Against Olympic overreach

By Danielle van Dalen July 29, 2021

“You are going.”

This was the immediate retort from Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates when Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk stated that she would not attend Tokyo’s Opening Ceremony due to rising COVID-19 cases and restricted public access. The exchange—which occurred at a press conference publicising Brisbane as the 2032 Olympic host city—has been charitably described as “awkward.” But beyond the immediate interpersonal drama, it highlights a much deeper power dynamic between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and participating nations: the Games always come first.

I enjoy watching the Olympics. The spectacle of the opening ceremony followed by weeks of inspiring sporting entertainment as athletes showcase the results of a lifetime of sacrifice. This year, however, the Olympics are taking place while its host city sits in a state of emergency, and multiple athletes contract the virus. And so, I’m conflicted about watching an event whose organisers seem dismissive of the total potential cost.

The mission of the IOC to hold an international sporting event that brings the world together is laudable. When that passion comes at any cost, however, it turns dangerous. A recent article on International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach highlights this blindness:

The role has grown more complicated through the organisation’s 127-year history, but in essence Bach, like the men who proceeded him, has only ever had one task: to safeguard the Olympic Games for the future, no matter the opposition they face, no matter if anyone else deems them worthy protecting. And in this pivotal moment, Bach has done precisely that, grabbing hold of an institution viewed by critics as anachronistic, insular, even corrupt, and ensuring it will nevertheless prosper for another generation, by whatever means necessary.

Bach’s attitude is reflected in John Coates’ arrogant response to Premier Palaszczuk. It’s stunning to see an unelected Olympic official casually overriding the decision of an elected Premier who represents millions of Australians. A similar standover is happening in Tokyo, where Government figures have seemingly kowtowed to pressure from the IOC to hold the Games. Sadly, going ahead without ticket sales will do nothing to help the host city recoup its massive investment, but crucially will still deliver the incredibly lucrative television profits that sustain the Olympic machine.

The health risk to the athletes and host nation Japan should not be ignored. Nor should polls that have consistently shown that over 80% of Japanese people do not want the Games to go ahead. After a year of lockdowns, closed borders, and massive financial and health costs around the world, the participants and sovereign nations should be reconsidering whether the Games should always come first. The IOC have already made their priorities clear.

And yet, international response to Coates’ comments do not seem to have resulted in a change of heart. He seems determined that Premier Palaszczuk attend. “Yes I did [overrule the Premier] in a press conference last night,” he later said to media. “I’m not sure how she responded to being told, ‘You are going.’ … Anyway, I’ve convinced them that they will all three be there. It’s not a problem.”

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