Saturday, September 7, 2013

Running Scared of Protest - Why Tokyo is Favourite to Host the 2020 Olympic Games

I tell you now: Kremlinologists had it easy. Analysing the political machinations of the Soviet Communist Party at the height of the Cold War is nothing compared to unravelling the thought processes at the International Olympic Committee. Trying to second guess the IOC is like trying to foretell the appearance of the Spanish Inquisition. Tonight the heads of the Olympic movement will reveal which city has won the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games, choosing between Istanbul, Madrid and Tokyo.
Officially the decision will be based on the quality of bid put forward by each prospective host city: the cost, the current infrastructure and promises of future improvements, existing and planned sporting stadia and training facilities, the country’s ability to deal with threats from terrorists and ambush marketers alike. Delegations from all three cities have been in Buenos Aires for some last ditch lobbying, trying to win the hearts and change the minds of officials at the 125th session of the IOC. The BBC’s David Bond gives a flavour of the high-powered schmoozing of those desperate to attract the floating voters:
“In those rooms, each bid's visiting politicians and dignitaries are holding court for 14 or 15 hours a day - from breakfast to late-night drinks. Spain are hoping Prince Felipe can make the difference. Tokyo are also playing the royal card having brought Princess Hisako.

None of the bidders dare leave their most senior politicians at home - Spain's leader Mariano Rajoy is here as is Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Turkey's premier Recep Tayyip Erdogan was making calls to IOC members from his plane as he flew to Argentina for the election.”
Unofficially, and especially for grizzled old cynics like me, this display is little more than a public relations exercise. The real decisions are made in shady backrooms, where votes are traded, support proffered for IOC presidential candidates (that ballot takes place early next week), and multi-million dollar deals negotiated. Having the ‘best’ bid is no guarantee of a city’s success, as Paris found out in 2005. The corruption scandals from the days of Salt Lake City may seem like a dim and distant memory but have the IOC cleaned house or are they just more circumspect than before? With all these considerations it is truly impossible to pick a winner in tonight’s Olympic host-city lottery.
But what is blogging if not the opportunity for ill-informed guesswork? By my reckoning the clear favourite to host the 2020 Games is Tokyo. Others might make a case for the Olympics to be staged in Istanbul, a reward for Turkey’s perseverance having regularly – and unsuccessfully - bid for the Games since the early 1990s. Madrid’s boosters in turn will point to the success of the last Games staged in Spain, when Barcelona staged the 25th Olympiad in 1992. Yet, to my eyes Japan looks the most likely destination. This opinion is not based on any sporting considerations, or an insider’s knowledge of the bribes that have changed hands. This is about politics and money.
From their inception the Olympics have been positioned as an event that transcends the political, a spectacle that can unite the world in a quest for sporting excellence, regardless of race, gender or class. It’s all hogwash of course, but the IOC seems to truly believe in it. As such, any reminders of the divisions of the real world are met with scorn. When the American team failed to dip their flag to the King at the opening ceremony of the 1908 London Olympics it was an embarrassment. Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, ignored Hitler’s Nazism to praise the spirit of the 1936 Berlin Games. Apartheid South Africa was only excluded from the Olympic family after a long-running campaign. Tommie Smith and John Carlos were excluded from the Olympic Village immediately following that medal ceremony.
So great is the IOC’s fear of the political that Rule 51 (3) of the Olympic Charter states: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” In various host countries compliant governments have been more than happy to pass bespoke legislation preventing anti-Olympic protests, demonstrations and images. From 1896 to the present day the Olympics have sought to embody the old adage that sport and politics don’t mix. What started as an ideal has, however, become an integral part of the Olympic image. Writing in his book, Olympic Turnaround, former IOC marketing director Michael Payne explained how the IOC conducted a wide ranging piece of market research in 1998 to examine and “better understand the consumer’s true perception of the Olympic brand.”  They identified four distinct features: hope, friendship and fair play, dreams and inspiration, and joy in effort. Payne summarises the first two as follows:

Hope. The Olympic Games offer hope for a better world, using sport competition for all and without discrimination as an example and a lesson.
Friendship and fair play. The Olympic Games provide tangible examples of how humanity can overcome political, economic, religious and racial prejudices through the values inherent in sport.”
The IOC is as much a multinational company as it is a global sporting institution. As such it wants to make money, and in order to do that it has to protect its brand image. Protests staged during an Olympics are bad for business. The trouble for the IOC is that the Games, as the premier quadrennial televisual event, are the ideal opportunity for activists to demonstrate and highlight their causes as the eyes of the world are focussed on their home town. It happened in Mexico City, in Atlanta, in Athens. Each time the IOC squirmed, hoping that if they just looked the other way for long enough the nasty irritants would go away. Today the potential for mass protests looms large in next year’s Sochi Winter Olympics and in Rio during the Summer Games of 2016.
Although the rich and powerful are never as clever as they think they are, they are seldom as stupid as we would like to believe. And that holds even for the IOC. They will have looked at Madrid, paid attention to the indignados movement, the demonstrations against austerity, the levels of youth unemployment. Similarly Istanbul will be discussed in terms of Taksim, Occupy and the brutal police repression that followed. They will know that staging the Olympics (at enormous expense) in either of these cities is likely to provoke anger, running the risk of losing their precious sporting product in a mass of protests and resentment. Tokyo may not be the best option, but it may prove to be the safest.
So, will Tokyo win? Maybe. But the IOC are quite literally a law unto themselves, so your guess is as good as mine. What I can predict with some certainty is that whichever city wins the right to host the 2020 Olympic Games their residents will see costs rise exponentially, environmental considerations get swept under the carpet, corporate logos plastered across every available space and a massive curtailing of civil liberties. It’s one hell of a price to pay to stage some sports.