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The Lords of the Olympic Rings

The Lords of the Olympic Rings On the obverse and reverse of coins and medals

The idea of ​​sport is associated with peace in an almost reflexive manner. At the same time, prosperity is being called into the arena of sport’s allies. But if we overcome the reflexes and become reflective, we can take into account the counter-opinions to the standard pleadings according to which sports competitions, for example the Olympic Games, both in their original, ancient expression and in modern and contemporary forms, would be, politically, victories against war, and, economically, it would mean triumphs against (of?) waste.

Tokyo 2020, the Olympic Games delayed and distressed by the pandemic crisis, is a good pretext for reflection (even if refractory in some senses) on the politics and economics of sport (that is on its idealistic and idyllic versions), beyond health issues that captured the recent concerns. Because of (or in spite of) their specific ingredients and tools, both the political matters and the economic considerations interfere with the much-praised spirit of sport much more profoundly than the sweat in the arena or the tears on the podium. 

The Olympic spirit and a wish: “A few thousand years, peace!”


The thesis that the Olympic Games began in 776 BC (about the time when the patron of the chroniclers, Homer, is supposed to have been born) prevails among Hellenistic historians. Supposedly, it was born in the sanctuary of Olympia, dedicated to Zeus (the Olympian), which was erected a few centuries earlier, which may lead to the reasonable assumption that such practices could have had antecedents. But beyond exact data, it is more important to understand what made the ancient Greeks go from honouring the supreme divinity of the time through offerings or sacrifices to worshipping through athletics. Several factors can be mentioned. We have, for one, the growing of the (geo)political importance of the Greek poleis (city-states), each (still) wanting a means of asserting its supremacy, thus choosing to send its most reputable representatives to Olympia to become champions in physical competition. Then, although explicitly placed under the sign of peace (or at least armistice), the Games were closely related to the development of military training, being a stimulating means to mobilize men to stay in shape. The games were also meant to fix the correspondence between the competitive world of the gods, ordered by the supreme divinity, and the world of men, the supremacy of the champion among the competitors, each with their own protector god, representing a terrestrial mirror of the celestial order. The association of the games with peace stems from the injunction against warfare while they were taking place.

The old Olympianism (meaning not just excellence in sports, but also the entire scaffolding of competition between polities) meant both politics and war, with both symbolic and substantial nature. What will have changed – if it has changed – since then? Von Clausewitz had frankly concluded that “war is only a continuation of politics by other means”, speaking of a unity of nature and a difference of degree between the two. While considering the still-fresh traumas caused by the Second World War, Orwell would find it frustrating that “sport is war minus the shooting”, with the Olympics being nothing more than a “mimicked war”. In the post-war era, the Olympic Games were to be both harmless arenas of sports diplomacy and political agorae meant to hyperbolize national grandeur, later immersing themselves in the paradigm of the confronting Western democracies and the Soviet bloc, in the Cold War between capitalism and communism (keeping in mind the exchange of boycotts between the Moscow editions of 1980 and Los Angeles of 1984). As for the belligerence, even the artisan of the revival of Olympianism, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who had thought of the Games in the context of a France reeling from the war of 1870 against Prussia, had denounced the use of gymnastics in schools in both countries as military training in anticipation of a future European conflict. Sport – training for or an alternative to war? 

The politicization and corruption of sport, another kind of war

The ignoble house 

Much has been written and will be written from the perspective of the socio-human sciences about the paradoxical or duplicitous nature of sports, especially when it is practiced internationally: it offers us a simulacrum of war through ritualized competition. Although it tends to privilege aspects such as inculcating team spirit, exalting self-transcendence and avoiding self-sufficiency or compressing primary instinctual impulses, the identity between the “fighting” and “playing” fields, between “sportsman” and “soldier” persists. Even when sports do not involve “contact” (like boxing or fencing), popular sports are clearly “territorial” (football, tennis), and team sports involve defence and attack strategies and tactics. The martial beats the playful in the “game”.

As complex multi-sport events, the Olympics preserve the contradiction, the strangeness: they are simultaneously celebrations of international understanding and civilizing tolerance, as well as of the latent rivalries between nations, between cultures. But they also presuppose an aggravating circumstance: they are events claimed, with shouts and drums, to be fundamentally apolitical, but organized in an fundamentally “state-centric” world. Where states remain political entities, built on the foundation of vaguely contracted / socially legitimized coercion and whose real (and not ideal) functionality and governability can never exclude complicity or corruption.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), the forum entrusted with the administration and development of the modern Olympic Games since 1894, is responsible for (but not limited to) designating the host cities for these mega-events. Representing a global monopolistic entity, presided over by people accredited by national public monopolies (state-level Olympic committees), the IOC ecosystem could not stay away from corruption and political pressure. The story of the bought benevolence of some IOC members for the organization of the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, Utah, USA, has not cooled. Even this year’s edition, with all the codes of Japanese honour, would be slightly infected, not by COVID-19, but by “suitcases”.

Beyond the small, tributary politics, the Olympic Games found themselves in the middle of geopolitical disputes: Nazi propaganda at the 1936 Berlin edition; the Soviet-Hungarian friction of 1956 in Melbourne; the 1976 China-Taiwan controversy in Montreal; the multiple disputes resulting from apartheid policies of South Africa between 1968 and 1988; the occult battles, in terms of medal counting, and therefore of global reputation, between the USA and the USSR during the Cold War, plus the cross-boycotts between the two, in 1980 and in 1984 to which we add the supreme infamy: the killing of Israeli athletes by terrorists at the 1972 Munich edition. 

