With the opening ceremony less than a week away, the vibes around the Tokyo Olympics are not great. First and foremost, there’s COVID-19—the reason the games are being held in 2021 rather than 2020 in the first place. Thanks to Japan’s oddly lackadaisical pandemic response and the Delta variant–driven global surge, events are being held without spectators and more and more high-profile athletes are being forced to withdraw after testing positive.
Public opposition to holding the games in Japan is overwhelming. On top of the COVID disqualifications, the lead up to the games has seen other athletes disqualified on the basis of discriminatory or just plain stupid rules. People involved in organizing the games have been forced out by revelations of a range of appalling behavior covering sexism, body-shaming, plagiarism, and bullying the disabled.
Then there are safety concerns about holding outdoor events in Tokyo’s sweltering summer heat, a grim portent of challenges to come in a warming world. Judging by the headlines, it feels like we’re in for, at worst, a dangerous public health catastrophe; at best, a low-energy bummer of an event.
Perhaps we are, but some perspective is also warranted: Bad vibes are more or less the norm in the lead-up to the Olympics.
Six weeks before the Athens Games in 2004, the New York Times reported that the main facilities were “still construction sites,” and raised fears of a terrorist attack. In the runup to the 2008 Olympics, the coverage was heavily focused on human rights protests, construction worker deaths, and air pollution. The London games in 2012 overcame construction delays security scares, and public opposition.
Before the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, smart-ass American journalists snarked about the decision to hold the games in a “subtropical gangster’s paradise.” The world’s media gawked at photos of half-finished hotels, trash-strewn streets and stray dogs when they weren’t focusing on more serious concerns about corruption and the Russia’s discrimination against LGBTQ people. The lead-up to the Rio Olympics in 2016 included a long-list of problems: construction delays, polluted water, crime and safety, doping scandals, human rights violations, the Zika virus.
In all these cases, the issues didn’t go away but the bad press dissipated pretty quickly once the sprinters were off the block or the skiers were out of the starting gate. If the unfortunate peace doves who were roasted in the flame at the opening ceremony in Seoul in 1988 weren’t enough of a bad omen to kill the Olympic mood, I’m not sure what would be.
It’s true that the Olympics have never faced a global challenge on the order of COVID, but I can also remember when the NBA bubble and the recently concluded Euro 2020 tournament looked like reckless fiascos in the making. It would be a stretch to say either one went off without a hitch, but as entertainment products they delivered what viewers were looking for.
There are a couple of conclusions to draw from this pattern. One is that it’s simply in the nature of massive, complex, global events to face delays, cost overruns, and political complications. In the months and weeks leading up to the Olympics, there are no actual sports to cover, so the media tends to focus on these problems or use the event as a peg for taking a look at long-running issues in the host country. Once the competition kicks off, they tend to shift focus.
The other is that there really a lot of very serious negative externalities around the Olympics, in terms of economic costs, environmental impacts, and human rights. The IOC is a notoriously corrupt organization that’s more than happy to let autocratic governments use the games for self-glorification. Host cities rarely see the promised economic benefits and are left to tend crumbling white elephant stadiums.
There have been genuine atrocities during the games that really did overshadow the events, but they’ve been rare. The IOC and broadcasters like NBC are masters of spectacle who very good at making it so you don’t have to think about these things while you’re watching. Perhaps this time is different, and they’ve really bitten off more than they can chew with the COVID Olympics. But I wouldn’t bet against them.