As the Olympic Flame was extinguished once again, at the end of what is often called the greatest show on earth, it is time to pick the pieces, count the cost and move forward. I have really enjoyed the games at Rio (The first games in South America!). Rio is extremely beautiful and real. Watching the coverage on BBC platforms was an experience. I have been an avid fan of the Olympics since Seoul 1988. There are lessons in the Olympic movement that are constant, and messages that fluidly morph with the passage of time.
The Olympics is like NYSC for the world (for the uninitiated the National Youth Service Corps is a governmental organization and scheme in Nigeria which sends tertiary graduates for one year to a state far away (supposedly) from where they are locally from within the country. The aim is to foster peace and unity by enabling youths identify with other ethno-linguistic groups by learning different cultures). The premise of this post is that the Olympic Movement may fail if (in the language of the NYSC) rich kids get posted to their homes (host cities are mostly in the first world and events like horse dancing are de rigeur) camp officials keep stealing the rice (Team Nigeria management), corps members stay away for most of the year (Lochte gate) and the fluidity of national and international identity is not recognised (That does not really need an explanation, does it?).
Firstly, I must say that the star of the 31st Olympiad was without a doubt, the city of Rio and its people. From the views of Christ the Redeemer, to Sugar Loaf Mountain and Copacabana Beach. Its majesty was breath-taking. The fact that Rio is a city of contrasts of extreme poverty and extreme beauty was much talked about before the Games – like it was some new revelation. In every city around the world, tinted armoured cars drive past run-down dwellings and well-heeled business men turn their faces from the homeless. In every city. Rio is still beautiful and still alive.
The goal of the Olympic Movement is succinctly phrased in its Charter ‘to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.’ (Just in case you wondered what Olympism means – ‘Olympism is a philosophy of life, exalting and combining in a balanced whole the qualities of body, will and mind. Blending sport with culture and education, Olympism seeks to create a way of life based on the joy found in effort, the educational value of good example and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles.’) The 1st Olympic Games of the modern era opened in Athens on 6 April 1896 championed by Baron Pierre de Coubertin who was strongly motivated by the pursuit of peace and intercultural communication through international sport.
For the most part, these pursuits are achieved. Nevertheless I believe the IOC has not begun to appreciate the difference between the world of 1896 and the world in 2016. The first Olympics in Athens was attended by 241 athletes, 14 countries and had 43 events – there were no women competitors. Probably a step-up from the ancient Games were women spectators were killed! At Rio 2016 there were 11,544 athletes (more than 45% are women), 207 teams (205 countries, the Refugee team and the Olympic team) and 306 events.
While many countries won their first medals ever and their first gold medals ever, the Medal Tally still manages to reflect the inequalities in the world. US, UK and China at the top, UAE, Trinidad and Nigeria at the bottom. Evidently the IOC is not doing enough to promote Olympism around the world. More youth from across the world deserve the opportunity to be the best they can be – at sports that are international. There were 14 countries at the first Olympics because there were very few recognised states in the world at the time. The idea of Wesphalianism underpins the Olympic Movement – as a tool of peace, the presumption is that states that participate will not go to war during the Games. The more states at the Games the better. However, the nature of the world has departed from Westphalianism – the idea that in international life states are the dominant actors. This is no longer so. Many non-state actors dominate global affairs, terror has become a fact of life, and the Games has often been a target. The IOC needs to acknowledge this as well as the diversity of human existence.
Doing the above comes at a high cost. It is slightly surprising that the Summer games were held for the first time in South America in 2016. Thus far Asia (the most populous continent) has hosted thrice (Tokyo 1964, Seoul 1988 and Beijing 2008) and Africa (second largest continent) never. Conversely, The United States has hosted four Summer Olympics (1904, 1932, 1984, and 1996), and Great Britain has hosted 3 – all in London. This is a clear imbalance. The sports are also imbalanced – gymnastics and dressage for instance. The excuse for not going to more locations has always been the cost. However, not taking the Games to as many diverse places as possible defeats the purpose of the Olympic Movement. It has been suggested that the Games should permanently be held in Greece. While there are environmental advantages to this argument, it would defeat the purpose of the Games. The IOC has a duty to factor in sustainability into its agenda AS WELL AS diversity. We need to see a more diverse and responsible Movement that upholds the dignity and aspiration of all the youth of the world. For example, the fact that there were fewer spectators in Rio than in London does not suggest that one was better than the other, but that different approaches should have been taken based on the nature of the host city. Rigidity will kill the Olympic movement faster than expense could ever hope to. The Favelas were full of the youth that the IOC claims to wish to inspire. Olympism should speak to us all. The Movement belongs to all of us.
