliver that. There aren't many better global TV shows.”

    Still though, the biggest stories in sport this year eclipsed the human drama that took place at the Olympics or placed the Olympics in the background of global politics.

    We read about athletes working to take power back from administrators by showing decades of failure to stop abuse, and speaking out on the flaws and mistrust that exist in our anti-doping system. There were also people successfully working to convince voters to keep the Olympics from being hosted in their cities. Russia was kicked out of the Olympics, allowed to compete under a neutral flag, reinstated by the IOC, and provisionally reinstated by WADA. Then, in predictable fashion, the country missed a key WADA deadline in an agreement seen largely as a compromise to end a multi-year standoff.

    Basically, sport made us wonder why we gave it the benefit of the doubt at times, and raised the question of whether the Olympics should be as relevant as they are.

    This reporter at the 2018 Asian Games, which were marked by extrajudicial killings in the name of public safety (ATR)
    “What struck me about 2018 was that between the IOC letting Russia into PyeongChang, and reinstating them a week after the Games and therefore cutting out WADA's legs on enforcement of reinstatement conditions, this was the year the IOC planted itself most firmly and openly on the other side from any attempt at truly clean sports, because there's more money and influence on the other side.” Bruce said when I asked him that question.

    “Maybe they're right, and the show's so good that most of the world doesn't care. But the IOC abandoned the pretence of sporting morality this year, more than ever before. The Olympics should probably still be relevant, but not because of the people running them.”

    Believe it or not, some of the people running the Olympic Movement would agree with that sentiment.

    “I think too many of us have lost our focus and sense of purpose,” Brian Lewis, president of the Trinidad & Tobago Olympic Committee said to me. “It is no longer about doing it for the love of sport and for making a positive difference. It is about the status and perks; it is about self-interest.”

    I have always enjoyed discussing the state of sport politics with Brian because he is as much an optimist about decisive action as I am a cynic, and he understands that for real change to happen radical action needs to come right away.

    He has taken some flak this year on social media for saying that for reform to mean anything the next IOC President must be a woman. Smashing that glass ceiling will open many more doors and show the world that there is qualified leadership ready for the task, and that waiting for the “right” candidate would just perpetuate the patriarchy holding back gender equality.

    Brian Lewis (ATR)
    We agree there, and I am always impressed with his concrete ideas to back it up.

    “There should be a strategic intent to ensure that by 2028 every single NOC and Continental Olympic Organization is gender equal,” he says.

    Despite the problems of inaction that are hurting sport, he said he “firmly believes” the Games are still relevant because the social and economic impacts the event brings.

    More importantly, he says, “[the Olympics] can’t be approaching things the same way and doing things the same way.”

    “I believe as sport evolves and becomes more diverse and inclusive, the influence and impact of historical antecedents will dissipate.”

    The biggest lesson I learned when living in Rio de Janeiro to cover the last year of preparations for the 2016 Olympics was just how much of a city and country’s policies the Games touch. The event transforms the way a country approaches governing itself for seven years because of the massive scale required to stage a modern Olympic Games.

    I think that’s why more and more people around the world have rejected the Olympics, and worked to have more say in the decision making process over the Games.

    Maybe that’s why when we think about the Olympic Games, we need to consider the view that maybe the Games are not worth it anymore.

    In a piece with a title I think about a lot, Aaron Gordon at Vice reminded us that sporting leaders use events such as the Olympic Games as “a get-out-of-jail-free card for nearly any wrong they could possibly commit because they're bringing the world precious sports”. He then challenged us to think how much of the world in present day would change if the Olympics were to disappear, and concluded it is probably not much.

    IOC President Thomas Bach (ATR)
    Even IOC President Thomas Bach this year admitted how fragile the Olympic enterprise really is. He told CNN Money Switzerland earlier this year PyeongChang 2018 was “very close” to being cancelled because some countries believed safety and security of the event could be compromised because of threats from North Korea.

    Currently the latest Olympic bid cycle is down to two host cities, both seemingly on the verge of dropping out at any time.

    With the Olympics on the brink it begs the question of whether the Olympics are and should be relevant, but maybe that is the wrong way of thinking about it. The IOC has through the years taken advantage of its privilege of being afforded the administration of the world’s top sporting spectacle. It did not necessarily “earn” that position, though it has certainly capitalized on it.

    Maybe the lesson of 2018 should be to ask why have the Olympics become so relevant in so many parts of daily life, and more importantly ask ourselves what are the consequences of that. Just because something is being promoted with the goal of a public good does not mean its leaders automatically deserve trust when they say they are reforming.

    Sport will still be there to provide entertainment we need in all times. It is okay to step back and let yourself be overtaken by its brilliance. We all need exuberant moments no matter the circumstances.

    More importantly, I’m glad in 2018 everyone out there didn’t just watch the show, and worked their hardest to contextualize it as best they could. This year was a rollercoaster full of highs and lows, all of which were thankfully captured.

    This year was hard for a lot of people, and its likely 2019 will be too. Let’s not forget them and let’s empower those often lost to the machine surrounding sports. Here’s to another year doing that, and continuing to challenge our assumptions in search of the truth.

    Happy new year, welcome to 2019.

    Written by Aaron Bauer

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