The Games, people often say, must go on – a rather cliched phrase muttered when we want to keep doing something in a moment when it feels and looks like we shouldn’t.
In its original context, the Games quite specifically meant the Olympics. After the massacre of members of the Israeli team in Munich, the president of the International Olympic Committee, Chicago businessman Avery Brundage – a man whose track record as a racist and devout anti-Semite is well documented – announced the postponement of competition by one day to mourn the lost Olympians, but posited – and I quote – “The Games must go on and we must continue our efforts to keep them clear, pure and honest and try to extend sportsmanship of the athletic field to other areas.”
Today, with over 2 million global COVID-19 deaths and counting, the Olympic Games are at another crossroads.
There can be no question that the Olympics are as important as they are flawed – with over 200 delegations and 300 events, they carry an enormous amount of social and cultural weight, mixing national with global, competition with human drama. Think, for a moment, about your favorite Olympic snapshot – even if you aren’t a sports fan, you probably have one. It might be part of your national psyche, like the Miracle on Ice, or it might be a single jaw-dropping moment, like Simone Biles’s glorious floor routine in in Rio, or runner Derek Redmond being helped across the finish line by his father in Barcelona as some 65,000 spectators sprang to their feet in support.
There is much to criticize about the IOC and the global party it throws every few years: elitism and aristocracy, corporate greed and flagrant bouts of political fence-sitting, whether with Nazi policies in Germany in the 1930s or anti-gay legislation in Russia in 2014. But there’s also its stance against apartheid in 1968; its banning of Afghanistan when the Taliban took power; its space for independent identities to exist for peoples from places such as Puerto Rico, East Timor, and Palestine; and its unification of North and South Korea, even if only for the symbolism embedded in the Opening Ceremony.
Last spring, in the early stages of the pandemic, the IOC had to weigh its options as much of the world began to shutter. Cancellation of the Olympics is not without precedent: Berlin in 1916, Tokyo in 1940, and London in 1944. But a postponement? That was a first.
Now, the Tokyo organizing committee is back to where it started. Postponement, the IOC has reiterated, was a one-time deal: if Tokyo 2020 cannot happen in 2021, then it will not happen at all. And despite public statements from officials that the Olympics will go forward “at any cost,” rumors swirl from closed door meetings, casting increasing doubt that the world can be ready for much of anything by July 23, never mind one of its largest get-togethers.
We thought, naively, that we would be in a different place by now, with uneven vaccine distribution and variant strains unimaginable. We didn’t predict a new state of emergency in Japan, or that children in the US would still be taking algebra in their bedrooms.
Knowing what we know, knowing that there is still a lot we don’t know, there cannot be a Tokyo 2020, certainly not in 2021. There will be no last dance for Simone Biles, Katie Ledecky, or Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce; no return of baseball and softball to the Olympic fold; no surprise stars that unite the world around their Cinderella race, their David versus Goliath fight. Instead, there will be a generation of Olympians who we will never get the chance to meet.
The Games can only go on until we reach a point when nothing can go on. We haven’t just reached that point: we have been living it for the better part of a year, setting world records every day. It is hard to say when – if – a finish line is in our near future.
Amy Bass is professor of sport studies and chair of the division of social science and communication at Manhattanville College. Bass is the author of ONE GOAL: A COACH, A TEAM, AND THE GAME THAT BROUGHT A DIVDED TOWN TOGETHER, among other titles. In 2012, she won an Emmy for her work with NBC Olympic Sports on the London Olympic Games.
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