A(nother) Failure of Olympic Leadership Amidst Japan’s COVID-19 Crisis

Brett Hutchins
Monash University in Melbourne, Australia

The Tokyo 2020 (2021) Olympic Games should be cancelled. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, this is the message of public opinion polls in Japan showing opposition to the Games running at between 50% to 80% of respondents. The chair of a Japanese government coronavirus subcommittee, Shigeru Omi, observes, ‘It’s not normal to hold the Olympics in a situation like this,’ adding that officials need to explain to the public why the Games are being held.

In an unusual public intervention, Emperor Naruhito is said to be ‘extremely worried’ about the state of coronavirus infections and ‘concerned’ that the staging of the Games will cause them to rise. An official partner of Tokyo 2020, the Asahi Shimbum newspaper, is editorialising against the Games because of the risk posed to public safety and pressure on the medical system. Public viewing sites for Olympic events are being closed down because local authorities fear the spread of infections.

Even a senior Japanese Olympic official, Kaori Yamaguchi, objects to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) insistence that the Games go ahead. According to Yamaguchi, the IOC is ‘cornering’ Tokyo organisers into staging the Games and treating public opinion in Japan as ‘not important’. The result is an Olympics that has ‘already lost meaning’ and is ‘being held just for the sake of it’.

Tokyo has recorded more than 165,000 COVID-19 infections and over 2,000 deaths since the onset of the pandemic. Japan’s national totals runs to over 750,000 infections and 13,500 deaths. Optimistic projections suggest that 70% of Japan’s population will remain unvaccinated on the day of the Olympic Opening Ceremony.

Over 11,000 athletes and 79,000 journalists, officials and staff from 200 nations are set to descend on Tokyo for the Olympics. The IOC says around 80% of residents in the Games Village will be vaccinated when they commence, meaning that one in five will not be. A member of Uganda’s Olympic team has already tested positive upon arrival in Japan and been barred from entering the country. This is despite reports that team members had been fully vaccinated and tested negative prior to boarding their flight.

It is little surprise that the head of the Japan Doctor’s Union, Naoto Ueyama, has warned the Games could trigger a new variant of COVID-19 that spreads globally.


The IOC’s response to this public health emergency and the suffering and death left in its wake: ‘Barring Armageddon that we can’t see or anticipate, these things are a go,’ says high-profile Canadian IOC member, Dick Pound. The Australian IOC Vice-President, John Coates, asserts the Games will continue ‘whether there is a state of emergency or not’ in the city and other parts of Japan.

The German IOC President, Thomas Bach, states the IOC’s position, ‘Our task is to organise Olympic Games, not to cancel Olympic Games.’ Bach later said to a meeting of the International Hockey Federation, ‘The athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible.’ This comment was made two weeks after Bach cancelled a trip to Japan because of a surge in COVID-19 infections.

How are we to understand the leadership culture of the Olympic movement as it pushes ahead with the Games in such extraordinary circumstances? How is the IOC’s callous indifference to the scale of the pandemic and its impact on the citizens of Tokyo and Japan to be explained?

A stocktake of long-serving Olympic leaders from the 126-year history of the IOC offers an insight into an elitist organisational culture that is, at best, dismissive of public accountability and indifferent to human rights. It is a culture in which such callous indifference from those in charge is not only possible, but likely.

The French Social Engineer, Racism and the Nazis

Hailed as the visionary founder of the modern Olympic Games, Baron Pierre de Coubertin served as IOC President from 1896 to 1925.

Coubertin was an aristocratic social engineer concerned with the reinvigoration of French martial masculinity through sport. His prescribed version of sport is infused by moral and philosophical pieties drawn from a mixture of British muscular Christianity and Greek antiquity.

Coubertin had a fascination for Hellenistic perfectionism and drew on philosophers such as Rousseau and Montaigne in developing the conceptual foundations of Olympism: ‘to stiffen the soul, one has to harden the muscles’ (Montaigne). There is no place for the muscular exertion of women in the Baron’s formula: ‘This feminine semi-Olympiad is impractical, uninteresting, ungainly, and, I do not hesitate to add, improper’ (1912). He did, however, approve of ‘the applause of women’ in the ‘exaltation of male athleticism’.

