We didn’t suspect it at the time, but the 2016 Rio Olympics may have been the last ever summer games. There were clues. Until 2015, most of us hadn’t even heard of the Zika virus. First identified in 1947, it is transmitted by mosquitoes, typically causing asymptomatic or mild infection but also associated with microcephaly in babies born to mothers infected during pregnancy. Before the games, the state of Rio de Janeiro recorded 26,000 cases of Zika, giving rise to understandable fear among organizers, competitors and fans. With the Brazilian government throwing millions at reinforcing health networks, the tournament went ahead, welcoming over 11,000 athletes from 207 countries, alongside some 500,000 foreign visitors. It was only a portent of a more momentous and widespread virus that would send the entire world into convulsions and threaten the very existence of the Olympics.
It’s entirely possible that Tokyo will not stage the postponed 2020 Olympics this summer and, even if it does, it will be a much humbler affair than we’ve come to expect from recent games. Paris is scheduled to host the tournament in 2024 and will surely be concerned about the prospect. Four years after that, in 2028, Los Angeles is due to play host. By then, COVID-19 may be a nightmarish but distant memory. But it could also be a ubiquitous presence that affects practically every aspect of our lives and impels us to rethink what we’ve taken for granted over the past 400 years.
Getting Ready for a World Without Sports
The combination of the Scientific Revolution, starting around the mid-16th century, and the Industrial Revolution, from the late 18th century, instilled a new stability and organization at first in European and later global society. The patterns, predictabilities and orderliness that characterize the technological age had their origins in the two revolutions. Transport, communications, trade, production and commerce were made possible, as were education, legislation and what we now recognize as industrial democracy. Versions of these existed before the revolutions, but the forces of progress encouraged us to establish systems and methods of controlling, regulating and maintaining them.
Sport, as we know it today, was as much part of the new order as industry, government and the metropolitan cities that sprung up in response to the factory system. Scientific rationalism affected everything — not only how we went to work, but how we worshipped and amused ourselves. Sports were organized to reflect the regular rhythms of society. Rules rather than custom or habit governed conduct. So, the first modern Olympics of 1896 were designed to represent the new global character: lawful and predictable, the only surprises were supposed to be on the track. Last year’s postponement was not the first in history, though the others were jettisoned because of the two world wars.
The Japanese have been defiant and, at the moment, insist the games will go ahead, scheduled to run from July 23 through August 8. The organizers have already collected $3.1 billion from commercial sponsors such as ANA and Japan Airlines, and the Mizuho and SMBC banks. Should it go ahead, it will be the most highly-sponsored sport event ever. The overall cost to Japan has been estimated as $25 billion. For comparison, that’s about the price of Donald Trump’s wall across the US-Mexico border or ample to build enough new homes to end homelessness in the US and UK combined. The International Olympics Organizing Committee (IOC) is also putting on a brave face. Before the postponement, it had secured a broadcasting contract with NBC worth $4.38 billion; it is now being renegotiated.
Should the games materialize in a traditional form, with full stadiums and 14,000 competitors from 206 nations, it will be little short of miraculous. Recent events in Melbourne, where spectators at the Australian Open tennis tournament were evacuated from the stadium and locked out for five days after a COVID-19 cluster was discovered, show how fragile events such as these now are. Tokyo will soon have to make a decision about crowds. The city will probably take the same option as many major sports and allow only limited personnel, including broadcasting crews. This would keep NBC quiet, and the TV network would not disappoint advertisers who have already paid $1.25 billion to showcase their wares during the tournament. The nightmare scenario is an abandonment of the games altogether. It would shake Paris, now only three years away from its own Olympics.
Los Angeles is probably already poring over its contractual commitments to the IOC, searching particularly for the clause where “force majeure” appears. Both cities must be feeling like the guy who is pleased with himself after buying a Rolls-Royce in British Columbia; the next morning, he finds the car under 20 feet of snow with no prospect of a thaw. COVID-19, like the weather, is something over which we appear to have no control. A year ago, we took heart from politicians and their scientific advisers who assured us they knew what they were doing. We now realize their analysis and prescriptions were based on studies of other, more familiar viruses and that they failed to anticipate how mutations would render much of the accepted wisdom irrelevant. The certainty we typically attribute to science has been destabilized and, now, no one can confidently forecast when we will return to school, work, stores nor any of the other places we have taken for granted.
Concerts have been scrapped and, while some sports are managing to tick over, all this year’s major events, including the football African Cup of Nations (June-July), and the already rescheduled golf Ryder Cup (September) and the swimming World Championships (December), are in jeopardy. Organizers of big events next year and beyond will not be encouraged by the failure to contain the virus. Vaccination offers hope, but who is sure it protects against all variants? The influenza virus mutates into new strains constantly, and vaccines are usually only 40%-60% effective. Only wide-eyed optimists think COVID-19 will be eradicated; the more sensible appraisal is that will we will adapt to the new environment.
This will probably mean living without the sureness or conviction that’s been integral to social life for nearly four centuries. COVID-19 is already teaching us that monolithic corporations can be brought to their knees, media behemoths stopped in their tracks, entire economies ground to dust — all because of a force majeure. We now know that there are greater forces than we ever imagined.
The recent resignation of Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, would, at another time, be a huge embarrassment. Faced with the more formidable problems posed by the virus, the sexist remarks of a high-ranking official must seem like the Canadian Rolls owner’s discovery that he’s left his phone in his engulfed car — extremely vexing, but not as discommodious as the position of the vehicle itself.
How Tokyo must wish it could turn back the clock to 2013 and withdraw its bid for the 2020 Olympics. Even its own citizens have withdrawn their approval: Some 80% percent of them do not want to host the games. If it goes ahead, it will be the most unpopular games in history — and possibly the last. Paris is bound to use COVID-19 to try to leverage a way out, and LA has time enough to negotiate an exit.
This leaves the question of who in their right mind would bid for a future Olympics? Quite apart from the colossal expense, any city has to accept that life is going to more volatile and susceptible to unwelcome intrusions. Planning years ahead will be risky. Who would bet a penny on the games of, say, 2032 happening? Or even if there will be an Olympic movement by then? An abandonment will haunt organizers, fans and the world of sport for decades. A cultural phenomenon that goes back more than 2,700 years will be pulled apart, and, if it is ever stitched together once more, it will be cut from less extravagant cloth. The fate of Tokyo will go a long way to determining whether the Olympic Games have any kind of future at all.
*[Ellis Cashmore is the author of “Kardashian Kulture.”]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.