Opinion | Are the Olympics Too Broken to Fix?

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The Tokyo Olympics have been called “cursed.” Even before their brightest star and their local favorite faltered, it wasn’t hard to see why: Most Japanese people didn’t want to host the Games during a pandemic, and those who did have been barred from attending, leaving athletes swimming and flipping in ghostly arenas as Tokyo’s hospitals fill around them.

But then, the Olympics have been a little cursed for a while now, facing years of criticism as a spectacle of excess, corruption and exploitation in a world that was losing interest. In recent interviews with those steeped in the Games — historians, academics, athletes, officials — The Times’s John Branch reports that a consensus emerged: “No one thinks the Olympics operate just fine the way they are.”

Why do so many seem to be turning against the Games, and can they be saved? Here’s what people are saying.

‘The athletes, they’re not the priority’

As the track and field star Allyson Felix recently told The Times, the Olympics are first and foremost a commercial proposition. “My perspective was that the Games were so much about the competition,” she said. “Now I get where we fall in the grand scheme of this ginormous thing that makes a ton of money — the athletes don’t see that money.”

The Olympics are specifically in the business of broadcasting, which accounts for 73 percent of the revenue that the International Olympic Committee receives. “The athletes, they’re not the priority,” said David Wallechinsky, a historian of the Games. “Television is the priority.”

Consider that in 1964, the Tokyo Games were held in October to avoid typhoon season and sweltering summer heat, which have gotten worse as the world has warmed. This time around, they’re being held in the summer because it makes broadcasters more money — to the athletes’ predictable detriment.

Television demands the drama of high-stakes competition, and the 24-hour panopticon of social media has only compounded the pressure on top athletes. “We don’t just expect our Olympians to be incredible athletes,” my colleague Lindsay Crouse writes. “We expect them to be role models and to adhere to impossibly high levels of self-discipline, work ethics and sportsmanship that have nothing to do with their actual job. Women, especially women of color, face even higher expectations.”

Simone Biles is a case in point. Long considered the greatest gymnast in history, “Biles is the star, the one that NBC has been pushing for five years,” as Ann Killion writes for The San Francisco Chronicle, “the personification of the multibillion-dollar investment in these Games.”

But as much as Biles has dedicated herself to gymnastics — she won the national championships with broken toes and the world championships with a kidney stone — the sport did not reciprocate. Like many elite American gymnasts, Biles trained from a young age at an infamously abusive center in Texas run by the coaches Bela and Martha Karolyi. Shortly after Biles swept the 2016 Olympics, it was revealed that the Karolyis and U.S.A. Gymnastics, the sport’s governing body, had looked the other way as Larry Nassar, a longtime national team doctor, molested hundreds of child athletes, including Biles.

Biles has spoken about how the abuse contributed to her severe depression and anxiety. (One of the primary reasons Biles continues to compete, she has said, is to use her platform to hold U.S.A. Gymnastics to account: Without her objections, young gymnasts would still be training at the Karolyi center.) But the proximate cause of her poor performance on Tuesday was a case of “the twisties”: a mental block that causes loss of muscle memory and spatial awareness in midair. It’s a dreaded and dangerous phenomenon — particularly for Biles, who has debuted skills so hazardous that they are deliberately underscored to dissuade other gymnasts from attempting them.

Biles is part of a growing number of elite athletes who are declining to push past their mental limits, The Times’s Jeré Longman reports. The shift can be traced to 2015-16, when the N.C.A.A. created a mental health initiative and when Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian ever, began discussing his struggle with suicidal depression. Biles herself said she was inspired by the tennis star Naomi Osaka, who cited mental health concerns when she withdrew from the French Open this year (and was fined $15,000 for it).

Some on social media have cast these high-profile withdrawals as part of a trend of weak, entitled Generation Z behavior. But whatever one thinks of them, Brian Moritz, a journalism professor who writes about sports media, says that it’s clear that “how we view athletes is evolving.” That, in turn, may reflect a change in how people view the Olympics.

‘Gold medals are being given priority over people’s lives’

If athletes make up one half of the profit-extracting machine of the Olympics, the places that host them make up the other. As the economist Andrew Zimbalist told The Times, the Games are simply a bad deal for host cities: Every Olympics since 1960 has run over budget, at an average of 172 percent, one study found. And if corruption were an Olympic category, Daniel Drezner writes in The Washington Post, “only FIFA could challenge the I.O.C. for a gold medal.”