The Olympics at the turn of the twentieth century mirrored the imperialism and racism of the age. The 1904 Olympics in St Louis featured Anthropology Days as a side event. The Days were initiated by the director of the Games and a founder of the US Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), James Sullivan, in conjunction with the President of the American Anthropological Association, Dr W.J. McGee. ‘Pygmies’ and Amazonian ‘cannibals’ from Africa, the Americas and Asia competed in stone throwing, pole climbing and mud fights, among other so-called events, designed to demonstrate the racial superiority of white men.

The AAU has since rehabilitated Sullivan’s image through the annual James E. Sullivan Award, given to an outstanding amateur athlete who, ironically, shows ‘qualities of leadership, character and sportsmanship’. The AAU also lauds the fact Sullivan received the Olympic medal from the IOC for his services as director of the 1904 Games. To his credit, Coubertin had a difficult relationship with Sullivan, avoided attending the St Louis Olympiad, and disapproved of the Anthropology Days, calling them an ‘outrageous charade’.

He did, however, approve of ‘the applause of women’ in the ‘exaltation of male athleticism’.

Coubertin was later captivated by the spectacle and pageantry of the 1936 Nazi Olympics while also being deceived by the German operatives who courted him. He accepted a nomination for the Nobel Peace Prize by Hitler’s Foreign Office in 1936 and 10,000 Reichsmark from the German government. Coubertin responded with a letter of thanks received personally by the Fuhrer.

The Nazi collaborator, Carl Diem, is a key figure in the planning of the Berlin Games. The esteemed sports historian, John Hoberman, writes that Diem later stood before thousands of 16-year-old Hitler Youth on the Reich Sports Field in Berlin in March 1945. Diem invoked ‘the Olympic Spirit’ as he sent boys to the Russian front for the ‘Final Battle’ in the closing weeks of World War II. Around 2,000 members of his audience marched to an early grave.

Rather than being condemned by the IOC as the horrors of the genocidal Nazi regime were revealed, Diem become a leader of post-war German sport and a co-founder of the IOC Academy in Greece in 1961. In contrast, the former New Orleans sportsman, industrialist and US Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Ernest L. Jahncke, had been expelled from the IOC in the lead up to the 1936 Games for his public stand against Hitler’s regime.

The Domineering American and Anti-Semitism

Avery Brundage replaced Jahncke in 1936 as an IOC member and later become a long-serving IOC President (1952–1972). His obituary in the New York Times in 1975 describes a domineering man derided by critics as ‘Slavery Brundage’ and ‘Avery Umbrage’.

Brundage is both anti-Semitic and racist at different points of his career. This fact saw the San Francisco Asian Art Museum remove his bust from public display last year following research that offered new insights into his views. (Brundage was an authority on Asian art and the Museum holds his extensive collection.) According to the Museum’s Director, Jay Xu, Brundage ‘was a hateful person’. Brundage’s personal notes and letters from the 1930s reveal a preference for ‘intelligent, beneficent dictatorship’ as ‘the most efficient form of government’ and complain of New York newspapers ‘largely controlled by Jews’. He was still praising the Reich publicly as late as 1941.

The evolution of his views over the course of his IOC Presidency is limited. In Mexico City in 1968, he was instrumental in having the American sprinters, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, removed from the Olympic Village following their Black Power salute: ‘The boys were sent home, but they should not have been there in the first place.’ The architect of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, sociologist Harry Edwards, regarded Brundage as ‘a devout anti-Semitic and anti-Negro personality’. Brundage’s dismissed Edwards as ‘an unknown Negro agitator’.

Stubbornly adhering to the shibboleth that sport and politics should not mix, Brundage and the IOC invited a multi-racial South African team to the 1968 Mexico City Olympics despite the apartheid policies of its national government. The invitation was withdrawn following boycott threats by other nations. The same pattern occurred again for the 1972 Munich Games in relation to both South Africa and Rhodesia and their apartheid regulations.

Munich witnessed the horrific Black September terrorist attack, resulting in the death of eleven members of the Israeli Olympic team, a police officer and five terrorists. Brundage’s response in his speech the following day: ‘the Games must go on’. The IOC President spoke of mourning the victims of the attack, but complained the Games had in fact been subject to ‘two savage attacks’. He paralleled the ‘brutal assault’ by terrorists with the ‘naked political blackmail’ that had seen Rhodesia excluded from the Games. The significance of Jewish athletes being murdered during a German Olympiad and broadcast to the world escaped him. He later apologised for the speech following heavy criticism.

