The Olympic Journey on Journée Olympique

Is the Olympic Games just playing with words or are they finally ready to find a new way to go about hosting?

Working in sport as I do, we’ve spent a lot of time in the past months pondering the question of the future of sport. More immediately, when will all of the canceled competitions, tournaments, leagues, mass participation events et al. be back in our stadiums and on our screens, providing the entertainment, the distraction, the relief that engagement in live sport can be for many? But of course, it doesn’t take long for the philosophical questions to follow; if we can’t go back to the way things were before (in sport — I’ll leave the meaning of life to others), where do we go from here?

When listening to an April episode of the Bill Simmons podcast I was struck by a question from the host to his guest, Chairman of Los Angeles 2028 Casey Wasserman. “Does part of you wonder if the 2028 LA Olympics will be the last Olympics?” Simmons asked, off the back of a discussion about the postponement of Tokyo 2020. Wasserman laughed somewhat nervously. “I’m not even talking the pandemic,” Simmons went on to say. How is this kind of event even relevant anymore and who is going to host it? Wasserman evoked the notion of the values of Olympism and the power of sport, and this event particularly, to unite and inspire communities, in gently refuting the proffered notion. A response which no doubt made the hearts at Olympic House sing once more.

A week or so later, former French Minister for Sport and 1976 Montreal Olympic Champion Guy Drut raised more than a few eyebrows and ruffled more than a few feathers in calling Paris’ version of the Games, a mere four years away, “obsolete, outdated and out of touch with reality”. This being a Games that had, during its candidature, pledged to deliver a new Games model, where social and sustainable responsibility mattered. That someone from within the brethren — Drut is an International Olympic Committee (IOC) Member and has served as a strategic advisor to the Paris 2024 candidature and the organising committee — would so publicly call out his own kind, created quite the polemic. Both the IOC and Paris 2024 President Tony Estanguet, himself a sitting member of the IOC Athletes Commission, were quick to submit their rebuttals, Estanguet demonstrating yet again the political nous that has occasionally prompted whispering that he might one day follow Drut’s footsteps to l’Assemblee.

What both Simmons and Drut appeared to be getting at, both in light of the covid-19 pandemic and all that we hope to learn from it and regardless of such an occurrence, was that the long-held “bigger is better” approach to the Olympic movement must finally be laid to rest. The IOC has been pushing its Agenda 2020 Games model since it was established in Monaco in December 2014, but these comments (and doubtless others) reinforce the notion that the journey is not yet half done. Reforms to hosting rights bidding and attribution processes, reinvigorating the sports programme without expanding the number of athletes and a vigorous enthusiasm for the notion of Olympic Legacy has seen progress made, but Simmons’ blithe comments about the number of sporting venues in Los Angeles and the fact that no other city in the world is equipped to manage hosting without infrastructure investment highlights just one of the considerable problems the movement continues to face. Who and how can we truly justify the hosting of this event in this day and age?

In an entirely non-academic approach, I posed Simmons’ question to my parents. Members of the Australian Olympic Team for the 1980 Moscow Games and the reason the Olympic pulse throbs so doggedly in my own veins (purely as a sports lover and fan), their eye may not be as practiced as regular commentators, but they nonetheless hold a level of “been there, done that” authenticity. Not to mention an event our household has grown up celebrating, its chequered past and sometimes questionable practices notwithstanding.

When your parents’ achievements in life far outweigh your own.

“This is a question for all sport,” my Dad opined. “Before it was always ‘let’s get bigger and better’ [but] now it’s time to take a step back and scale down. Why do they need so many “sports”?” Ever the purist, the inverted commas were evident just by his tone. The Games have become bloated, with too many sports and too many changes from Olympiad to Olympiad, selon mon père (living in Paris is starting to infiltrate my English). Not to mention the question of who benefits the most from hosting and the scars that have oft formed the legacy of this self-declared mythic event.

Legacy, you say? Ah yes, another somewhat mythic concept that has been thrust into the spotlight as the salve to all ills procured by the Games in its 130-odd years of modern existence. First evoked in association with the 1956 Melbourne Games, the use of the term and eventually adoption of its practice became regular from 2000 and following a relatively successful (PR-lead) campaign about the positive legacy of London 2012, the notion is now impossible to escape (I should know, I wrote a masters thesis on the subject). Now every sporting event of any consequence speaks of the legacy it plans to bring to its host, by way of economic returns, employment opportunities, urban development and “lasting change” — but tangible evidence of such impact is harder to come by and can be tainted by both controversy and CSR/PR speak alike.

What remained unspoken, in this conversation, was that none of us wished to see this event disappear. From a true sports fan’s perspective, there is simply nothing else in sport that can compare. The spectacle, the energy, the impossible made possible, the narrative of life played out on the sporting terrain; nothing quite captures this like the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It might read like marketing copy but I assure you I’ve never worked a day in my life in that domain and speak only of my own experience of sport. A sentiment echoed, it seems, by many of the athletes who get to live the experience from the inside as a competitor.

Accordingly, we don’t want the Games to disappear, we have acknowledged for some time that the model needs to change and the notion of legacy has become so ubiquitous with this, and every other sporting event henceforth, that it is becoming quickly devoid of any concrete significance. So where does that leave us? There is no doubt that it’s a complex problem to solve, with which minds much mightier than my own could spend innumerable hours grappling. However, having acknowledged that there is a problem and engaged in a willingness to address it, it is time to turn from empty words to concrete actions.

Defining a vision is lovely and unifying and inspiring to the masses, but making the commitments necessary to live and breathe will be essential to delivering said vision. Ensuring alignment of this vision (sport can change everything) with the mission (deliver the 16 days of Olympic competition and 13 days of Paralympic competition on time and on budget). More specifically, aligning the interests of these two elements will be essential to balancing the tension that can otherwise exist between nice to haves (temporary swimming pools in the parks of France to deliver swimming lessons to as many children as possible in the years before and after the Games) and must haves (the construction of the Olympic Aquatic Centre completed in time for the Games to begin) of hosting this sporting extravaganza. If the balance of the tension is misplaced, the nice to haves are no more and suddenly the much-promised legacy is out the door.

Striving for this level of purpose in the definition and delivery of their vision, mission and commitments need not remain the sole responsibility of Paris 2024 and the other host cities to come (Tokyo, Beijing, Dakar, Los Angeles and Milano-Cortina). Obviously Big Brother itself, in the IOC, need to lead the way here, but it’s incumbent upon all actors in the movement — sponsors, media rights holders, NOCs, IFs, governments, OCOGs, suppliers, you name it — to band together and act with the level of purpose, responsibility and cooperation that will be needed in order to achieve the kinds of changes to which legacy programs loftily aspire. The sceptics have been clamouring for it for years, and now the fans are demanding it too.

Sports fan. Coffee drinker. parkrunner. On a purpose-driven mission in Paris and beyond.

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