Switching Nationalities: Going back to how much the world has changed in 120 years. ‘We are many’ seems to be the state of nature in the 21st century. We also need to remember that nationality is fiction that was a relatively recent introduction to many parts of the world. Furthermore, people switch nationality for various reasons. Nigeria benefitted from UK and US switches, but had people switching to Bahrain or choosing to compete in their alternative nationality. More than 30 Kenyan-born athletes switched nationality for Rio. Now we need to remember that for many athletes, their participation in sport is their job, the IOC cannot rightly hinder the freedom to work. I strongly believe that people should be allowed to compete for anyone they want to. The problem we have is that many countries treat the Olympics as an extension of hostilities. So you see China wanting to outdo the US, the UK wanting to outdo France. This is not the vision of the Olympic movement. We want the best people in the world to compete at their best in the spirit of fair play. I also believe that if the Olympic movement is hijacked to serve the aspirations of state-based dominance we will continue to see more state-sponsored or state-complicit doping. So the IOC should encourage all youth participation at the Games – if someone is eligible to work in a nation, they should be eligible to compete for them. As a friend in the UK once asked me. ‘I am Brazilian, my wife is Hungarian, if we have a child in the UK, which football team would he play for?’ Oro p’esi je o = no answer. Orlando Ortega, Cuban-born Spanish 110 hurdler, found out he could run for Spain a few days before his event and won silver.
Unsporting Behaviour: There was so much sportsmanship at the Olympics. But. While the utmost unsporting behaviour at an Olympics is still doping, there were various instances of different types of unsporting behaviour at the Games. A personal pet-peeve of mine is commentators who rejoice in the misfortune of a good competitor from another country because they believe that it will advance their own competitor’s chances. They never seem to like it when the script is flipped. On average there seem to be more disqualification of athletes from the South, athletes from the South are also less likely to contest DQs. The IOC and sporting organisations need to take note of this. Sexist and racist commentary was rife. (Being a Black woman is not easy!) Also of special note is the constant single story approach to the Parade of Nations commentary. All African nations were defined by whether or not there is a war or poverty in it. Please stop it! Stop in now. However Ryan Lochte and Mahiedine Mekhissi-Benabbad stand out for me. Lochte for whom the trauma of being unable to speak Portuguese caused him to destroy a petrol station and ‘embellish’ the facts and Mekhissi-Benabbad who saw his mentor Ezekiel Kemboi make a mistake on the track and began to rejoice in the benefit he would receive from that. There should be some wooden spoon award for bad behaviour. I do not mean heat of the moment unguarded reactions, but actions that suggest deep-seated character flaws. These should attract penalties as harsh as some doping penalties.
The Refugee Team: This for me was one great ‘thumbs-up’ act of the IOC. We live a world where labels have been used to dehumanise people who have to flee the exigencies that global greed has created. We are complicit in their plight. In the search for hope for humanity, the refugee is a flickering light that must not be extinguished. Of special note is Yusra Mardini a Syrian swimmer, who along with others pushed a boat for nearly 5 km, over 3 hours, until it reached shore, saving the lives of 18 people. She reflects the Olympic spirit.
‘Politics’ and the Olympics: The Olympic movement has always been used to highlight issues that affect everyday life in countries sometimes not always in the news. At the 1968 Olympics African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised Black Power salute as a demonstration conducted by during their medal ceremony. All three athletes on the podium suffered for this. In 1976 most sovereign African nations (and a few others) boycotted the Montreal Games when the IOC would not support the banning from competition of countries whose athletes had participated in sporting events in South Africa as long as apartheid continued. The IOC has typically frowned upon behaviour that it deems ‘political’. In my opinion these actions are not political, but necessary – especially for the silenced. It is hypocritical for the Olympic movement not to acknowledge the voices of the oppressed. At the men’s marathon on the last day of Rio 2016, Feyisa Lilesa from Ethiopia crossed his wrists above his head in solidarity with the Oromo people, hundreds of whom have been killed protesting the Ethiopian government. He went on to win the silver medal. The Olympics should never be the site of erasure or silencing.
Athletics at Rio 2016: I have waxed lyrical about my love for athletics in a number of previous posts. So I will not repeat all my love here. However, I must say that the athletics program was one of the best I have seen in a while – Almaz Ayana breaking the 10,000m record, Wayde van Niekerk breaking the 400m record, Anita Włodarczyk breaking her own hammer record, the repeats of Usain Bolt, Mo Farah and Ashton Eaton – all mesmerising. I will not talk about Caster Semanya. Too much has been said already that should not have been said. On some matters silence is golden and worth more than any medal. Nevertheless, athletics the longest serving Olympic sport proved itself yet again.
Nigeria at the Olympics: Okay Nigeria messed up. Not the athletes, they did the best under very, very bad conditions. However, I believe that if we want to see a change in Nigerian fortunes at the Olympics, the people of Nigeria have to be the change. Firstly it is not the government’s business to run sports. The business of government will and should always be government. Secondly we need to remember that in 1996 Nigeria won more gold medals than the UK. At Rio 2016 UK was 2nd on the medal table. We need to learn their lessons and learn our own lessons. The death of sports stems from lack of funding. My suggestion is that rich kids need to become athletes. I am very, very serious. They can afford it and it will create a legacy that may encourage funding. It is worth a shot. Rio 2016 was not Nigeria’s worst games.
Africa and the Olympics: I hope that very soon an African country (or a consortium of countries) will host the Olympics. Then the movement will definitely be complete. Imagine the opening ceremony and the volunteers and the music. The African Olympiad would be the most beautiful thing on earth.