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How a Sporting Event Reflects the State of the World

The 2021 Tokyo Olympics is well underway, and this year is certainly unique. Watching the coverage of it shows how this celebration of athleticism, the human drive to overcome obstacles and achieve greatness, and global sportsmanship seems to be about anything but. There’s covid running rampant, making travel incredibly risky. Doping scandals that have become so routine they’ve lost their meaning. Whole countries banned while their athletes still compete and rack up medals. Fans forbidden from attending in person. Tokyo’s own competitors spend much of their post event interviews apologizing if they don’t win gold in their events while nationalists on social media complain about being represented by impure Japanese with multiethnic heritage. 

We’ve got our own media freaking out over one of our greatest Olympians finally having a bad day on the job after already bringing home enough gold in her career to make a Lannister jealous. Wild controversy over allowing a transgender female who doesn’t want to speak to the press show up and fail to get past the first round in weightlifting so she can go home and retire with her own Olympic jogging suite. Would transgender rights or athletic fairness been improved or hurt if she had somehow medaled? Twitter may never decide. And Qatar finally gets a gold medal after paying exorbitant amounts of money to import athletes from around the world, have many change their names to hide their heritage and give them a shot at citizenship in exchange for representing the oil rich state. 

With the image of the Olympics as the pinnacle of athletic competition in doubt and the media spending so much time running down every rabbit hole of controversy it can find, why do we keep doing this?

Despite what detractors say and whatever shortcomings it has as an athletic event, the Olympics play an important role in international relations. It has become  a symbol of the  rules based international order. It promotes international cooperation and forces communication between states that would not otherwise have the ability or inclination to interact. It reinforces ideas of equality of peoples and meritocracy, even as richer states field more athletes in more events to run up medal counts.

It also provides a chance to promulgate ideas about the proper role of the state in society by normalizing the idea that certain functions, even in the international arena, should be kept at arm’s length from the rest of geopolitics, and that states can compete without resorting purely to realpolitik. Controversial decisions by the International Olympic Committee, a multilateral institution nominally separate from any state government, to do things like ban Russia, demonstrate that there is some limit that world organizations can put on state behavior. And although allowing some of their athletes to compete based on a belief they haven’t doped may seem like a cop out (and I’m not saying it isn’t), it can also be messaged as a rebuke of Putin’s authoritative state practices while still respecting the Russian people. How far that message resonates in the Kremlin is up for debate (I’m betting on nowhere), but the message is there. 

Nations get a lot of attention globally and can get a lot of prestige domestically by hosting the Olympics, despite the bloated costs and creation of massive infrastructure that’s almost useless as soon as the games are done. These same nations can’t host if they’re in armed conflict with their neighbors. Would a desire to host the Olympics or other international sporting event keep a nation from going to war to protect their vital interests? Doubtful. But does help dissuade them from pursuing armed adventurism as a way to gain small advantages over more petty squabbles. This probably isn’t a huge factor behind why we are currently experiencing the lowest levels of interstate conflict in human history, but it doesn’t hurt. 

The Olympics, for all its quirks, provide a rough temperature check on the state of the world, creating a chemistry experiment where athletes, fans, coaches, and administrators mix together and cooperate in order to put on a grand competition that the rest of us get to watch and comment on. It brings focus to controversial issues even as it seeks to have nothing to do with them, such as how should modern ideas about transgender rights be reconciled with traditional notions of fair play in athletics? How much are we nature, how much are we nurture, and how universal is the distinction across cultures?

Or why a female sprinter from Belarus decides to seek political asylum in Poland rather than return to her home country to face potential rape and imprisonment after being denied a chance to compete. Or what does it mean to be a member of a state?  Japan continues to explore its own identity in an increasingly multi-ethnic world, and rich states lure athletes from abroad to compete under their flag with big salaries and other perks. Why did Japan decide it had to host the games during covid, and why did everyone else agree to send their most prized athletes and risk them getting a potentially career ending illness rather than skipping it?

The Olympics, in whatever form it takes and however it evolves, provides a mirror to hold up against the world and catch a glimpse of the state of humanity. Our hopes, our fears, where we rally together, and where we still push apart. It may not be able to move the needle of progress, or even help us define what progress is, but it does inadvertently lay down markers for where we are, which is more than can be said about most political theatre.

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