Serious Q: Who Are the Olympics Actually For?

Because I’ve been thinking about it, and I’m not sure if the answer is athletes, host cities or even sports fans.


Stacy Lee Kong

Jul 16 2021

10 mins read



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Confession: I have never really thought that much about the Olympics. I don’t mean that in an I-don’t-care kind of way; I mean it more in a critical analysis kind of way. For a long time, they would happen and, like clockwork, I’d be caught up in the nationalistic cheering for Team Canada and feel proud when our athletes brought home medals—without ever really thinking about the Games from a political perspective.

In fact, I went to Rio de Janeiro in 2016 to cover the Summer Games for Canadian Living, where I was senior editor at the time, and I had a fantastic, if jet-lagged time. (Okay, except for the part where I went for one tiny swim, got knocked over by a wave and came back with whiplash 😫) But let me tell you, it has been fascinating to re-read the daily dispatches I wrote back then, because they're deeply uncritical in ways that I’m kind of uncomfortable with now. For starters, I’m a lot more suspicious of nationalism than I was back then, so the tone of those pieces feels kind of weird. When I wrote about Rio being beautiful and safer than news reports made it out to be, I knew it was because Brazil’s government conducted late-night raids to force people experiencing homelessness out of tourist areas and razed favelas, displacing residents to make room for the Olympic Park. I also knew that it was wrong for a government to take those steps against its own citizens—but I didn’t say that, because there was an unspoken expectation, from the magazine, advertisers and even myself, to portray the event in a positive light. And, while I still think making it to the Olympics is a huge accomplishment for any athlete and definitely worthy of admiration, I definitely didn’t consider the actual forces controlling who gets to do that.


But the Tokyo Summer Games kick off exactly one week from now and this time around all of those things are top-of-mind, thanks to qualified athletes being barred from competing in Tokyo due to unfair rules, the knowledge that rates of human trafficking and intimate partner violence tend to spike surrounding major sporting events and the fact that 83% of Japanese people don’t even want the Games to take place. I'm obviously not trying to make a broad statement about whether the Olympics, or by extension other major sporting events, should exist. I just think it’s worth considering who the Games, in their current iteration, are actually for

Not all athletes receive fair treatment from Olympics officials

Like… if the Olympics are for athletes, then shouldn’t those athletes be treated fairly? Instead, the same inequality that plays out in our day-to-day lives also plays out in sport. There’s a gender pay gap among elite athletes, Black and racialized competitors are subject to racist and sexist commentary from both media and organizers and all genders do not get to compete in all events. But perhaps the most obvious, or at least timely, example of this is who the rules apply to.


On July 2, the United States Anti-Doping Agency announced that sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson had tested positive for THC, the psychoactive component of cannabis, invalidating her win in the women’s 100-metre race at the track and field Olympics trials in Oregon and earning her a one-month suspension. She was later dropped from the U.S. track team, which meant she couldn’t compete in the 4x100 metre relay in Tokyo, either. While many an armchair doping expert pointed out that 'rules are rules' this month—an argument that's fundamentally flawed because hello, just because something is a rule doesn't make it valid. There have been plenty of oppressive rules!—it’s worth thinking critically about whether this rule is fair. Most reasonable people do not still consider THC to be dangerous or performance-enhancing (which... duh). In fact, several pro sports leagues have loosened their rules around cannabis use in recent years. The NBA doesn’t even test for it anymore! It’s also pretty ironic that Richardson was disqualified for marijuana use, considering the fact that laws around marijuana are rooted in anti-Black racism and disproportionately impact Black people.

Brianna McNeal, the current gold medalist in the women’s 100-metre hurdles, had qualified ahead of the Tokyo Games’ original date, but she missed a mandatory drug test after having an abortion. Usually, athletes aren't suspended until they have missed three tests but McNeal felt pressured to disclose her abortion, and when she wrote the date of her procedure down incorrectly on official forms, she was punished with a five-year ban for “tampering within the results management process.” Earlier this month, the Court of Arbitration for Sport decided to not to overturn the ban, so she’s missing Tokyo, too.


Two Naminian runners, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, who are ranked number one and three in the world respectively, have been banned from competing in the the 400-metre dash because their natural testosterone levels are ‘too high.’ As Morgan Campbell explained in a column for CBC Sports, “women — and only women — whose levels of natural testosterone exceed a limit World Athletics established in 2018, are barred from events between 400 metres and one mile, and faced with a choice. They can take drugs to lower their natural testosterone, courting a long list of side-effects to comply with World Athletics' guidelines. Or they can switch events, even if it places them at a competitive disadvantage.” CeCé Telfer, a Jamaican-American runner and the first trans woman to win a NCAA title, was also banned from competing in the trials for her event, the 400-metre hurdles, because her testosterone levels are considered too high. (These are the same discriminatory rules that have upended Caster Semenya’s career and are preventing her from competing in Tokyo, FYI.) 

