Olympic Disruption: The Give and Take of the World’s Games

Written by: Riley Fink

As if it needs to be stated by anyone else, we are living in unprecedented times. As isolation grips us and societies and economies grind to a halt all around the world, many have been quick to call this period a new normal, or even a new world order, as if life will be this way forever. Indeed, the Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has fundamentally disrupted everyday life in the United States and around the world, challenging our institutions, infrastructure, and management capabilities; businesses and schools have shut down, consumers are emptying storefronts in bursts of panic buying, and events and conventions of all sizes are being indefinitely postponed. While policymakers at home struggle to account for such shifts absent proper social safety nets, many organizations around the world likewise face the reality of developing contingency plans for what was never predicted. Chief among those events hanging in limbo are the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.

Disruption and even outright cancellation are, unsurprisingly, familiar concepts to the Olympics, given their transnational qualities. They attempt to unite the nations of the world under a single common, lighthearted cause, yet its leadership ignores many realities of international affairs, treating outright animosity as if it were friendly rivalry. Diplomacy efforts are rarely advanced through these sorts of channels despite the hopes of organizing parties. Sporting events are always bound to national narratives, and when conducted among states truly do amount to war minus the shooting. The Olympic Games have always been a political tool, an opportunity to demonstrate a nation’s soft power, supposed transparency, and economic might to the rest of the world. The celebration of sport may be the stated goal, but host cities stake their bids on the hopes of foreign investment, sponsorship, and media branding. Such mega-events may lead to short term economic benefits and even long-term tourism, but the displacement of peoples and few tangible long term positive effects on the national economy are the norm. 

The actual cost of running the Games has overrun the projected amount every single time, without exception. Some academics have described an initial Olympic budget as “more like a fictitious minimum that is consistently overspent.” For instance, the costs of the 1932 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid were more than three times the initially anticipated amount, and Montreal was paying off its debt from hosting the 1976 Olympics for 30 years thereafter. Despite the claim by the latter’s former mayor Jean Drapeau that “the Olympics can no more run a deficit than a man can have a baby,” exactly that happened. The Games certainly put the host city in the national spotlight, but as they become grander and more extravagant, costs continue to balloon, nevermind the extreme waste the construction and subsequent abandonment of the necessary facilities generate after the ceremonies end. Many positives can and do come from the accompanying investments in urban infrastructure, as seen with the cleanup of Seoul’s Han River for the 1988 Games, or redevelopment of London’s East End for the 2012 Games. Yet, it’s clear that such improvements would not be made absent from the eyes of the world. If these changes are largely rhetorical and made only to put a fresh coat of paint over the most neglected areas of a city or temporarily hide poverty, then they amount to nothing more than grand gentrification efforts.

Olympic venues themselves serve little purpose after the Games are over with, and they often sit empty, left to degrade and be absorbed by nature. Cities are left saddled with gigantic white elephants. Just recently a judge ordered the closure of the site of the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro due to safety concerns. Similar fates have befallen Olympic facilities in countless other host cities. Those in Athens from the 2004 Games are infamous for their incredible state of disrepair, and Beijing’s Bird’s Nest stadium, apart from the occasional soccer game, is regularly unoccupied. This trend persists in recent host cities, even after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) adopted new regulations in 2013 as part of its Olympic Agenda 2020 reforms, stipulating that venues no longer need be permanent or new. All of these expenses are in a way already baked into the potential costs of the Games. It’s not a shock that costs overrun, but it is surprising that sustainability is given so little thought.

The IOC praised Los Angeles’ 2024 bid, rightfully so, for the implementation of both existing and temporary structures, as well as reliance on private funding. Theoretically, though, this should be more than doable for the City of Angels, considering they have already hosted the Olympic Games twice in the past. Their hosting of the 1984 Games was similarly pragmatic, making use of its Coliseum built for the 1932 Games. Conversion of Olympic facilities for other uses in host countries is laudable; the use of some amenities within Yoyogi Park and transformation of the adjacent National Olympic Memorial Youth Center — the former site of the athletes’ village from the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo — into a hostel is a great example of such practices. 

Mega-events themselves are contradictory; they further the “society of the spectacle,” aiming to obscure the inequalities of urban life when in actuality they lay bare and celebrate the phenomena which create such conditions. This is why the Olympics particularly are so often a site of struggle. A lot of it is empty talk. Protests against the IOC itself are not uncommon either, often relating to matters of discrimination, greed, human rights violations, and waves of disruption to communities that the Olympics often leave in their wake. Ultimately, the quest for glory and an idea of a shared humanity espoused by the IOC are both little more than a marketing pitch. 

