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Beijing 2008 men’s volleyball prelims, showing what a live spectator sees.

Beijing 2008 men’s volleyball prelims, showing what a live spectator sees.

A lens on the Olympics and the role of spectators

August 4, 2021 — 


  1. I am happy that the Olympic Games are taking place and athletes are able to compete.
  2. I’m really enjoying watching the 2020 Olympic Games – in 2021. In fact, I am enjoying them much more than I expected.
  3. Although sometimes I think that elite athletes naively invest too much in competing at an Olympic Games, I don’t begrudge them setting a goal, training to achieve that goal and wanting desperately to fulfill the goal even when a global pandemic is taking place.

For most of the past year, I grew increasingly ambivalent towards the 2020 Olympic Games. In my darkest moments, I honestly wished that the Olympic Games would be cancelled. Like many people, the pandemic wore me down. I lost interest and engagement in many things that used to bring me pleasure. Following my favorite athletes and gorging on two weeks of Olympic Games TV coverage has brought me profound pleasure for many years. A week ago, I didn’t think I would even bother turning on the TV.

As the opening ceremonies drew closer, the International Olympic Committee more forcefully asserted that nothing would stand in the way of Tokyo Olympic Games. And so, journalists and Olympians started arriving in Tokyo and the Olympic bubble began to form. As they arrived, they began reporting on the extreme monitoring protocols and social restrictions implemented to protect the bubble from popping. It didn’t take long before people started reflecting on the reality of doing whatever it takes to hold the games.

I don’t think it is a stretch to suggest that many people, including athletes, have adopted a very functional approach to these Olympic Games. Figure out what needs to happen, do it and go home. Nix the Olympic Village experience. Come for your event and then leave. Put the medal around your own neck. Tell your family to stay at home. Only take your mask off when you compete or when a media liaison person gives you permission to smile for an official photograph. National delegations can’t participate in the opening and closing ceremonies. No live spectators at competitions.

For months, the idea the Olympic Games’ bubble fueled my ambivalence, but the day before the opening ceremonies I snapped out of it. A headline from the CBC news website engaged me in a way I hadn’t expected. Actually, I was agitated by the headline and story: “Senior IOC official says crowds at the Olympic events are ‘largely irrelevant.’” They were quoting Canada’s long serving and most provocative IOC member, Richard Pound.  I followed a link and found a second headline ‘Largely irrelevant’: IOC’s Dick Pound dismisses lack of spectators at the Olympics. The story didn’t provoke me because I think crowds of spectators are a good idea. I was agitated by the paradox of Dick Pound’s statement.

In the current context, in-person spectators are not essential if you are committed to just getting the games over with. However, in the historical context of the modern Olympics, in-person spectators are essential to the cultural performance, cache and mythology that the IOC has depended on for its self-preservation. Pound’s paradoxical statement is also ironic as it illustrates how cavalier the IOC is with its own history: use and flaunt it when it is convenient; ignore it or dismiss it when it is inconvenient.

IOC members swear oaths to defend the principles and traditions of the modern Olympic Games. Most contemporary critics of the IOC and the Olympic Games argue that the dominant principles and traditions guiding this 127-year-old sport organization are profits and self-preservation.

As the IOC prepared to stage an Olympic Games during a global pandemic, Dick Pound’s assessment of the value of spectators may be callous, but it is also accurate. He told reporters that “the lack of spectators at the Tokyo Olympics won’t hurt the games (…) that (the absence of spectators) should not affect the competitions and ceremonies.” It’s true. They can certainly hold sanctioned competitions without live spectators. And the IOC’s bottom line won’t be hurt too much either. The same can’t be said for the Tokyo organizing committee that is paying for the huge stadia whose spectator capacity is dictated by the IOC. When cities bid to host the games, they must commit to providing venues with spectator capacities that meet the IOC’s prescribed standards. It’s fair to state that the IOC’s expectations for competition venues do not ring of modesty or sustainability.

Pound’s comment about live spectators demonstrates how quickly the IOC is prepared to ignore its own history to manoeuvre its way through whatever current crisis its confronting. This is where the irony lies and Pound’s unwavering (desperate) commitment to the IOC’s self-preservation is exposed. His statement about the irrelevance of spectators contradicts the IOC’s self-spun origin story. He has effectively thrown the Olympic Movement’s founding father under the bus. That founding father is Pierre de Coubertin. He was a minor French aristocrat, passionate about moral and social reform and engaged with the International Peace Movement of the late 1800s. Coubertin was also an active sportsman. In the 1890s, he orchestrated the formation of the International Olympic Committee (1894).

The first iteration of the modern Olympic Games took place in Athens in 1896. The Panathenaic Stadium (dating back to the 600 BCE) served as the primary spectator venue. As a monument of ancient Greece, it provided an allusion of continuity between the ancient Olympics and the modern Olympics. In the decades that followed, Coubertin dedicated himself to manufacturing the mythology of the Olympic Games that the IOC relies on so heavily to keep the games going, decade after precarious decade.

