In the middle of the night nearly two years ago, construction crews gathered near Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple and a popular tourist site. The streets were empty, the air was sultry and the workers hoped it would not rain. Machines rumbled to life.
It was a little thing, barely noticed. But it was a sign of the sometimes futile and farcical lengths taken to put on the biggest show in sports.
More than 1,000 Japanese had died of heat-related causes in July and August of 2018 and 2019, and several Olympic test events in Tokyo had made athletes ill and had scuttled schedules. Drastic measures for the upcoming Olympics were required.
Among them was this project, resurfacing the 26.2-mile marathon course with a shiny, reflective coating meant to bounce the heat away. It was a small expense for an event that would cost billions, and officials were not entirely sure it would do much good. But inch by inch, with large machines making whooshing noises over several hot August nights, the marathon course was unveiled in a silvery stripe.
Two months later, officials moved the marathon course 500 miles north to Sapporo, which has cooler weather. Left behind was the meandering stripe through central Tokyo, a marker of regrettable ideas.
Six months later, the coronavirus pandemic postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games for a year. Many Japanese wondered if this bloated sports festival was worthwhile anymore, worth the risks to public health or the billions spent on venues and stagecraft and other concessions to the International Olympic Committee.
Too late. The Summer Olympics are happening, amid a spiking pandemic and in mostly empty venues. The opening ceremony on Friday will bring curiosity and a question that might be aimed not just at the Tokyo Games, but at the entire Olympic movement:
Just what in the world are we doing here?
Those who pay attention to the Olympics tend to view them from one end of a telescope or the other. Most who tune in for the sporting event every couple of years love the suspense. They may know, in the recesses of their minds, that the spectacle disguises a rusty and corrupt system, prone to vote buying in the selection of host cities (including Tokyo), appeasement of dictators and unkept promises. To the fans of the Olympics, the positives outweigh the negatives.
A poll released last week found that 52 percent of Americans believe the Tokyo Games should happen. Only 22 percent of the people in Japan feel that way.
“The competition and people’s love for the Olympic movement, and the expectations that they have, it’s a positive thing,” said Edwin Moses, the two-time gold-medalist in track who has since worked in roles across the Olympic spectrum. “But from a sporting model, and everything behind the scenes? Most people only care about watching the Olympics every four years and could care less about how it operates.”
Those who analyze the Olympics more broadly see the balance in reverse. They may appreciate the athletic achievements, but not enough to outweigh concerns about damage inflicted by the Olympics.
“The Olympics are unreformable, and I think on balance, they do more harm than good,” said David Goldblatt, author of “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics.”
The Olympics are an easy target for criticism, never more than now. Do they still matter? Or have they lost their way and strayed from whatever ideals they purport to embody?
The 1896 Games in Athens, the first Olympics of the modern age, lasted two weeks and had a Eurocentric air of entitled aristocracy. They arrived in the Belle Epoque, a gilded era of European and North American optimism and colonialism. It was the heyday of world’s fairs, a time to flex.
There were 241 athletes, all white men. (Tokyo will have about 11,000 athletes, almost half of them women, representing more than 200 countries.) One event, a bit of a lark, was invented in 1896: the marathon, which attracted at least 80,000 spectators to the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.
The Olympics were a surprising success, and their basic idealism, structure and pageantry endure.
“The inauguration of the revived Olympic games today was a delight to the eye and an impressive appeal to the imagination,” The New York Times reported in 1896.
Today’s Olympics remain immensely popular, if broadcast contracts are trusted indicators. Hundreds of countries maintain huge organizations solely for the Olympics, and athletes all over the globe share some vision of an Olympic dream — a fairy tale idealism that persists as the best buffer to cynicism.
In some ways — too many ways, critics argue — the Olympics are stuck in time, a 19th century construct floating through a 21st century world.
“They’ve evolved, or not evolved, this system completely separate from the rest of society,” said Han Xiao, a former member of the United States national table tennis team who is now active in the Olympic movement. “And that’s where a lot of the problems come in, whether it’s with corruption or imbalances in power that lead to athlete abuse or human rights violations. If you’re not keeping up with the advances that other areas of society are making, or you’re not subject to the oversight of society as a whole, it’s kind of predictable that these things are going to happen.”
In short, the Olympics are built on excess, tangled in geopolitics, rife with corruption and cheating. Each Olympic cycle raises uncomfortable questions about sustainability, environmental damage and human rights.