So, the Olympics have a clear global impact, with their economic, cultural, and environmental transformations shaping both surrounding communities and a worldwide reputation for decades thereafter. An international juggernaut they may be, but the World’s Games as an institution are not immune from the realities of geopolitics. In light of increasing tensions domestic and global, it might be nice to reminisce about bygone days when the only thing to worry about was a global war or nuclear annihilation. In many ways, the World’s Games are a miscalculated recipe for disaster, bound by the passions of its participants. Here are a few notable instances that demonstrate the interplay of international affairs and sport in the Olympics.

Summer 1900 – Paris, France, the II Olympiad: International Reunion*

The second modern Olympiad is regarded as a bit of an enigma by sports historians. The Olympic status of the Games was so under-promoted that many athletes didn’t even realize the nature of the competition. Being held over a five-month period and folded into the events of the Exposition Universelle — the 1900 World’s Fair — didn’t help the branding problem either. Unlike its predecessor, women were allowed to participate, though they were greatly outnumbered at 22 women to around 1,000 men.

Summer 1904 – St. Louis, United States of America, the III Olympiad: Let Your Presence Be Known*

The 1904 Olympics in St. Louis prominently began in earnest an unfortunate trend of propagating colonialist ideals of race hierarchy through “sport.” Native Americans and peoples from Africa, South America, the Middle East, the Philippines, northern Japan, and elsewhere were shipped in as part of a racial experiment by the white organizers to prove their physical inferiority. These unwilling and unwitting competitors were pitted against one another in sport as a precursor to the main Games, and leading scientists were invited to observe their performance relative to that of the Americans. Unquestionably one of the most shameful moments in Olympic history, this event came to be known as “The Savages’ Olympics.” The coinciding Louisiana Purchase Centennial Exhibit — the 1904 World’s Fair — likewise put on display the horrors of imperialist might. Recreations of colonial villages containing live human models, from Pygmies to Turks to Filipinos from America’s recently acquired territory, were constructed for visitors to further observe “savage” behavior. Despite being a logistical nightmare to create, American ingenuity prevailed, and Congress allocated a hefty sum of $1.5 million toward the project of then-governor general of the Philippines William Howard Taft to acclimate the world to the newest colony of the United States. 

Both these and the prior Games in Paris, apart from the deprival of human dignity, are regarded as poorly organized, almost amateur affairs. The 1904 Games were originally planned to be held in Chicago, but after St. Louis threatened to rival the magnitude of the Olympics with their own World’s Fair, the IOC reluctantly moved the Games to the city. As a result, the events were again held over a sprawling four-and-a-half month period. Few Europeans showed up, and many contests lacked any non-American athletes. In fact, around 80 percent of the athletes were Americans.

Summer 1906 – Athens, Greece, the I Intercalated Games: We Are The World*

The Intercalated Games were meant to be a series of Games taking place in Greece between the main Olympics at regular intervals, much in the same way the Winter Olympics today operate in “off years.” After the slapdash Games in 1900 and 1904, Greece argued that the Olympics ought to always take place in Athens for the sake of consistent quality, and IOC president Pierre de Coubertin, embarrassed by the reputation the Games now held, compromised and agreed to allow Greece to hold the Intercalated Games every four years in the interim between the Olympics. The very first one ended up being the last. Even so, the scale and grandeur were comparable to the Olympics proper. Perhaps the most notable controversy stemmed from track and field athlete Peter O’Connor, who climbed a 20-foot flagpole to wave the Irish flag. He had entered the Games earlier that year to play for his native Ireland, but new rules mandated that only athletes nominated by a domestic Olympic Committee could compete. Ireland didn’t have one, so the British Olympic Council claimed him as their own. O’Connor was outraged when he found out he’d be playing for Great Britain and was made during medal ceremonies to stand underneath the Union Jack. In protest, he scaled a flagpole and waved his nation’s flag emblazoned with the words Erin Go Bragh (Ireland Forever). Allied Irish and American athletes guarded the pole. Funnily enough, these Games also introduced the practice of teams marching behind the flag of their home countries in the Parade of Nations. Opening and closing ceremonies took place for the first time during these Games as well.

Summer 1908 – London, United Kingdom, the IV Olympiad: Embrace With Open Arms*

Originally, Rome was awarded the 1908 Olympics, but the eruption of Mount Vesuvius prompted the city’s withdrawal. Once again, many athletes were represented by flags other than their own; Finnish competitors competed under the Soviet flag, and Irish athletes again were under the British flag. Americans also refused to dip their own flag to King-Emperor Edward VII in a rejection of monarchy. This began a longstanding tradition of Team USA not dipping its flag at all during opening ceremonies when passing the host nation.