What ignites (and extinguishes) the Olympic flame in the economy

Case Study 

Economists have long argued that, rather than fuelling consumption, tourism and prestige, the Games bring large debts, unusable infrastructure, and onerous maintenance obligations. Everything stems from (political) ambition. In a 2016 paper, Victor Matheson and Robert Baade, two American researchers, concluded that “in most cases, the Olympics is an idea that loses money for host cities”. And they are not the only ones. Will Tokyo 2020 be different? For now, there are discussions about costs: official estimates speak of 15 billion dollars, those in the market claim double this amount. The benefits are even harder to quantify because the pandemic has also contaminated the numbers. However, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took over, the Games were seen as the perfect mechanism to break out of the already endemic state of deflation and build a bridge over time to the glorious 1964 edition. 57 years ago, Japan announced its participation in the new world order as a power based on an eclectic, conservative-avant-garde order, of labour, capital and technology. Custodian of the great return of Japan at that time: Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi, Abe’s maternal grandfather. For Abe, Tokyo 2020, brought forward to 2021, represented means to both close the family legacy circle and to generate an economic boom much like what was happening in 1964.

COVID-19 turned everything upside down. Billions of dollars are the cost of the delay plus the loss of the 40 million tourists initially expected. And that does not cover everything. Comparisons with 1964 are unfavourable. As the second-largest economy in the region, after China, Japan is also losing ground in the IT&C sector, where South Korea is more present than ever. Abe’s decade of government (returned to power in 2012, after another short term, 2006-2007, as Prime Minister) is an occasion for contradictory diagnoses and predictions. “Abe 2.0” would be seen as a visionary reformer – a mix of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan adapted for the “Land of the Rising Sun” – with daring goals: cutting red tape, fighting aversion to change, stimulating innovation, empowering women and attracting talents from abroad. But the program would be gradually reduced to a pair of obsessive-compulsive orientations, composed of quantitative monetary easing, via the Bank of Japan, to which is added, yes, the Olympics. Real reforms slowed down or faded, Abe lost power last fall, and Japan choose to hold the Olympic Games, postponed by a year, on the principle that cancellation would be more burdensome than bringing them to a (good) end. Do we happen to have the Games in the wrong age, in the wrong country? 

Host cities remain indebted for such an honour


If we were to listen to the most prominent economic analysts of the Olympic phenomenon, not even a well-off and prudent country like Japan can escape the “curse of costs over and benefits below expectations”. In fact, every Olympics edition since 1960 has exceeded the budget, by an average of 172% in inflation-adjusted terms, according to a study from Oxford University. Overall, it is “the largest overrun for any category of megaprojects (publicly funded)”, thus out costing roads, bridges, dams and other major infrastructure. Case by case: Rio de Janeiro 2016 budgeted $ 14 billion, but ate nearly $ 20 billion; Sochi 2014 budgeted $ 10.3 billion but it rose to over $ 51 billion; London 2012 budgeted $ 5 billion, the final cost being of about $ 18 billion.

There are no researchers in the world who have studied the economics of the Olympics more than Andrew Zimbalist, a professor at Smith College, who has published three books on the subject. His research has led him to question the value of hosting the Olympics for cities, and his warnings have even influenced some cities to withdraw from competing to host the Games. In an interview with the New York Times, he joins those who believe that Tokyo has spent much more than the 2019 public audit estimate, estimating that the Games will leave a “hole” of at least $ 35 billion.

A new sample of megalomaniacal thinking (and a potentially losing one in economic terms) is the one associated with the organization of the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. Xi Jinping’s China wants a new show of strength after the 2008 summer edition, although it obviously pushes the natural boundaries (physical and human). Thus, two locations were chosen over 100 km north of the capital for Nordic and alpine skiing, arid areas, not far from the Gobi Desert. They require tens of billions of dollars invested in water supply because it is already clear that artificial snow will be used. Everything is to be done in a region where there are no visible long-term effects: not only is there no winter sports culture present, but no interest either.

Zimbalist also comes up with a clever solution: “If we were living in a rational world, we would have the same city hosting the Games every two years. There’s no reason to rebuild the Olympic Shangri-La every four years. It doesn’t make sense for the cities. It certainly makes no sense from the standpoint of climate change. When the modern Olympics were created in 1896, we did not have international telecommunications and international jet travel. So, in order to have the world participate in and enjoy the Olympics, you had to move it around. We don’t have to do that anymore”. In the name of global concord, do we practice wasteful symbolism? 

Citius, Altius, Fortius – Communis 

For this edition of the Olympic Games, the IOC changed the original Latin saying of the movement (“Faster, higher, stronger”), adding the idea of “together”. It is in the spirit of the present times, when progress cannot (and it is not allowed to) bypass even the most ingrained traditions and where the difference between harmless and offensive is answered with feelings, not with reason. “Together” remains a closing word here, perhaps even the quintessence of the human species, beyond ideologizations and idiosyncrasies. However, some words have the value of those who say them.




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