This week, Japan’s deputy prime minister drilled down to the real Olympic issue. It’s voodoo.
Referencing the cancelled 1940 Olympics (war), the boycotted 1980 Olympics (war again) and the 2020 Tokyo Games (pestilence), Taro Aso spotted a trend.
“It’s a problem that’s happened every 40 years,” Aso told a Japan parliamentary committee. “It’s the cursed Olympics, and that’s a fact.”
(Maybe ‘fact’ means something different in Japanese.)
It’s a bit early to be reaching the “signs and portents” stage of this thing. I’d prefer not to be making burnt offerings to angry gods by Week 3, because we may need to eat those burnt offerings in Week 12.
But Aso put his finger on an idea that is gaining traction – that this is retribution for something. That we were asking for it.
That’s pre-pandemic thinking. The sort in which we move immediately past the problem phase into the “search for the guilty” phase. This mindset is the luxury of societies that never truly suffer. Since the problem isn’t going away, it’s a luxury we no longer have.
Which rounds us back to the Olympics.
If Aso sounds a little unhinged, he makes a lot more sense than every other official still speaking on this matter.
“We’re not making any adjustments to postpone the Games,” another Japanese spokesperson told the same parliamentary committee.
If you’re running a country, what “adjustments” do you require to postpone something? All you need do is send out an e-mail blast – “Not feeling well. Let’s try to hook up later. How does next year work for you?”
But Japan has sunk a great deal of money into this thing (somewhere between $40-billion and $60-billion) and cannot seem to let that go. You’d feel sorrier for the Japanese if we weren’t all losing our shirts, some of us more imminently than others.
If you can afford rent and food right now, no one wants to hear your financial sob story.
But that is the undercurrent in all Olympic “let’s not be hasty” talk. Because while you may have your life to think about, the International Olympic Committee has something more important – its sponsors.
You can see how the Olympics volunteered for the role of the tinfoil hat among international sporting organizations.
The tournament has been steadily declining in public estimation for years. The people who run it are widely perceived as out-of-touch plutocrats who have little sense and zero shame.
Whenever accused of doing something stupid – quite often, rightly – the Olympic response is to get low and dodge about for as long as it takes people to lose interest.
In fairness, it’s worked. Despite repeated administrative disaster – including an entire Olympics that was fixed – the IOC hasn’t had to change. The guy who was in charge during the Sochi debacle is still in charge. It’s taught the IOC a powerful lesson about staying the course.
This isn’t about whether the Olympics will be cancelled. They will be cancelled. Recent polling suggests that more than two-thirds of the Japanese public no longer want the Games to go ahead.
What it’s now about is the cohesiveness of the Olympic movement.
The Olympics isn’t a standard business because its best-in-class work force makes no financial demands. All they get for their trouble is room and board. What little money changes hands goes through national athletic federations.
The athletes have always gone along with this system. No high-profile amateur has ever suggested they ought to share in the profits, or get prizes direct from the top, or earn appearance fees.
What were ice dancers Tessa Virtue and Scott Moir worth to the IOC at the Pyeongchang Games? You could probably not guess a figure high enough. They didn’t see a cent of it. If they’d suggested they ought to, they’d have been stoned in the public square as graspers and enemies of fair play.
When the talent is this pliable, the boss can do whatever he likes. Drug cheats stealing your dreams? Too bad. Corruption at the top? Mind your own business. Countries that can’t afford it being stripped bare? Let us worry about the box office. You keep ice dancing.
Olympians are indentured servants to the IOC. Happily so, but indentured servants nonetheless.
They are willing to trade their marketable services for a chance at fame and glory. Astronauts work to the same set of rules, but, as far as I know, they still get a decent wage.
As far as corporation building goes, it’s a good business plan.
But it’s important that all the rapacious capitalism be shrouded in high-minded rhetoric about duty and honour. That’s how you keep everyone confused.
The IOC has been so good at it that the IOC appears to have forgotten how the system works. Which is why it can’t see the crack opening underneath it now.
The IOC thinks its obstinance is prudence. That’s one way of looking at it. The other way is that it has taken its financial interests in one hand; the safety of millions of people, including its unpaid employees, in the other; and decided the money matters more.
Maybe for the first time, it’s beginning to register with Olympians – people who enjoy an exalted status in our culture – how little the boss cares about them or their quite reasonable fears.
The revolt has started feebly on social media. A former hockey player here, a pole vaulter there. It hasn’t extended into the current star ranks because those people still want their shot in July. They’re willing to risk an awful lot to get it.
But give it a few weeks. Wait until things are really bad and the IOC is still out there going “Whoa, whoa, let’s not be hasty.”
Then it may end up with something it really hadn’t intended on – a cancelled Olympics that was always getting tossed, and a workforce that’s no longer willing to take orders.