The Olympics: Politics’ Double-Edged Sword

By MYLES KIRK

Ever since the commencement of the first summer Olympiad in 1896, this celebration of sporting greatness has become a political tool in which nations and governments seek to utilise its international reach and ability to enthuse mass patriotism to their own advantage. Such politicians seek to envisage national glory, which forms the bedrock of future prosperity and political legacy, with large amounts of state investment. They seek to handle this double-edged sword to reap the many benefits the games will bring, while ignoring the potential consequences that could be devastating to any diplomatic, economic, and political agenda.


Now, to live and die by this sword is a recurring theme among countless governments that have sought to host the Olympics. A risk that they are more than willing to take, but for good reason too.


We need look no further than our very own home Olympics of 2012 in London. The dramatic redesign of Stratford to incorporate a national symbol of sport in the Olympic park, though costing £7 billion over-budget, provided the backdrop for one of the most successful games in Olympic history. Moments like Mo Farah and Jessica Ennis-Hill taking Gold, in what was dubbed super Saturday, helped glorify such sporting feats into national memory, providing a feel-good moment across the nation, which created a lasting legacy and inspiration for future generations of British athletes. The lingering image of a declining and depressed nation seemed to disappear as Britain appeared forward-looking and confident, thus the Olympic political effect was uplifting.


From a different perspective, the Olympics of 2008 in Beijing sought not to uplift a nation from a period of depression, but rather to demonstrate the sheer power and dominance of a nation self-destined for super-power status. China invested nearly $40 billion in infrastructure to transform the cityscape of Beijing for the ‘coming out’ of China onto the international political and economic scene.


Yet this positive imagery of the Olympics that exists does so alongside tonnes of political turmoil, financial corruption, and platforms for the demonstration of national weakness. The Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 were mired by financial corruption and often half-full or empty crowds. The former Rio de Janeiro governor has recently appeared in court over corruption charges for directing the payment of $2 million in order to gain votes to host the games. The Rio Olympics PR team must have been wincing at the sight of a public health message that prioritised the safety of foreign visitors against the Zika Virus over their own citizens. Even many of the Favelas, a type of slum that has come to characterise parts of Brazil, were razed to the ground during the preparations for the games.


The attention the games brought to Brazil diffused a South American feeling across the globe, but still, despite us feeling the power of the Samba, the Olympics painted a damning image of Brazil. The games revealed that politics were not functioning for the power of the masses. Brazil was deemed capable of commanding worldwide attention but unable to definitively control the perceptions of their weak political power. Perhaps the Olympics were part of the reason for the election of a right-wing outsider to the Presidency, shaking the status quo. The Brazilian establishment had handled the double-edged sword without the political or economic strength to successfully carry the act through.


Tokyo seemed to be leaning towards the same fate as Rio. Upon the start of the Olympic ceremony, a whopping 78% of Japanese residents stated that they did not want the games to go ahead. Such opposition has decimated the political capital of the Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihide Suga. Following this, a wave of apathy hit Japan, in which the alleged placing of the Olympics at a higher priority over the Public Health response to Coronavirus has resulted in a political migraine for the Japanese government.


Although, in the aftermath, the games have seemed to pass without a major disaster, Tokyo had hoped for an awe-inspiring games when it bid to host the Olympics, but the fate of politics’ doubled-edged sword has meant that this has not been the glorifying moment that summons a higher level of national pride in Japan.


The Olympic Games have shown how it can be the impetus that propels a nation to economic and political greatness, that heaves a people into a new era of success. Except, this centre of international sport can also be the double-edged sword that dooms a nation to irrelevance, brings forth the dark-side of a nation's leaders, or reveals the weak foundations from which a nation has been built.



Image: Unsplash (Bryan Turner)