Summer 1916 – Berlin, Germany, the VI Olympiad: Go Beyond*

The 1916 Olympics were canceled due to World War I. Impressive new facilities were constructed and dedication ceremonies took place even leading up to the outbreak of the war in 1914. It wasn’t expected that it would carry on long enough to impact the Olympics, but so it did, and the Games were abandoned.

Summer 1936 – Berlin, Nazi Germany, the XI Olympiad: I Call The Youth Of The World!

Germany’s bid to host the 1936 Olympics was granted in 1931. When the Nazi Party rose to power in 1933, many Western countries floated the idea of a boycott, yet in the end, 49 nations were in attendance, the most of any Games up to that point. Scholars have questioned how all those countries could have elected to give legitimacy to an inhumane regime through their mere participation. It presented a golden opportunity for Hitler to appear cooperative with the international community and obscure real intentions. What ensued was, in essence, an attempt to placate fears of a rogue Germany and portray its treatment of Jews as harmless. “One must govern well, and good government needs good propaganda.” It spat in the face of any Olympic ideals about the need to separate politics from the sport. The outstanding performance of African American athlete Jesse Owens is viewed as single-handedly destroying the Nazi effort to prove Aryan superiority.

Winter 1940 – Sapporo, Empire of Japan / St. Moritz, Switzerland / Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Nazi Germany, the V Olympic Winter Games

Summer 1940 – Tokyo, Empire of Japan / Helsinki, Finland, the XXII Olympiad

Winter 1944 – Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy, the V (again) Olympic Winter Games

Summer 1944 – London, United Kingdom, the XXIII Olympiad: Reach For Glory*

This ill-fated quartet of Olympic events was canceled due to the outbreak of World War II. Japan was meant to host the 1940 Winter Olympics, but following the outbreak of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937 and Japan’s invasion of China it was clear a new host would be needed. The Winter Games were then awarded to Switzerland, but, after disagreeing over the very serious matter of ski instructor expertise, the IOC withdrew its offer. The host of the previous 1936 Winter Olympics, Germany’s Garmisch-Partenkirchen, was once again asked to host, despite the recent invasion of Austria, the events of Kristallnacht, and the Pact of Steel alliance with Mussolini’s Italy. As Germany soon invaded Poland in 1939, the Games were at last scrapped entirely. The rest of this grouping faced similar troubles. The only instances in which the Olympics have been canceled have been because of the world wars.

Summer 1948 – London, United Kingdom, the XIV Olympiad: A New Kind of Peace*

Following the end of World War II, the IOC asked London to host the 1948 Olympics, as they were meant to do in 1944. Defeated powers Germany and Japan were not invited this time around. London was still rebuilding, so many athletes were housed in makeshift barracks instead of the typical Olympic village. Food was also being carefully rationed, and athletes were instructed to prepare their own meals.

Summer 1956 – Melbourne, Australia / Stockholm, Sweden, the XVI Olympiad: Rise Up*

The 1956 Games were the first Olympics ever held outside of Europe or North America and were naturally held later in the year to coincide with the seasonal change of the Southern Hemisphere. Equestrian events were held in Sweden earlier in the year. These Games are defined by those who boycotted them. Egypt, Lebanon, and Iraq didn’t compete in response to the Suez Crisis. The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Hungary. China boycotted because of Taiwan’s involvement, a dispute that took 28 years to resolve. China boycotted because of Taiwan’s involvement, a matter that took 28 years to resolve. In more amicable developments, the two Germanys competed under one flag, a practice that was continued in the next two Games, 

Winter 1960 – Squaw Valley, United States of America, the VIII Olympic Winter Games: United As One*

The now-renowned resort in Squaw Valley didn’t even exist when its sole inhabitant, Alexander Cushing, made the Olympic bid. After gaining the support of the California state government, Congress, and President Eisenhower, the IOC made the surprising decision to go with Cushing’s proposal, which put intimacy at its core. The largely uninhabited valley became a full-fledged town in under five years, with proper infrastructure and all. With the Games set against the backdrop of the Space Race, Olympic Organizing Committee chairman Prentis C. Hale remarked in a call for unity, “You can return home as the world’s best-equipped ambassadors of unity and peace. Before we pay so much attention to conquering outer space, we should devote ourselves to conquering inner space: the distance between nations.”

