When the sport takes the back seat and the media coverage is not dominated by stories about success and records, but features doping accusations, corruption investigations, and various criminal activities as well as a lack of interest by the fans, the Olympic Games are suspected to be facing a major crisis.
Many years of training for the one moment; for professional athletes, the Olympic Games mark a highlight in their career. Taking part alone rewards for all the hours testing your own physical limit. A medal means more than any other title won before. The Olympics are an event of contrasts. Competing is a dream come true for the athletes, the Olympic idea will forever be a myth for those who have never been part of the event. Hardly ever can you experience joy and sorrow so close together, pure tension and joyful relief are never as intense as at the Olympics. Lately however, unlimited euphoria has never met skepticism as often as during the summer of 2016 in Rio de Janeiro.
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With a total population of almost 210 million people Brazil is one of the biggest countries on earth. Long before Rio was officially named the host of the 2016 Olympics Brazilian cities were a reflection of opposing poverty and wealth, joy of living and fear for life as well as progress and crime. As soon as the media started reporting, pictures of favelas, polluted water, and ever-present crime were broadcast all over the world. Many were convinced that the IOC had made a mistake. Awarding such a huge event – combined with expenses in the billions for the hosting city – to a country in a disastrous economic state, was often called a scandal. The city invested in major projects like the extension of the metro, new stadiums, and the renovation of whole districts – social problems and declining economic performance were denied for a sports event, that did not even cause any form of excitement among the local population. Considering the ticket prices this did not come as a surprise because the Olympics in Brazil turned more and more into an event for the upper class. “It’s the taking part that counts” was no comfort for the poor because in the favelas the Olympic idea has no meaning.
In Rio’s slums sport is irrelevant, they are reigned by crime and desolation. Illegal practices, however, found their way into the Olympics outside of the favelas as well. Corruption accusations and bribe payments are still being investigated today, the arrest of the executive member of the IOC, Patrick Hickey, was only one of many cases in which the Brazilian authorities took steps against the unjust enrichment in ticket sales. The tickets for the Olympic events can only be sold at face value by authorized ticket resellers; surcharges are not allowed. The British company THG was also confronted with enrichment accusations when the Brazilian federal police showed up during a lunch in Barra da Tijuca in the southern part of Rio. The CEO went to jail. Arrests like these are examples for a renowned event’s descent into chaos, not being able to avoid the increasing number of negative headlines. Shortly before the beginning of the Olympics, a bike bridge crashed down, killing two. Concerns about zika kept tourists from coming to Brazil. Polluted water was responsible for the diagnosis of bowl diseases in some athletes, and several unfinished buildings and construction sites led people to believe that Rio 2016 could not become a success.
They were proven wrong because the competitions went by without any incidents. Nonetheless, the first Olympic Games in South America were overshadowed by a different scandal. A few weeks before the start of the mega event, 68 Russian track and field athletes were disqualified from the competitions. They all were part of a state-run doping system supported by the secret service. One of their own brought an end to it. The runner Julia Stepanowa was the key witness and blew over the Russian doping practices. The (former) doped athletes still stood a chance, though. The IOC refused to decide about the Russians’ appeal and let the federations decide instead. The result was that the athletes were allowed to compete after all. Journalists, fans and other athletes were shocked. Many agreed that the lack of consequence on the IOC’s side in this matter was one more step into an absolutely uncertain future of the Olympics.
When the Olympic flame died in the city by the sugarloaf, what was left was a touch of disappointment and the search for an answer to the question, whether the Olympic Games are outdated. Athletes, sponsors, the media and all federations would agree, that the answer has to be a clear “no”. The people’s opinion on the other hand suggests that the answer is a different one. Even far from Copacabana and Ipanema, the biggest sports event in the world seems to lose its fascination. Residents of some potential future hosts like Stockholm, Boston, Hamburg, Cracow and Budapest explicitly rejected the Olympic games with their vote. The IOC argues that they are convinced people have yet to realize the enormous advantages a mega event like this can bring to a region. What the IOC forgets to mention are the scandals that have shown sports fans all over the world during the Rio games that the Olympics keep turning into an event that is less about sports and more about commercial gaining and greed. Even the current applications of Los Angeles and Paris for 2024 seem to be no exception. Keeping in mind the fact that a bunch of the IOC’s contracts with huge sponsors in the US end in 2020, possible leading to losses of about half a billion dollars, the city in California seems to be a step ahead of its French opponent. If this case will be dominated by greed and the decision will be made upon criteria that have little to no connection to the sport, has yet to be seen. In the meantime, fans are distancing themselves from the Olympics, looking for alternatives.
On the path back to the initial Olympic idea, there are often smaller events and completely new disciplines. Creations like Bossaball are a success not only because consumption binge has no place there but also because the main interest of fans and players is still the sport. The Olympic idea seems to be more realistic than at the actual Olympics. Not everyone wants to deny themselves a big event, though, and nobody has to because ever since the 1980ies the World Games have become a significant event in the world of sports. In a four-year rhythm, all athletes of non-Olympic sports compete against each other and fight for medals. The excitement among the competitors is enormous, ticket prices are affordable to everyone and the performances to be seen are of the highest quality. The joy of being part of the event is more present than at many Olympic competitions. Maybe this is due to preparations without scandals and a lack of doping accusations. These events are centered around one thing: the excitement of athletic performances. It has yet to be determined, however, how long the World Games and other alternatives to the Olympic Games can defy the pressure of marketing in sports.