A Better Olympics Is Possible

We can turn the Olympics from a corporate wonderland into a place of mass celebration and popular competition.

For generous commentators, the spirit of the Olympics might be captured in the words of the modern games’ founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin:

The important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win, but to take part; the important thing in life is not triumph, but the struggle; the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well. To spread these principles is to build up a strong and more valiant and, above all, more scrupulous and more generous humanity.

These liberal ideals, of course, were never really manifested, not even in the first modern games in 1896 Athens.

But the disparity between Olympic ideology and reality has only deepened since commercial imperatives took over the competition. The 1984 Los Angeles Olympics established a new tradition: the enormous public subsidy of private goods in the name of sports. Since then, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has sought some kind of moral justification for its capitalist excess.

In place of de Coubertin’s humanist principles, the games now promise host cities an even more useless set of values: the event will regenerate urban space, attract tourists, and increase popular engagement in sports. There is not one piece of evidence that hosting the Olympics achieves any of these goals. In fact, in most cases, they produce precisely the opposite effect.

This sad reality seems like cause to just give up on the whole damn charade. And with a distinct strain of left political culture that rejects sports in general — and competitive, nationalist sporting events in particular — there’s no doubt a constituency itching for it all to come crashing down.

But following Jules Boykoff’s theorization of the Olympics as “celebration capitalism,” let’s instead imagine celebration socialism: an internationalist event that boosts popular participation in sports, equalizes competition between nations, and actually benefits the host community.

There’s already a heritage to draw on. In the 1930s Popular Front era, all manner of Workers’ Games and Women’s Games were held. In 1936, the Spanish Republican government organized the antifascist People’s Olympiad in direct opposition to Berlin’s Nazi Olympics of the same year.

Taking inspiration from the five interlocking rings that have come to symbolize the games, I propose these founding principles: decentralize the hosting duties, boost live viewership, provide free access to more events, balance international participation and success, and reject corporate sponsorship.

1. Break up the Olympics

Decentralization spreads the Olympics — which traditionally encompass more than twenty sports that all require different facilities and attract different crowds — across a wider geographical area. Already, World Cup soccer does this; in 2002, it even allowed Japan and South Korea to co-host the event.

This plan would not only allow host countries to use existing facilities, but also encourage them to site new construction wherever would most likely be used again. Certainly, spreading the events out over a whole nation (or nations) would inconvenience the governing bureaucracy and the corporate class of sponsors and media backers who prefer that their five-star hotels sit only a limousine ride away from all the venues. For most people, however, it would be no great loss.

2. Open the gates

The second Olympic ring follows from this: increasing the geographical scale of the event would allow more people to see it. The experience of watching sports vastly improves if spectators can do so live. By placing events in the largest possible arenas, slashing ticket prices, and encouraging maximum attendance, the new games could turn into a mass celebration. A country’s ability to enable this would become a key condition of the bidding process.

Again, there’s precedence. While most boxing matches take place in arenas where tens of thousands can watch, the Olympics holds them in relatively tiny venues.

Further, the four-year cycle of the games — as well as the decentralization effort — would slowly build a base of popular support, letting the people own the games through their participation. The crowd would become as much a part of the spectacle as the competitors.

3. Bring the spectacle into the streets

We can take this even further by moving as many events as possible out of the arenas. The marathon, road cycling, and race walking are three sports that take place on the streets and are free to watch. During the London Olympic Games, spectators lined the streets around the cycling time trials. Thousands turned up on their bikes, and some even rode the course beforehand. Others brought a picnic, avoiding the corporate behemoths that otherwise controlled every food and drink outlet.

These new games would vastly expand this part of the program, adding a half-marathon, a 10k race, road relays, and a multi-stage bicycle race that could last all ten days.

The same could be done with yachting if the host nation’s coastline allows crowds to gather. A canoe marathon or a point-to-point rowing race — like England’s Oxford versus Cambridge event on the Thames — would draw citizens to the riverbank. All of these innovations would give the games back to the people.

4. Play the world’s games

Next, the program would have to be rebalanced. European and North American teams now dominate the most prestigious events. For example, in 2012, only one of the fourteen rowing gold medals was won by an African athlete. Of the thirty yachting medals, China managed only a silver and Brazil a solitary bronze.

No African or South American participant won an equestrian medal — there are eighteen — although Saudi Arabia did win a single bronze. There were no Asian or African medalists in canoeing, field hockey, or modern pentathlon; no African athletes got onto the diving, fencing, or gymnastics podiums either.

Compare this to the spirit of accessible sports like soccer, boxing, and running. In athletics — an umbrella term that includes track and field events and road races — Jamaica ranks third in the medals table, Ethiopia fourth, and Kenya fifth. Cuba comes in third in boxing. These two sports awarded medals to participants from Turkey, Algeria, Mongolia, Thailand, and India.

And what could be more international than soccer? Between the men’s and women’s teams, medalists came from Mexico, Brazil, Japan, and South Korea.

Unlike the rest of the Olympic program, most anyone, from most anywhere, can participate in these sports. Rather than add yet more expensive sports — tennis, golf, and windsurfing being the worst recent examples — we can prioritize sports that have the potential to be truly universal.

Up until 1920, tug-of-war — a contest of strength between two teams that requires only a length of rope — was an Olympic event. And darts — set to debut in the 2024 games — needs next to no equipment.

Poetry was once an Olympic event so why not add games that aren’t classified as sports — like chess — or massively popular activities — like ballroom dancing, which could become the summer games’ corollary to ice dancing — that would lower the barrier for participation.

If we don’t want to completely redesign the Olympics, we might simply extend the athletics program, adding ultra-marathons, hill- and mountain-running, and a cross-country race.

An Olympic movement charged with developing a program that undercuts the privilege that excludes a vast majority of the world would understand sports as radical project founded on mass popular participation and would stand in stark contrast to the cartel that the International Olympic Committee seeks to protect at almost any cost.

5. Take corporate money out of sports

The final new Olympic ring would reestablish the symbol as a representation of the games, not as a logo for the sponsors. This may be hardest part to achieve in an era of such rampant commercialization. But already, all Olympic sites are entirely advertisement-free, strictly policed to protect the integrity of the event from ambush marketing.

Of course, every square inch outside the venues and every minute of commercial breaks are filled with images of the five rings pushing all manner of products. If we take sports seriously — and the best it represents — we would reject this state.

A new Olympics would not amount to a revolution. But it would put the values of popular participation and global equality at the center, replacing the counterfactual and neoliberal mantra of the current games.

Celebration socialism would deconstruct the binary opposition of competition and participation. Perhaps the games need to address this aspect most of all. And doing so isn’t that hard. Start with the most iconic Olympic event of all, the marathon: the elite runners lead, the fun runners take up the back, and in between, a race for all.

All this is a rough sketch, but it’s a worthwhile effort to imagine a different kind of Olympics, replacing both Coubertin’s empty liberalism and today’s voracious capitalism with an event that would truly inspire mass, international participation.