It’s important to look at the wider pattern

I think if you look at these cases individually, it’s possible to interpret some of them as fair, or at least as attempting to uphold fairness. But if you step back and look at the bigger picture—who gets leniency and who gets punished, not to mention whose needs are met and whose are disregarded—a pattern emerges. A racist one.


Especially since it’s not just about who’s subject to the rules. It’s also about who is given the tools to succeed. I immediately saw a connection between the Black women being told ‘the rules’ prevent them from competing, despite no analysis on whether those rules are equitable or being applied consistently, and the Olympics banning Soul Caps, a line of swim caps made for Black swimmers. The reason for this ban? The caps don’t “follow the natural line of the head.” The question is obvious, right? Whose natural line of the head? As Megan Decker pointed out in Refinery29, “FINA's official statement further affirms the Soul Caps restriction on the grounds that elite athletes have ‘never used, neither require to use, caps of such size.’ This line of reasoning provides a dangerously narrow definition of what an ‘elite athlete’ looks like, and could be detrimental in diversification efforts in the sport of swimming.” (FINA says it's reviewing the decision.)

It’s so, so simple: if ‘the rules’ are consistently used to keep Black and other racialized people from competing at the highest level, either by disqualifying them for the slightest infraction or by making the sport inhospitable to them, then the rules are racist—and that means they’re not good for anyone, even white athletes.

Also, it’s not like hosting the Olympics is a guaranteed economic boost

But it’s not like host countries are seeing some huge benefit, either. We tend to think of winning an Olympic bid as a huge business opportunity, but that may not be true even when the Games make money… which they don’t always do. The 1976 Summer Games in Montreal famously left the city with $1.5 billion in debt, which took three decades to pay off. More recently, the 2016 Summer Games in Rio lost an astounding $2 billion USD. The 2006 Turin Winter Olympics lost $3 million USD. The 2004 Athens Summer Olympics accrued between $14 and $15 million USD in debt, which some experts have argued contributed to Greece’s devastating 2009 debt crisis.

There are also real social costs to hosting the Games. As I mentioned earlier, global sporting events can lead to a rise in human trafficking and domestic violence. As I saw in Rio, people tend to get displaced when governments need space for stadiums and Olympic villages. And for Tokyo, there’s the specific risk of undertaking a massive event during COVID, something Japan insists on doing despite very low vaccination rates (according to a June 28 NBC News report, just 8% of Japanese people are fully vaccinated) and waning public support.


I’m not even sure if the Olympics are good for fans, at least when it comes to the nationalism they provoke. I've personally have been thinking a lot about countries and borders recently, and what happens when we rally behind the construct of a nation rather than a collective of people. Even though it feels good to cheer for the home team, I think you still have to be mindful because patriotism can quickly become toxic. The International Olympic Committee might try to argue that the Games are about individual athletes testing their skills against one another, but the truth is, this is a chance for countries to compete—and for fans to rally against a symbolic, but also literal, other. So, much like the conversations we’ve been having about Canada Day, at the very least, we should be clear-eyed about the dark places national pride can go.


So… who are the Olympics good for, then? And again, I'm not asking this question because I think the Games are bad or shouldn't exist, any more than I think the Euro Cup or the World Figure Skating Championships or whatever they do for golf shouldn’t exist. I'm asking because I think it’s important to consider whether this institution, and other international sporting events, live up to the principles they’re meant to encourage. And if not, shouldn't they change? Because tbh, it feels like the impetus for this particular Olympic Games, and in many ways all Olympic Games, is hubris more than excellence in sport or some other lofty ideal. 

And Did You Hear About…

Alicia Elliot’s searing op-ed arguing that Canada is a “real-life Indian burial ground.”


Kim Kardashian’s post-Kanye style evolution.


A California judge granting Britney Spears the right to hire her own attorney—which is a win for the singer and  #FreeBritney movement, yes, but also sets a precedent for all people with disabilities in potentially abusive conservatorships… of which there are many. (Relatedly, this is a really interesting conversation between the co-creator of Framing Britney Spears and a ProPublica journalist who investigated California conservatorships back in 2005.)


Writer Radiyah Chowdhury’s beautiful essay on the new Anthony Bourdain doc.


This Atlantic column on the ethics of listening to artists like Doja Cat and Saweetie, who are professionally entangled with Kesha’s alleged abuser, Dr. Luke.

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