The IOC was worried by Cold War tensions, particularly those brought on by American support for Taiwan potentially clashing with Soviet support for China. As the Games were taking place in California, the IOC feared that the United States would not allow Chinese athletes to compete. IOC president Avery Brundage, an American, declared that if the United States denied entry to any country recognized by the IOC, Squaw Valley’s invitation to host would be revoked, and he himself would resign.

A few other notes: These Games had a hand in establishing the concept of the instant replay, after skiing officials asked CBS to review their tape in order to render an accurate judgment. These were also the first Winter Games with a village square built. Additionally, Walt Disney was in charge of the organization of the opening and closing ceremonies, which involved the construction of the “Tower of Nations,” and the release of 30,000 balloons into the sky

Summer 1964 – Tokyo, Japan, the XVIII Olympiad: A Universal Language*

Yoshinori Sakai, otherwise known as the “Atom Boy,” lit the Olympic flame. He was born in Hiroshima the day the atom bomb was dropped and became a symbol of postwar peace and reconstruction efforts. These Games were also the first to feature the universally understood pictograms for each sporting event.

Winter 1968 – Grenoble, France, the X Olympic Winter Games: The Future Is Now*

The 1968 Winter Olympics were the first to be shown in color on television, and also the first to use Leo Arnaud’s famous “Bugler’s Dream” anthem for broadcast coverage by ABC. Starting in 1984, NBC began to use an amalgamation of John Williams’ “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” and “Bugler’s Dream.”

Summer 1968 – Mexico City, Mexico, the XIX Olympiad: A Shockwave Felt By All*

With the war in Vietnam ramping up and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. still lingering in recent memory, emotions were strong. Several high-profile protests took place at the 1968 Olympics and went on to become their most defining moments. During the 200-meter race medal ceremony, American athletes John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists while the national anthem played in a symbolic black power salute. They wore no shoes to allude to poverty, beads in protest of lynchings, and gloved fists. The IOC chair kicked Carlos and Smith out of the games, the two were suspended from the American team and sent home to death threats. Australian Peter Norman was also present during the ceremony and stood by Carlos and Smith during and afterward. When he was informed of the plans before the ceremony, Norman asked how he could support them. He wore a badge for the Olympic Project for Human Rights, founded by Carlos and Smith. Norman’s support for the protest ultimately cost him his career, but he forged a pair of deep bonds; when he passed away in 2006, Carlos and Smith were pallbearers at his funeral.

Věra Čáslavská, a Czechoslovak gymnast, took part in an understated yet hugely consequential moment when she turned her head away while the Soviet anthem played at a medal ceremony. This was in response to the Soviet invasion of her home just two months prior. She too was forced into retirement following these Games and was prevented from leading any semblance of a normal life until the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

Summer 1972 – Munich, West Germany, the XX Olympiad: The Cheerful Games

The 1972 Summer Olympics in Munich, West Germany was forever marred by the violence of the so-called Munich Massacre, in which eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team were taken hostage and killed by Palestinian terrorist group Black September. A lack of anti-terrorism forces and unarmed security officers only made matters worse. Three of the Black September members were captured only to be released a month later by the West German government in a hostage exchange after the hijacking of Lufthansa Flight 615.

Winter 1980 – Lake Placid, United States of America, the XIII Olympic Winter Games: Dare To Dream*

“Do you believe in miracles?” The fabled “Miracle on Ice” took place at the 1980 Winter Olympics, in which the American hockey team defied all odds to beat the Soviet team in a major upset that today is regarded as one of the most iconic moments in American sports history. In the midst of the Cold War and the Iranian hostage crisis, this nationalistic victory was about more than just a simple hockey game.

These Games were also the first to use artificial snow.

Summer 1980 – Moscow, Soviet Union, the XXII Olympiad: Face Your Destiny*

President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States would boycott the 1984 Olympics being held in Moscow following the Soviet Union’s refusal to withdraw troops from Afghanistan after they invaded in 1979 to support regional communism. Canada, West Germany, and Japan joined the American delegation, and Carter threatened to revoke the passport of any American if they tried to compete under a neutral banner.

Summer 1984 – Los Angeles, United States of America, the XXIII Olympiad: Play A Part In History

The American boycott of the previous summer Games was returned in kind by a Soviet boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics.

