By Marty Conway, Faculty, Master's in Sports Industry Management
Since the first Olympic games of the modern era were held in Athens in 1896, when only 14 nations gathered, the Summer and Winter Games have proudly displayed the official Olympic Motto, made up of three Latin words: Citius - Altius - Fortius. These words translate to: Faster - Higher - Stronger. In this spirit of competition, inclusion, and humanity, athletes from around the world will once again convene for the “Games of the XXXI Olympiad,” commonly referred to as the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.
This August, however, these Olympic Games may become more known for three other words, not favored by anyone connected with the Olympic movement: Crisis - Boycott - Bans.
Controversy Is No Stranger to the Olympics
The Olympic Games have a long and complicated history of mixing athletics and political expression of one sort or another. In 1936, the “Nazi Olympics” saw the nationalism of host country Germany ban its own athletes of Jewish decent, which led to other nations, including the United States, to consider a complete boycott of the games that year.
For the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) voted to revoke South Africa’s invitation to compete based on the country’s segregationist apartheid policies. This ban remained in place until 1992.
In 1968, 10 days before the opening of the Summer Olympics in Mexico City, police officers and military troops shot their weapons into a crowd of unarmed students, killing several and wounding dozens. During those same Olympic Games, Americans John Carlos and Tommie Smith stunned officials and spectators alike by expressing a “Black Power” message of civil rights protest during the playing of the U.S. national anthem.
The 1972 Olympics is remembered for the “Munich Massacre,” in which 11 Israeli athletes were taken hostage, and later killed, by a Palestinian terrorist group, “Black September.”
The Financial Toll of the Mega-Sports-Double
The Olympic Games in Rio have been tested almost from the moment the IOC awarded these games to Brazil’s second-most populous city. Brazil became the site of what could be referred to as the “Mega-Sports-Double” by being selected to host the FIFA World Cup in 2014 and the Summer Olympics in 2016. Hosting a Mega-Sports-Double in the same country just two years apart has occurred only three times before, in Mexico (1968–70), Germany (1972–74), and the United States (1994–96).
In many cases, the aftermath of hosting even a single Mega-Sports-Event has been disastrous for a country, leaving behind debt for local citizens and governments in the wake of elements such as facilities and infrastructure far exceeding what was originally proposed. The 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal placed the Canadian city in financial distress, and it only paid off its games-related debt 30 years after the Olympic flame was extinguished.
Placing this sort of economic pressure on a developing economy like Brazil has caused economic and political crisis beyond what has been seen in the history of the Olympics. When the games were awarded to Rio, the projected budget was $4.6 billion; however, the most recent estimates project the actual costs to exceed the original budget by 51 percent, or another $1.6 billion.
Doping and Deception
In addition to the local issues leading up to the hosting the games in Rio, we have seen the lifting of the veil of a Russian state-sponsored performance-enhancing drug scandal from 2011 to 2015, which is unparalleled in the history of sport. The span of this scandal is enormous. What began with media stories of whistle-blower accounts was then investigated by the World Anti-Doping Agency, as well as world sport federations and the IOC.
The investigations have identified 68 Russian athletes and implicated 28 sports in winter and summer events for malfeasance ranging from tampering with submitted samples to full-fledged swapping of samples as well as an elaborate coverup. The governing body for world track and field, the IAAF, has suspended the entire Russian track and field team and voted to keep the ban in place for the games in Rio, which will mean no athletes from that country will be competing in any of the track and field events.
Hope for Unity
Despite the volumes of economic study, the investigations, and the back-and-forth of media accounts, the organizers of these Olympic Games will undoubtedly look toward the spirit of the founder of the modern Olympics, Pierre de Coubertin, who envisioned the ultimate athletic competition.
That vision imagined a period when athletes would take the world stage and inspire others in an arena of respect and mutual admiration, a period of peace and unity when rivals become friends, and an athletic competition that can bring the world’s people closer together, even for a brief time.
— Marty Conway worked for 13 years in Major League Baseball and teaches Global Games and Sports Leadership and Management. You can follow him on Twitter at @martyconway.