Last Friday marked the Opening Ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics, the first Olympic Games to have been rescheduled — and the first to happen amid a pandemic. While the fact that the Games were able to happen at all could be seen as a cause for celebration, there’s actually an argument to be made that we should not be supporting or watching the Olympics this year — or ever. Beyond the international competition’s well-documented racist past (and present), there’s the reality that, for host cities, the Olympics are almost always a money-losing endeavour that also speeds up gentrification, displaces poor communities, and increases policing.
This year, the Olympics are particularly fraught due to the pandemic: In Japan, around 80% of the population opposes the Tokyo 2020 Games (still called 2020, though they’re taking place in 2021), and they’ve have been referred to as a “dumpster fire,” a “moral disaster,” and a “brazen, hubris-over-humanity cash grab.” There’s concerns that the Games will be a superspreader event for the COVID-19 pandemic; organisers are not requiring athletes to be vaccinated to compete, and only 15% of the Japanese public is vaccinated. Japanese doctors have called for the cancellation of the games, fearing a new “Olympic strain” of the coronavirus. In other words, if the Olympics were, say, a restaurant or a clothing store, it’s fair to assume that many people would choose to eat or shop elsewhere.
Yet boycotting (or abolishing) the Olympics doesn’t always feel like such a clear-cut decision. And that’s because refusing to support the Olympics can feel like refusing to support Olympic athletes, many of whom have no current viable alternative for elevating themselves to the mainstream, or making a living from doing the one thing they are better at than nearly everyone else in the world.
The Olympics also provides a platform for a group of people who almost never get the acclaim they deserve: women athletes. In a 2021 study from USC/Purdue, researchers found that 95% of US television sports coverage and ESPN’s SportsCenter focused on men’s sports. During the Olympics, however, that gender imbalance briefly disappears; a 2019 study on NBC’s primetime Olympic broadcasts by scholars Andrew Billings and James Angelini found that in three of the past four Olympics — 2012, 2016, and 2018 — women athletes actually received more airtime than men.
It makes sense, really: Who wouldn’t want to watch Simone Biles defy gravity this summer? It’s hard not to cheer all these women on as they make history. But in addition to the emotional draw, the Olympics — and any coverage of women’s sports — leads to greater financial support, such as sponsorship deals, allowing women athletes to make their livelihood out of their sports, in the same ways men are more easily able to. Knowing this, it’s easy to feel conflicted about not watching the Games. Couldn’t doing so hurt the people who need the Olympics the most? Probably not, actually.
“We need not devote ourselves to the death of complexity: We can fight against the unjust Olympic system while also supporting athlete-workers who are locked into that very system.”
— Jules Boykoff
While the public may assume all athletes benefit financially from competing in the Olympics, the reality is that participating in the Games only rarely leads to much money — you can’t eat momentary glory. Ahead of the 2016 Games, for example, there were more than 100 U.S. athletes who started GoFundMe pages to help pay their way there, and that’s not atypical. Rebecca Twig, a two-time Olympic medalist in cycling, opened up in 2019 about her struggles with homelessness. “I kind of lost my home base because I travelled so much,” Twigg told The Seattle Times. “I had this feeling of not really belonging anywhere. I just had my head really mixed up, totally confused about what I should be doing.”
And it’s not just Twigg, nor is it a problem exclusive to the U.S. — many Olympic athletes are struggling financially. In one 2020 survey of elite athletes preparing for the Olympics across nearly 50 countries, 58% said they did not consider themselves “financially stable.” As U.S. Olympic Rower Megan Kalmoe summed up her struggles in 2016: “I'm one of the best athletes in the country. And I can't sleep when I have to buy new running shoes."
Of course, some people are profiting greatly from the Games: namely, the International Olympics Committee (IOC). Recently, Allyson Felix, a five-time Olympian, criticised the Olympics for this imbalance of power between the billion-dollar Games and the athletes they rely on, but don’t properly remunerate. As she worked on Los Angeles’s bid for the Olympics, Felix says, she came to understand what little power athletes truly have: “The athletes do not have a seat at the table when the decisions are being made. Now I get where we fall in the grand scheme of this ginormous thing that makes a ton of money — the athletes don’t see that money. It’s a big machine.”
It’s no wonder that some people believe it’s impossible to support the athletes while simultaneously trying to hold the IOC accountable. According to Nicole Froio, a journalist and researcher based in Rio who covered the run-up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, the Games “capitalise on the love and admiration we have for our athletes.” And in turn, this affection for our athletes causes fans to ignore the destructive impact on local communities that the Olympics leaves in its path. “I really sympathise with people who want to support, for example, Simone Biles or any other athlete that is in their prime and deserves our support and attention, but are also critical of the Olympics,” she says, adding: “I don't believe that supporting the athletes without supporting the Olympics is possible.”
Others, however, argue that it’s possible to acknowledge the corruption of the Olympics, while also cheering on the athletes who are doing their best to survive within a horrible system. “In light of the IOC’s commitment to greed and hypocrisy, which we’re seeing in gruesome technicolour in Tokyo right now, it has become more and more difficult to cheer for anything related to the Games,” admits Jules Boykoff, a political scientist and former member of the U.S. Men’s National Football Team. “That said, I view athletes as athlete-workers fighting within an unjust system that transfers money upward to the already affluent.”
Boykoff, though, says he will still be rooting for these “justice-minded” athletes who compete, on the field and off. “Olympic athletes are organising for their rights, and, to me, this is super-exciting. I can certainly get behind worker-athletes who are collectively struggling to get a bigger slice of the Olympic money pie and who are, more widely, fighting for social and racial justice in society,” he tells Refinery29. “We need not devote ourselves to the death of complexity: We can fight against the unjust Olympic system while also supporting athlete-workers who are locked into that very system.”
So, how do we do that? How do we push for change within this system?
For me, it starts with remembering why I love the Olympics in the first place: the athletes. Growing up, I idolised Mia Hamm and the U.S. Women’s National Team. At the 1996, 2000, and 2004 Olympics, Hamm was magnetic, helping lead the team to back-to-back medals (gold, silver, then gold again). I loved watching her run up the field, ponytail flying, making her goals look effortless. My sister and I would stay up late to watch the Opening Ceremonies, commenting on the fashions and quizzing each other on world geography. The Olympics are a spectacle, that is undeniable, but it’s the athletes who bring the magic, and supporting them needs to be done beyond the Olympics.
There are multiple ways of doing this: Attend women’s sports past the university level — buy merchandise, follow the stars on Instagram, engage with their content, tune in to the broadcasts. Don’t wait every four years to care about Olympic stars; find ways to tune in during Olympic-off years, to make the Olympics have less of a stronghold on our access to these sports, and these athletes. For example, if you love swimming, there are World Aquatics Championships in odd years.
With regard to the Olympics, here’s where I’m starting: I will continue to speak out about the history of the IOC to bring attention to the need for transparency and radical reform. I believe in calling for a permanent location for the Games as a way to minimise the mega sporting event’s destructive impact on host cities. I believe in advocating for the reversal of obsolete drug testing bans, and for allowing women with high testosterone to compete. I support and uplift the work of local anti-Olympics activist groups around the world, from the Japanese group Hangorin no Kai to NOlympics LA, and activist athletes like Allyson Felix, Megan Rapinoe, and Gwen Berry. And, of course, I will continue to watch women’s sports year-round, not just during the Olympics.
The Olympic Games may very well be with us for years to come. The injustices, however, don’t have to be. Perhaps 2021 will be the year to move towards changing the Games for the better — it’s long overdue.