The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were all set to be a disappointment. For starters, they happened in 2021 rather than in 2020 (a bit like the Euro 2020 soccer tournament). More significantly, they were extremely unpopular in Japan, with bloated budgets and fears of COVID-19 spreading. The swanky stadiums built for the event were to be almost empty. All the signs pointed towards a disaster.
Strangely enough, I liked it. Usually, I wouldn’t have any interest in sports like weightlifting, windsurfing or wrestling. The Olympics made you pay attention. I initially tuned in out of curiosity. I thought that it could be fun in a “so-bad-it’s-good” sort of way. I stayed for the underdog stories: the unfavored Austrian cyclist who shocked the Dutch; the Filipina weightlifter clinching her country’s first gold medal ever (by upsetting China in a sport that they looked set to sweep gold in); the Indian javelin thrower who won India’s first gold medal in athletics; the athletes from the tiny nation of San Marino winning any medal at all (featuring current Wolverine Myles Amine) and so many more.
It’s not that only the Olympics features such upsets. Underdogs win everywhere, albeit not frequently. Neither is it that the level of competition is limited to the Olympics. Most sports have world championships that also provide elite competition. After all, Olympic records are typically less challenging than the world records in any given sport.
What sets the Olympics apart is the aura that forces people to look, to pay attention. Most people, myself included, would never casually tune in to the world championships for less popular sports like artistic swimming or trampoline. We would, however, tune in to the Olympics to watch whatever spectacle is happening at the moment. This is meaningful since it brings so many overlooked sports into the spotlight.
Weightlifting or javelin throw might fly under the radar in countries where the sports are relatively unknown, like the Philippines or India, but the first gold medals in these sports will surely bring a lot of grassroots funding and support, paving the way for future success. China’s success at the Olympics followed the strategy of focusing on sports neglected by the West.
The Olympics are still a vital part of the sporting world that deserves to stay. But Tokyo made it clear that big arenas aren’t necessary for a great viewing experience. The lack of fans in the arena felt eerie at first, but it kept the focus strictly on the athletes. Given that a lot of the recent dissatisfaction with the Olympics is about how hosts regularly overspend on building grand stadiums for events, it’s valuable to recognize that perhaps we don’t need to do that.
The Olympics have become so expensive that most cities don’t consider bidding because the cost far exceeds any potential revenue they could bring in through tourism. If the cost of hosting the games doesn’t go down, we will soon be limited to only a handful of cities with pre-existing infrastructure that can consider hosting them.
This would be a real shame because the host nations are part of the charm. The International Olympic Committee now allows the host to add sports of their choice, letting the host country show off its sporting prowess. That meant that Japan could compete in baseball and karate, sports in which they won gold medals.
After the bidding for the 2024 Olympics came down to only two cities, Los Angeles and Paris (guess why the other candidates withdrew?), the IOC asked them to host in 2024 and 2028 for lack of competition.
Fortunately, the issue of the price tag is now attracting more attention. Paris 2024 will focus not on building massive permanent coliseums but instead temporary structures scattered around the city. That way, the focus is back on the host nation and the sporting events, not on expensive sideshows. An openness to doing the same would go a long way to making the Olympics a sustainable fixture of the sporting world for the foreseeable future.
Siddharth Parmar is an Opinion Columnist and can be reached at email@example.com.