Three ways to reimagine the Olympic Games

As the Games kick off in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on August 5, the focus will be on athlete performances. But can we imagine a more just Olympics? We asked three experts.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Olympic rings are pictured during training. REUTERS/Carlos Barria REUTERS/Carlos Barria

The Olympic Games begin Friday evening with an opening ceremony in Rio de Janeiro, running until Aug. 21. With teams from around the world — including a team of 10 refugee athletes, a first of its kind — the focus will likely be on the competitions held over the next couple of weeks. But the Games arrive on the heel of concerns over Brazil’s Zika virus outbreak, a national corruption scandal, revelations of Russian doping, and debate over the impact of the Games on human rights and the economy. Hosting the event costs billions of dollars; Rio’s price tag is an estimated US$4.1 billion (considered modest compared to past years).

Could there be a less controversial and more just way to host a global sporting event of this calibre? We asked three experts whether it was time for an Olympic-sized revolution. Here are their suggestions for reform:

1. Reform funding mechanism, host criteria and human rights requirements.

— Bruce Kidd, vice-president, University of Toronto Scarborough, and former professional athlete 

How should we reimagine the Olympics, the festival of sport and culture that brings the world together every two years in the spirit of excellence, the celebration of our diverse humanity, and intercultural exchange?

The costs and logistics of the current format have become almost unmanageable, with fewer cities, especially those in liberal-democratic countries, willing to host them. A rapidly escalating conundrum is the cost and logistics of security, so that what was initiated in the late 19th century by founder Pierre de Coubertin to advance peace and respect for difference now needs to be protected by the most sophisticated intelligence and surveillance: the host city has become an armed camp.

My list of reforms would begin with a restructuring of the basis for awarding and financing the Games. City/regions should compete for the right to stage them on the basis of social need, and the best plan to revitalize itself in a way that advances opportunities for healthy physical activity and an appropriate set of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals, while demonstrating clear popular and international support. In such a plan, a significant portion of the costs (which today are largely borne by host governments) should be socialized internationally through a world-wide tax or lottery (something that Montreal mayor Jean Drapeau proposed decades ago). The Games would be organized by a locally-led international team, with a focus on community development, capacity-building and knowledge translation.

Second, the threshold for participating in the Games should be revised to include active compliance with human rights as defined by the Universal Declaration and the various UN conventions.

The resulting Games would thus contribute even more strategically and significantly to international human development and the celebration of our diverse humanity.

Of course, getting from here to there won’t be easy. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which debates these issues all the time, has only so much room to maneuver. While it has shrewdly preserved a measure of autonomy in decision-making, and increasingly links itself to the UN system, it is highly dependent upon the national governments and sport-media corporations that pay the bills. Moreover, for most athletes, coaches, media and members of the public, the Olympics have become almost entirely about high-performance sport and its narratives, demands and rewards. There is less and less interest in the Games as a social project.

As the competitions in Rio now begin, I suspect people will forget the contradictions and concentrate on the athletes. That’s what’s always happened and I will be doing the same. But the overlapping crises of international sport (doping, corruption, match-fixing) and the international system (escalating wars, inequality, impoverishment, refugee flows) are too serious to ignore.

I wish the Rio Games well, but let’s hope they prompt a comprehensive discussion of a better Olympic future.

Bruce Kidd is the current Vice-President and Principal of University of Toronto Scarborough Campus (UTSC), founding dean of the university’s Faculty of Kinesiology and Physical Education, an honorary member of the Canadian Olympic Committee and former member of Canada’s national track and field team (competing at the 1964 Summer Olympics in Japan).

2. Get rid of the IOC. It’s time for a new international body to govern these events.

— Luiz Martins de Melo, Economics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro

The hegemony of neoliberal ideology has had enormous influence in defining the urban contours in this newest stage of globalization. Everything is market. Everything is competition.

Cities and urban areas emerge as a representation of the competition for global resources. Hence the competition — to the delight of international sporting bodies — for the right to host major sporting events. The strategy of potential host cities is then to prepare for sporting events instead of structuring an urban development project designed to meet social rights to improve universal public services.

Sporting excellence is a historical and aesthetic legacy of human development. This heritage is a legacy of humanity — it should not be an exclusive monopoly of, in this case, the IOC.

Organizations such as the IOC (and FIFA is in there as well) have a monopoly on the exploitation rights of images and revenues of major world sporting mega-events derived from the heritage of humanity. Countries and regional governments end up having to change their legislation to adapt it to the legal requirements of the contract signed with them and to assume the risk of losses. They misappropriate the human legacy of sport for their benefit. Only they gain from these events. Debts and problems after the events are left to the cities and countries that promoted them.

So, it is fundamental to break from the IOC's monopoly and to make the building of sports facilities more affordable to all countries, not just for the rich ones. It is important to set up a new and drastically different worldwide organization to promote and manage the sporting excellence as a historical and aesthetic legacy of human development.  

The IOC should not be allowed to individually misappropriate this legacy, developed with public funds from individual countries, recently including very poor ones. Until that happens, the Olympics will continue to exploit the communities in which they are hosted and leave a very poor social and economic legacy to the cities and countries that promote them.

Luiz Martins de Melo is an Associate Professor at the Economics Institute of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. He specializes in innovation, sport, and finance.

3. Cancel the Olympics and dream up something completely new.

— Ann Peel, former racewalker for Team Canada and founding co-chair of Athletes CAN.

Imagine this in the future. The Athlete Games (TAG), launched in 2020 in response to the collapse of the house of cards that was the IOC, is an international festival of sport managed by and for athletes. Who better to keep the flame alive than those who devote their lives to the magic of movement? As guardians of true sport, athletes will not confuse political and business imperatives with the integrity and power of sport.

The Athlete Games Committee is comprised of athletes and high-performance coaches who will be eligible for election within 12 years of retirement, for a maximum of two four-year terms. The Athlete Games will be hosted in a permanent location. They will run annually, with a rotating sport calendar – summer outdoor, winter outdoor, indigenous sports, and indoor sports. Athletes will compete for their countries. Small countries will be permitted to group together as a region.

Corporate and national funds contributed will be pooled and distributed to enable the host location, athletes, coaches and countries to compete, including TAG contributions to local sport infrastructure. Concurrently, Youth Athlete Games will be organized for children and youth to participate in locations around the world.

The local and international variants will be connected virtually. Teams will honour diversity. Sports will be encouraged to break free of gender divisions to enable competition to be organized by weight, age and other categories, including those now represented in the Paralympic movement. Excellence is the goal, true excellence, unrestricted by false limitations on competition.

Ann Peel represented Canada on the National Athletics Team from 1979 to 92, and was a multiple international medalist in the racewalk. Ann was also the founding co-chair of Athletes CAN, the first independent athletes’ organization in the world. She worked in law, international development and education. She is currently a director of Athletics Canada and a consultant in sport and education through The Chester Group.