The cost ends up being borne by ordinary people. “While the Olympics tend to bring out the very best in athletes, they also tend to bring out the very worst in host cities,” the political scientist Jules Boykoff told Teen Vogue. Forced evictions, suppression of free speech and protest against host-government mistreatment, worker abuse and arbitrary arrests have become common features of Olympic construction.

“There have been few greater things in my life than seeing Usain Bolt do his thing, and Simone Biles makes me swoon,” David Goldblatt, an Olympic historian, told The Times. “On the other hand, you must meet some of the 75,000 people who have been displaced forcibly from their homes in Rio de Janeiro.”

In recent years, the I.O.C. has also come under fire for awarding the Games to authoritarian hosts like Russia and China, with Beijing selected for 2022, its second time in 14 years. “The world seems to forget that China broke its promises related to the Beijing 2008 Olympics and is committing atrocities against the Uyghur and other Turkic communities in plain sight,” writes Rayhan Asat, whose brother is imprisoned in Xinjiang. “Despite touting ‘universality and solidarity’ as its principles, the I.O.C. refuses to stand in solidarity with those being denied their universal human rights.”

The pandemic has thrown another garish light on the Olympics’ fraught humanitarian record. “Gold medals are being given priority over people’s lives,” Misako Ichimura, the leader of Japan’s anti-Olympics movement, warned in April. Now, as coronavirus cases reach new highs in Tokyo, The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest newspaper, says it’s clearer than ever that “solidarity, one of the Olympic ideals, has become nothing more than an empty slogan.”

Toward a better Olympics

Goldblatt, for his part, believes that the Olympics “are unreformable.” But most people disagree. “The Olympics still represent the pinnacle for most of the sports,” Branch writes. “To athletes, the Olympics can mean everything — a lifetime’s work, the height of achievement. Few, if any, decline invitations on moral grounds.”

And despite their declining ratings, millions of viewers still have affection for them. “The appeal of the Games has never really been the Olympics as an institution; it’s the Olympians themselves,” Crouse writes. “And since I was a kid putting their photos on my walls, the Olympians haven’t really changed. These athletes still showcase extraordinary human achievement from around the world. This year’s roster is as excellent as ever. Watching them makes you hope.”

Over the years, plenty of reforms have been proposed:

One is to decentralize the Games across a continent, or even the whole world, which could decrease corruption in the bidding process and reduce the I.O.C.’s power over a single host.

Alternatively, the Games could find a single, permanent home.

A ban on evictions and public subsidies could also go some way toward protecting the interests of host-city residents.

Remaking the I.O.C. into a just, accountable organization may be the greatest challenge. “The I.O.C. from its very beginning comes from the culture of the upper classes in Europe,” Dick Roth, who won an Olympic gold medal for swimming in 1964, told The Times. “They are so out of touch. They need to realize it’s not all about the money, not all about the galas.”

It’s a tall order, but the United States and other countries have enormous leverage over the organization, Ilya Samin writes in Reason. The political will isn’t there yet, clearly, but activist groups like Human Rights Watch and NOlympicsLA have found a growing audience. And as the 2028 Los Angeles Games loom on the smoky horizon, global warming may bring its own pressure to bear.

In the meantime, there’s nothing wrong with watching the Games, Sasha Mudd, a moral philosopher at the Universidad Católica de Chile, argues. “Knowledge that we are always, in some measure, complicit offers us a kind of moral adversity that we overcome not through the pursuit of an impossible moral purity, but through renewed efforts to engage in our deeply flawed world,” she writes. “Choosing to watch the Games, for all their faults, is perfectly compatible with these efforts.”

Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at debatable@nytimes.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.

READ MORE

“Simone Biles and the Weight of Perfection” [The New York Times]

“Gracie Gold’s Battle for Olympic Glory Ended in a Fight to Save Herself” [The New York Times]

“Abolish the Olympics” [Jacobin]

“No one really wants to host the Olympics, especially after Tokyo’s nightmare. What does the future hold?” [National Post]

“In fast-warming world, Tokyo is barometer for future Olympics” [Reuters]

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