The Games are presented as apolitical, but that is both impossible and untrue. The honor of holding them has faded; the Olympics strain to attract host cities, which are often left staggering in the aftermath. Climate change is shrinking the map for viable locations, especially for the Winter Games.
The entire apparatus is run by a lever-pulling wizard, the powerful I.O.C. president — there have been only nine in 125 years, all white men, all from Europe besides one American. Thomas Bach currently oversees the 102-member committee. Most members attained their positions through political and business ties. At least 11 are members of royalty.
In its charter, the I.O.C. has granted itself “supreme authority” in all Olympic matters. It answers only to whim.
“The International Olympic Committee is probably the most pervasive sport infrastructure in the world and arguably the least accountable, and that’s saying a lot when there’s a group called FIFA in the world,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor at Pacific University and the author of several books on the Olympics.
As mere entertainment, the Olympics thrive largely on nostalgia and collective memory. Their key conceit is a nationalism fueled by parades, anthems, flag-raising and other ceremonial flourishes that feel detached from global trends. They package harmony without depth, inclusion without context.
“The diversity of thought, the diversity of cultures, the diversity of youth today — they’re a little bit behind the curve,” Moses said of the Games.
Tailored over the past 50 years for appointment television, the Olympics perpetuate hoary competitions even as they desperately chase younger audiences. The Tokyo Games will include the debuts of skateboarding, surfing and sport climbing, with gold medals awarded in those sports on the same days, respectively, as in shooting, fencing and modern pentathlon.
Few people favor abolishing the Games. The Olympics still represent the pinnacle for most of the sports. To athletes, the Olympics can mean everything — a lifetime’s work, the height of achievement. Few, if any, decline invitations on moral grounds.
The Tokyo Games will provide the expected thrills. Yet with spectators barred because of the pandemic, the Olympics will be little more than two-dimensional theater beamed worldwide. Television’s control over the Olympics has been apparent for years, as 73 percent of the I.O.C. budget comes from broadcast rights. And arranging the Games in the heat of Tokyo’s summer suited broadcasters’ schedules, not athletes’ considerations.
“The athletes, they’re not the priority,” said David Wallechinsky, a historian who wrote and updated “The Complete Book of the Olympics” from 1983 to 2012, noting that the 1964 Tokyo Games were held in October to avoid dangerous heat. “Television is the priority.”
NBC, the Games’ biggest broadcast partner, has sold $1.25 billion in advertising, and the Tokyo Olympics “could be our most profitable Olympics in the history of the company,” Jeff Shell, the chief executive of NBC Universal, said.
The Tokyo organizers simply hope to salvage some part of their integrity and expense.
Six months later will come the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, which have been threatened by a rising cacophony over human rights in China and suggestions that the Games be boycotted.
“The real thing to differentiate is the competition and the idea of what the Olympics are,” Xiao said, “versus all the things that go on around them and the way they’re done.”
Bolt, Biles — and bidding corruption
Interviews with those steeped in the Olympics — historians, academics, athletes, officials — yield at least one consensus: No one thinks the Olympics operate just fine the way they are.
Key complaints fall mostly into three categories: corruption in host bidding, a lack of I.O.C. accountability and a dearth of athlete rights.
Buying votes for a bid is an Olympic event in itself. It did not end with the scandal before the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City. Vote buying appears to have occurred in securing the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro and the 2020 Tokyo Games.
The I.O.C. has awarded the Games to hosts with autocratic tendencies, like Russia (Sochi in 2014) and China (Beijing in 2008 and 2022).
The Russians used the Olympics as a $50 billion showcase for President Vladimir V. Putin while the country undertook an extensive doping program and, just as the Olympics ended, invaded Ukraine. The Russian flag and anthem were barred from the 2018 Winter Games and from Tokyo, but the country’s athletes are allowed to compete individually (in Tokyo, under the banner “ROC,” for Russian Olympic Committee) if they meet certain conditions.
China’s human-rights record, including the crackdown in Hong Kong and what a State Department report called the genocide of Uighurs, will certainly get fuller attention before February. In 2013, Bach presented President Xi Jinping of China with the Olympic Order, the highest honor of the Olympic movement.
“Bach, somewhat inexplicably and in basically a fantasy land, still insists that the Olympics are not political,” Boykoff said. “Where any neutral observer would come along and see the political implications everywhere in the Olympics.”
