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AS athletes and spectators prepare for the “festival of sport” in the forthcoming Tokyo Olympics it’s worth reflecting on the way capitalism exploits these international games which were first conceived as an embodiment of fair play.
The history of the games is littered with corruption and bribery by host countries, sex verification scandals, doping by athletes vying for post-Olympic commercial sponsorship deals and the influence of advertisers cashing in on a global television audience.
Craving prestige, governments back bids to host the Olympics spending unsustainable sums of money in the process, building contracts are awarded on the basis of bribery, venues are often left unused afterwards and vast debts left to be paid, in many cases by the poorest host country citizens.
While the current focus is on the pandemic and anxieties about potentially convening a mass transmission event for coronavirus, politics and corruption are hardwired into the Olympic bandwagon.
The 2002 Olympic Winter Games bid scandal involved allegations of bribery used to win the rights to host the games in Salt Lake City, Utah. Prior to its successful bid in 1995, the city had attempted four times to secure the games, failing each time.
In 1998, members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were accused of taking gifts from the Salt Lake Organising Committee during the bidding process. The allegations resulted in the expulsion of several IOC members and the adoption of new IOC rules.
A consulting company working for the Tokyo Olympic bid committee paid about $370,000 to the son of then-influential IOC member Lamine Diack before and after the Japanese capital was picked in 2013 to host the 2020 Games, news agency Kyodo reported last year.
The payment is reported to be part of $2 million transferred by the bid committee to Black Tidings, a now shuttered consulting company based in Singapore.
Tsunekazu Takeda, the president of the Japanese Olympic Committee at the time, acknowledged signing off on the $2 million payment and was indicted in 2019 by a French court on corruption charges. In 2019 the IOC disclosed assets in excess of $5 billion and a $74 million cash surplus in its financial accounts.
After Montreal’s huge financial losses from the 1976 Olympics, Peter Ueberroth, head of the Los Angeles Olympics Committee Organising Group, sold exclusive official sponsor rights to the highest bidder in a variety of corporate categories.
Now almost everything is commercialised with official items ranging from credit cards to beer. And while US decathlete Bill Toomey lost his Olympic eligibility in 1964 for endorsing a nutritional supplement, now athletes openly endorse everything from allergy medicines to blue jeans.
Fifty years ago after debates about amateur versus professional participation, the IOC also legitimised the sponsorship of athletes by sports organisations and private businesses.
In 1984 some of the world’s best athletes were still banned from the games because they competed for money, but in 1986 the IOC adopted rules that permit the international federation governing each Olympic sport to decide whether to permit professional athletes in Olympic competition.
Professionals in ice hockey, tennis, soccer and equestrian sports were permitted to compete in the 1988 Olympics, although their eligibility was subject to some restrictions. By the beginning of this century the presence of professional athletes at the Olympic Games was common.
Far from enshrining its original ideals the games have become a byword for bribery, cheating, corruption, hosted in countries with high levels of poverty and inequality where sports participation is entrenched in wealthy and middle-class households and junk food advertising contributes to the ingrained poor health of working-class children.
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