The Spanish Fascist and Human Rights

Juan Antonio Samaranch is the next IOC President to serve for more than twenty years (1980–2001). He is a Spanish fascist who once declared ‘absolute loyalty and fidelity’ to General Francisco Franco and the Movimiento.

Samaranch was a member of the fascist party in Spain and, among other roles, President of the Catalonian regional council and a de facto minister for sport. Wearing the blue shirt and publicly making the fascist salute, Samaranch oversaw a campaign of repression in Catalonia in 1974 and 1975, including arrests, torture and executions. He never disowned his past or loyalty to Franco during his term as IOC President and played down his role in the regime as ‘a minor bureaucratic position’.

Samaranch maintained his authoritarian tendencies as IOC President, insisting on being addressed as ‘His Excellency’. He oversaw the admission of IOC members such as the Ugandan, Frank Nyangweso, a former Olympic boxer and Army Commander and Chief of Staff under the dictator Idi Amin. Another figure who rose to IOC Vice-President under Samaranch is the South Korean Kim Un-Yong. A leading figure in international Taekwondo, Dr Kim was once a South Korean intelligence operative who served in the security forces of President Park Chung-hee. Park rose to power through a military coup and installed a repressive authoritarian dictatorship.

He oversaw the admission of IOC members such as the Ugandan, Frank Nyangweso, a former Olympic boxer and Army Commander and Chief of Staff under the dictator Idi Amin.

Samaranch presided over worsening problems of corruption and bribery in the city bidding process that determines the host of each Olympiad. These practices reached a crescendo in a scandal over hosting rights for the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympic Winter Games. For the first time in IOC history, six of its members were expelled for corruption.

Samaranch’s successor as IOC President, the urbane Belgian surgeon and former Olympic sailor, Jaques Rogge (2001–2013), is a comparatively uncontroversial character. But he nonetheless oversaw the awarding of the Summer Games to Beijing in 2008 and the Winter Games to Sochi in 2014. On both occasions the IOC refused to seriously confront the human rights records of either China or Russia when determining the host city for each Games.

The IOC’s stance on human rights is hypocritical given it proudly promotes its Permanent Observer status at the United Nations, an organisation that places the Universal Declaration of Human Rights at the core of its mission. The UN Secretary-General, Ban Ki-Moon, claimed ‘Olympic principles are United Nations principles’ in 2009. But the IOC ignores or selectively adheres to Articles 19 to 21 of the Universal Declaration depending on the circumstance. Freedom of opinion, expression and the right to peaceful assembly and association were not on display in Beijing or Sochi. They will not be again during the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, as the IOC looks past more than one million Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities imprisoned in concentration camps in Xinjiang.

The Pandemic Games

As each generation rises and falls, the characters who lead the Olympic Movement for well over a century reflect the values and politics of their age. The historical record also shows that the IOC stands repeatedly for the most unwanted values and subsequently disowned politics of each generation. The consistent thread throughout is an intolerance to democratic accountability and disregard for human rights (and now health). Elitism, privilege and entitlement are constants as the IOC continues to strip-mine the public purse and good will of Olympic host cities and nations around the world. Tokyo is but the latest example of this phenomenon, albeit an egregious one.

The story of Tokyo 2020 amidst the impacts of COVID-19 extends this shameful history. Thomas Bach is about to become yet another IOC President who fails a major test of leadership and trashes the principle of Olympism that emphasises ‘social responsibility and respect for universal fundamental ethical principles’. An insistence on staging the Games barring Armageddon and in a potential state of emergency should be cause for embarrassment given its irresponsibility and impact on the citizens of Tokyo and Japan. Yet, the myth-makers in Lausanne will not only ignore this reality, but rewrite it as a story of resilience and courage.

Attributed to Pierre de Coubertin, the Olympic Creed states, ‘The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.’ We can be sure the members of the IOC will enjoy the sporting spectacle in Tokyo while hiding themselves far away from the frontline fight against the COVID-19 pandemic and the risk of infection.

Ciltius, Altius, Timidus.

Copyright @ Brett Hutchins 2021

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