Despite the see-no-evil approach, host selections are hardly global. Only three Olympics have been held in the Southern Hemisphere — two in Australia and one in Brazil. No Olympics have been held in Africa.
After an embarrassing selection process for the 2022 Winter Olympics — four of six bidding cities dropped out, mostly because of a lack of support at home, leaving an unappetizing choice of Beijing or Almaty, Kazakhstan — the I.O.C. ended its expensive, frenzied competition for the right to host.
Instead, it has quietly named future hosts, raising new questions about transparency.
Candidate cities typically promise sparkling venues, ample hotel rooms and enthusiastic audiences, all demanded by the I.O.C., and present sweeping environmental goals and long-term impact plans that do not always come to fruition.
In Rio, the plan was to clean up the enormous Guanabara Bay, where raw sewage flows from millions of residents. Momentum for the project ended with the Olympics, and Rio’s venues have since fallen into disuse and disrepair — a fate shared with other Olympic sites.
Some suggest that the Olympics find a permanent home, maybe a rotating set of cities. That might end bidding corruption (after the initial selection), but it would raise other problems, including continuing costs of upkeep and ever-changing geopolitics.
From the I.O.C.’s perspective, part of the allure of the Olympics is their shifting setting. Of course, it is not the committee’s money at stake, and the focus is ever forward, to the next Olympics.
Remaking the I.O.C. into an accountable body may be the biggest obstacle.
“You choose your membership, you’re totally untransparent, you have an appalling track record of corruption that you have not sorted out, you actively exclude critics and independent voices from your inner circles, you refuse to engage with your critics,” Boykoff said. “How are we going to reform anything with this?”
The Olympics thrive on short attention spans. Outcry over scandals usually ends the moment the show begins.
“There have been few greater things in my life than seeing Usain Bolt do his thing, and Simone Biles makes me swoon,” Goldblatt said. “On the other hand, you must meet some of the 75,000 people who have been displaced forcibly from their homes in Rio de Janeiro.”
Outside forces are growing. More and more, democratic countries are skeptical of the Olympics. Activist groups like Human Rights Watch and NOlympicsLA have found voices and audiences. Global warming might force a reckoning in the next few years. Even ardent Olympic fans are attuned to concerns about the sexual abuse scandals across several sports, and about results that cannot be trusted given the persistent murkiness of doping.
These are not counterweights, yet.
“You need a group of people who want to change it, and outside of some extraordinary public pressure, it’s very difficult,” Xiao said. “Because everybody turns on the TV those 16 days.”
That dissident group may be the athletes themselves.
For them, the Olympics raise, more than ever, issues ranging from compensation to free speech to gender rights. They are finding their voices, collectively. The Black Lives Matter movement has tapped a new vein of activist athletes.
A major topic is Rule 50, the I.O.C.’s ban on athletes’ demonstrating or displaying “political, religious or racial propaganda” at the Olympics. Last year, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee announced that it would no longer punish athletes who engage in peaceful protests, including at the Olympics themselves. There is anxiety about how the I.O.C. will enforce this rule in Tokyo and beyond.
“Can you imagine in Beijing next winter if, say, an American athlete protests publicly on the podium the human rights abuses in China?” said Noah Hoffman, the two-time Olympic cross-country skier who helped start Global Athlete, which aims to amplify athletes’ views on critical issues. “Not only is the I.O.C. not going to protect those athletes, they’re going to be part of the system that’s punishing the athlete.”
Athletes are becoming ever more aware of the defects in the Olympic system. Allyson Felix, the American track star who will be making her fifth Olympic appearance, was part of a push to get the Summer Games for Los Angeles, which will host in 2028.
“Seeing more of how the International Olympic Committee operates, it’s not what I thought it was,” Felix told The Times recently. “My perspective was that the Games were so much about the competition. Being involved in the bid process, you see that the competition and the athletes are a very minimal part. The athletes do not have a seat at the table when the decisions are being made.”
But will this growing awareness ultimately help preserve the Games?
“We’re in for a very, very, very rough and turbulent couple of decades in terms of global change and what this planet means,” Goldblatt said. “And I just wonder: What is the Olympics going to look like in the face of that? It already looks like an absurdity to me. And I wonder what a generation, 30 years younger than me, will be thinking while the world’s on fire.”
For now, though, absurdity rests squarely in Tokyo. It can be found in the meandering, unexplained silvery stripe that snakes through the city, underfoot and under tire — an idea with good intentions, now fading with time.