Global Issues on the Global Stage of Sports

Photo by Alex Smith on Unsplash

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are over. Although each Olympic event has its moments and distinguishing features, the Tokyo Olympics got themselves a unique status of the so-called Pandemic Games. Echoing the controversial attitudes before the Olympics, opinions about the de facto event are similarly scattered and contrasting. Some praise Tokyo for uplifting everyone’s spirit and uniting people amid the ongoing pandemic and its increasing fatigue. Indeed, despite the empty stands and other Covid-related restrictions, Olympians provided sports enthusiasts and fans with many memorable moments, dramatic finals, and emotional achievements. Yet, many criticized the organisers for ignoring the negative public attitude that perceived the Games in Japan as threatening in the context an already unfortunate Covid situation and highlighted the economic losses the nation would ultimately incur. Others, in turn, questioned the business of the Olympic Games on a big scale, labelling the event as made-for-television Games and condemning the International Olympic Committee for their purely materialistic intentions.

As compelling and reasonable many of these viewpoints might be, what seems undeniable to me is that the global stage of sports is also the stage for major issues, trends, and events beyond athletics. The Tokyo Olympics showcased several of these.

First of all, the Tokyo Olympics were claimed to be ‘the first gender-balanced Olympic Games in history with 48.8 per cent female participation’, hence setting a good example for gender equality initiatives and targets around the globe and across the disciplines. Symbolically, this emphasis on gender equality was also represented in the opening ceremony, where country flags were borne by tandems of male and female athletes. Naturally, gender equality is not achieved just by equal numbers of representation or participation. It is also about equal opportunities to succeed and be supported throughout an athletic, or any other, career.

Being sensitive to global issues of diversity, inclusivity and discrimination, the Tokyo Games took ‘Unity and Diversity’ to be one of the central mottos. For example, it was the biracial athlete Naomi Osaka, who lit the Olympic cauldron. These global issues were also addressed as transgender and non-binary athletes competed openly for the first time in this event, several women’s soccer teams took a knee to protest racism, German gymnasts stood up against sexualized discrimination wearing full-length bodysuits, and the Norwegian beach handball team stood up for their right to wear shorts instead of bikinis. Naturally, these examples highlight the need for ongoing dialogue and action, as the motto for ‘unity and diversity’ is a vision rather than already a reality. Yet, a glimpse of such reality was quite palpable in a beautiful moment when Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Qatar’s Mutaz Essa Barshim decided to share the honor of being gold medalists in high jump.

Another important conversation was started by Simone Biles. The American star gymnast dazed the world of sports when she pulled out of the competition, linking her decision to mental health and self-care. Indeed, aren’t we all used to think of Olympians as unshakable and all capable ‘Iron(wo)men’?! Well, Simone’s message was very clear and straightforward in my opinion: taking care of mental health is important and valid, also for athletes. I touched on the topic in one of my earlier blog posts in the context of the workplace, and I believe that mental struggles, as well as efforts to support mental health should continue to be normalized and openly spoken about. Such strong voices, as the one of Biles, fuel this trend.

Finally, the Tokyo Olympics provided us with a clear reminder about climate change as well. These games turned out to be the hottest Olympics in history, posing relevant questions about the timing and location of future Olympic Games. Moreover, on a larger scale, the world’s biggest event comes with a huge environmental footprint, from transporting athletes and fans to the enormous use of plastic cutlery in the Olympic village and the many unused and abandoned buildings and infrastructure. Seems like a significant reason to consider major changes… maybe, a permanent Olympic city?

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