Was it an ominous premonition or just another blunder by a gaffe-prone politician?

During an Upper House finance committee meeting on March 18 last year, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso described how exceptional events seem to overshadow the Olympics in 40-year intervals.

Take the 1940 iterations, when the Second Sino-Japanese War intensified and prompted the nation to forfeit the planned Summer Games in Tokyo and Winter Games in Sapporo.

Then, the Moscow Olympics in 1980 suffered from a mass boycott by Western nations, including Japan, in protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan the previous year.

“It’s a problem that’s happened every 40 years. It’s the cursed Olympics, and that’s a fact,” said Aso, who doubles as finance minister and is known for his not-so-infrequent slips of the tongue.

Six days after Aso made his remarks, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach agreed to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics for a year. The unprecedented move came amid growing concerns over hosting an international sporting event during a once-in-a-century global pandemic that was claiming thousands of lives every day.

Battles and boycotts

Putting aside whether or not the games are “cursed,” the history of the quadrennial competition has been inextricably linked to the geopolitical and socio-economic conditions of the times — be they wars, financial crises or technological advancements.

“The Olympics have evolved from pure amateurism to embracing commercialization over the past century as they navigated through ever-changing world affairs,” says Yasuhiro Sakaue, a professor of sports sociology at Hitotsubashi University in Tokyo.

Still under U.S. Occupation at the time, Japan wasn’t invited to participate in the 1948 London Olympics due to its role in World War II, although star athletes such as Hironoshin Furuhashi — dubbed the “Flying Fish of Fujiyama” — set new swimming world records at national championships in both Japan and the United States.

Japan would only return to the Olympic stage after a 16-year hiatus at the 1952 Summer Games held in Helsinki, which would also see the Soviet Union and China make their debuts in the Parade of Nations.

Boycotts erupted during the 1956 Melbourne Olympics in response to the Suez Crisis and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Hungary, while Rome 1960 saw Ethiopian national Abebe Bikila win the marathon barefooted, making him the first Black African Olympic champion.

In 1964, Tokyo hosted the Summer Games, an event that would be regarded as symbolic of Japan’s postwar recovery that signaled the nation’s return to the world stage. A massive infrastructure drive coincided with the games that saw new highways and hotels constructed in a city once ravaged by American firebombings. Haneda Airport was modernized, the world’s first bullet train was introduced and a new sewage system roared into action.

“In the shadows of the citywide makeover, however, the games also saw the dislocation of communities, a trend that persists,” Sakaue says.

Some 1.5 million residents of Beijing were displaced, for example, when the Chinese capital hosted the 2008 Olympics, while violent outbreaks erupted when residents of Rio de Janeiro’s slums were forced to evict to make way for the construction of Olympic venues for the 2016 Games.

This time again, Tokyo residents have been asked to leave their homes. Around 200 families, mostly older folk, of the Kasumigaoka apartment complex were asked to relocate to make space for the new national stadium. Demolition of the half-century old apartments began in 2016.

“It’s nothing short of humiliation for these long-term residents, and reflects one of the darker legacies of the Olympics,” Sakaue says.

Political activism and social consciousness took center stage in Mexico City in 1968 when Black American athletes raised their fists at the medal podium in a stand for civil rights. The IOC banned Tommie Smith and John Carlos from the games for life, but their protests reverberated across the world through the power of television, which had transformed the games into a global spectacle by then.

Munich 1972 was tainted by violence when Palestinian terrorist group Black September took nine members of the Israeli Olympic team hostage after killing two of them. Seventeen would die in what has since been referred to as the Munich Massacre, including the Israeli hostages, terrorist members and a West German police officer.

A costly affair

It was Montreal 1976, however, that would highlight an issue that plagues the games to this day: Cost overruns and the ballooning expenses that burden host cities. Rampant corruption and financial mismanagement left the city in a sea of debt that took 30 years for it to pay off.

“Montreal’s financial disaster would see the Olympics steer toward commercialization, with Los Angeles 1984 being a watershed event,” says Yuji Ishizaka, an associate professor of sports sociology at the Nara Women’s University and the author of the upcoming book “The Coronavirus and the Olympics.”

Hosting the games on the heels of loss-incurring Montreal 1976 and Moscow 1980, organizers for the 1984 Games decided to introduce private financing, shifting much of the expenses from the government to corporate sponsors such as 7-Eleven and McDonald’s, while selling exclusive television rights to broadcasters — a strategy that has since become the norm.

Instead of splurging on ambitious new construction projects, expenditures were curbed and existing facilities were used as much as possible. The event was lauded for its financial success, generating a profit of more than $250 million.

A period of relative calm for the quadrennial competition would follow. Seoul 1988 saw the largest number of participating countries during the final years of the Cold War, with all but seven nations around the world taking part in the games.

Meanwhile, Barcelona 1992 put the Spanish city on the world map, revamping its urban landscape through infrastructure projects and turning it into one of the most visited cities in Europe.

But for the 100th anniversary of the modern Olympics, it was Atlanta — not Athens, the original host in 1896 — that was chosen.

“Picking an American city as the host of the Olympics for the centennial was symbolic of how the IOC joined forces with commercialism,” Ishizaka says. As Greek actress Melina Mercouri, one of the leaders of the Athens delegations, famously said, “Coca-Cola won over the Parthenon temple.”

While the event turned a profit, it wasn’t seen as an outright success with critics deriding its commercialization, transportation blunders, technological glitches and the games being marred by a pipe bomb explosion that killed two and injured over 100.

“I think it was around this time that the IOC realized that it couldn’t give cities free rein over the games if it were to maintain the Olympic brand image. That’s how the concept of the Olympic legacy was introduced,” Ishizaka says, adding that in 2003 the Olympic Charter was amended to require the IOC to take measures to promote a “positive legacy” for the host city and country.

That concept was best embodied, perhaps, by London 2012. The games saw the city’s East End rejuvenated, transforming what was once a run-down area into a thriving center of business, retail and tourism.

Changing opinions

Olympic budgets, however, have continued to soar, with Tokyo 2020 estimated to become the most costly games in history. Add COVID-19 into the mix, and the results are widespread public skepticism, Ishizaka says.

“The Japanese have been considered to be very pro-Olympics, but the pandemic has exposed the various flaws of the event as people struggle to find meaning in hosting the games when spectators are going to be limited,” he says. “I’m afraid many will now consider the event as something that only benefits a small group of wealthy and powerful people through taxpayer money.”

And with a growing chorus of activists calling for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing over China’s human right’s abuses, Ishizaka says the IOC may be forced to rethink its raison d’etre.

Already, fears over high costs and questions about the economic benefits of the sporting extravaganza are seeing fewer cities around the world wanting to play host, says Sachie Hamada, an associate professor at Shimane University and an expert on the history of media and Olympics. The 2004 Summer Games, which were ultimately hosted in Athens, attracted 11 bids. For the 2024 games, which have been awarded to Paris, there were only two.

“As the pandemic disrupted preparations for Tokyo 2020, public distrust toward the media, the IOC and the Japanese organizers continued to grow,” Hamada says.

“The upcoming Olympics will likely be a catalyst to rethink the fundamental purpose and meaning of the games,” she adds. “It’s no longer an issue limited to Japan, but something that could impact the survival of the event in the years to come.”

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.