Summer 1996 – Atlanta, United States of America, the XXVI Olympiad: The Celebration of the Century

The 100-year anniversary of the modern Olympics in Atlanta was infamously marred — though largely uninterrupted — by the Centennial Olympic Park Bombing in which two people were killed and over 100 injured in the designated town square, an act committed by an agent of the domestic Christian terrorist group Army of God. Clint Eastwood’s 2019 biographical drama Richard Jewell, starring Sam Rockwell and Kathy Bates, chronicles the discovery of the pipe bomb by hero-turned-villain-turned-hero security guard Richard Jewell, and subsequent suspicion placed upon the ultimately innocent man by media and federal authorities. The actual culprit was in actuality one Eric Rudolph, who, several years and bombings later, was identified, and confessed his guilt. The motivation behind the Atlanta bombing was predictably political, as Rudolph wanted, with the eyes of the world on one place, to reject what he perceived as a celebration of global socialism, and to confound Washington for its “sanctioning of abortion on demand.”

Summer 2008 – Beijing, China, the XXIX Olympiad: One World, One Dream

There were a number of notable calls by politicians and celebrities to reject China’s quick etiquette turnabout and boycott the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, mainly centered on human rights concerns. Both John McCain and Barack Obama stated that they would have boycotted the Games had they been in the White House at the time. China’s role in the war in Darfur, investments in Myanmar and Sudan, and hostile stance toward Tibet all were scrutinized, at least more so than they would have been otherwise by the international community. Stephen Spielberg’s decision to step down as an artistic director over China’s unwillingness to diminish suffering caused by Sudan in the Darfur Crisis received a great deal of media attention. Separatist terrorist attacks and unrest in Tibet placed Beijing on high alert ahead of the Games. Moreover, air pollution remained a prevalent health concern to Olympians, despite Beijing vowing to resolve any environmental concerns in their Olympic bid. Foreign journalists were faced with restrictive internet access. Migrant labor was also reportedly heavily exploited in the construction of the Olympic venues.

Winter 2014 – Sochi, Russia, the XXII Olympic Winter Games: Hot. Cool. Yours.

Russia’s 2014 Winter Olympics were, in short, a public relations disaster. Faulty technology cheapened the opening ceremony when one of the giant Olympic rings failed to light up. Anti-gay messaging was abundant; the Sochi mayor claimed that there were officially no gay residents in the city, and a spotlight was put on a Russian law banning “propaganda” that gave credibility to “nontraditional sexual relations.” The athletes’ village was also in shambles, with unfinished hotel rooms and wild dogs roaming the plaza. Fears of terrorist attacks were high, though none occurred. Wild cost overrun made these Games the most expensive in history, with some in Russian government calling out corruption and patronage to Vladimir Putin’s close circle.

Georgia made an early push in 2008 for a boycott of the 2014 Winter Olympics in response to the Russo-Georgian War, to which the IOC responded that it was “premature to make judgments about how events happening today might sit with an event taking place six years from now.”

Summer 2020 – Tokyo, Japan, the XXXII Olympiad: United By Emotion

Even prior to their delay, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics were already generating their fair share of controversy. The IOC’s new guidelines ban political, ethnic, or religious demonstrations of any kind at the Games. A quote from IOC president Thomas Bach states that the Olympics are not now and never have been a platform for advancing an agenda of any sort, claiming that their “political neutrality is undermined whenever organizations or individuals attempt to use the Olympic Games as a stage for their own agendas, as legitimate as they may be.” Noble, though it’s hard to deny the explicit stances the IOC has taken in the past, whether it be direct involvement in affairs between nations, rejecting bids from non-Western countries — no Games have been held in Africa — or exclusion of the losers of wars.

The situation concerning the 2020 Olympics is fluid. As of this writing, the IOC has postponed the Games, but has always maintained that “cancellation is not on the agenda.” This follows Australia and Canada threatening withdrawal pending a delay. They were set to begin on July 24, but it now looks likely they will occur during the summer of 2021. Interestingly — and understandably — they plan to keep the 2020 branding. Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has said there is a possibility of a lockdown in Tokyo if the coronavirus situation continues to deteriorate, yet has also previously asserted that an outright cancellation of the Olympics would be “unthinkable.” Regardless, the ramifications will be immense. This is the first time the Games have ever been postponed. While the Olympics have withstood in peacetime political boycotts and terrorist attacks, the coronavirus outbreak clearly presents too great a risk to gamble with.

Japan’s deputy prime minister has claimed the Olympics are “cursed,” noting that every 40 years the Games get wrapped up in international affairs, pointing to World War II and the Cold War boycotts as proof. As of yet, looking ahead to 2040, the future remains unwritten.

*Unofficial mottos