Historians, like myself, attribute the enduring nature of the Olympic Games to the mythology that Coubertin superimposed on the event. Although the Olympic Games have always been a beacon of modernity, Coubertin cleverly imbued the sport competitions with historical gravitas. For example, they were framed as a revival of the Olympic Games from antiquity. Famed Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm described the Olympic Games as an invented tradition of modernity. Coubertin cultivated the Olympic Games as a festival where sport was framed by a prescribed program of smaller cultural performances. The essence of sport was expressed on the playfield, but its meaning was amplified through a plethora of rituals, ceremonies and signs and symbols. Like the ancient Olympic Games, Coubertin also prescribed particular roles for athletes and spectators that were defined by real time and real space. The legacy is evident in torch relays, sacred flames, processions and recessions, anointments of winners, hymns, flags and much more.

Most serious cultural historians recognize Coubertin’s design as a hodgepodge of cultural signs, symbols and performances that reflect a loose, sometimes even whimsical, appropriation of history. In the end, like all cultural institutions, the modern Olympic Games are a manufactured event with comprehensive and prescribed modes of engagement. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s worthwhile acknowledging that the Olympics were imagined and then produced. There is nothing sacred about their form or function.

However curious and eclectic Coubertin’s original curation of the games may be, some of Coubertin’s ideas about how the event ought to be experienced are worth contemplating in the context of Dick Pound’s comments. In particular, Coubertin’s ideas about spectators and their participation at the Olympic Games allow me to reassess my own ambivalence about these COVID Olympics. 

For Coubertin, the ideal Olympic Games spectator was a resting athlete. He saw athletes and spectators as a community of like-minded men who shared similar experiences and understood the nuances of the sport and the competition. The games were intended to be a festival, a community event that enriched and strengthen the bonds among members. He loathed the idea of the Olympic Games transgressing into a mere spectacle where people in the stands had very little knowledge or appreciation for the sportsmen’s performance beyond the outcome of the competition.

From an anthropological perspective, festivals are a type of meta-performance that affirms a community’s common values and bonds. Spectacles, on the other hand, are a type of meta performance that tends to magnify differences between the performers and the audience. The gladiator spectacles of antiquity drew a very clear line of distinction between the prisoners performing on the floor of the colosseum and the Roman citizens in the stands. Coubertin hoped that the Olympic Games would provide a festival context where sportsmen from different nations would recognize and appreciate their similarity rather than their differences. It’s a nice idea.

It’s not a stretch to argue that Coubertin’s vision of an Olympic Games festival has never been fully realized. I’ll go even further to suggest that the idea was never even viable given the inherent class-based, Euro-centric, colonial and racist roots of sport in the late 1800s. Still, it’s a nice idea.

Coubertin’s ideal was untethered from reality and yet it seems to endure. Even if the idea of the Olympic Games festival was a naïve aspiration, it lingers in the narrative, or mythology, that the IOC work hard at to sustain. Think of how often we hear the term “Olympic family.” The IOC is more than willing to lean into their mythology when imploring cities to host the costly event. The quadrennial cycle must be preserved, please host the next games. And then, as Dick Pound response to the spectator issue demonstrates, the IOC is also quite comfortable dismissing its own history to just get the job done and move on to the next crisis. In the case of Tokyo, the events needed to be broadcast to ensure that the IOC could retain their TV revenues. Ticket sales are not critical to the IOC’s long term financial well-being, but revenue from broadcast sales most certainly is critical.

The COVID 19 pandemic has been terrible. I feel awful for the athletes who will not have their families and community of like-minded and empathetic supports in the stands. A few days ago, I watched the winner of a swimming race interact with his family via ZOOM on the pool deck as he made his way to TV interviewers. My heart ached a little bit.

The decision to ban spectators from the games was a difficult but arguably necessary. It was functional in terms of getting the job done. And Dick Pound wasn’t wrong when he stated that the games could happen without fans in the stands. It is unfortunate, however, that he chose the words “largely irrelevant.” His comment discounted the very real potential of the Olympic Games to generate a festival-type experience where the athlete-spectator dynamic is central. He also discounted the value of athletes’ experiences participating at the Olympic Games.

For Pound, the true value of the Tokyo Olympics lay in the images of Olympic athletes competing in Tokyo rather than the performance of athletes competing in real time and real space. Ironically, in rationalizing the ban on spectators he missed an opportunity to reinforce the mythology that his organization so desperately tries to perpetuate one quadrennial to the next.

There is a final pleasant irony that needs to be exposed. By banning paying spectators from the competition venues in Tokyo, the organizers may have inadvertently brought the event much closer to realizing the ideal Coubertin had envisioned for the modern Olympic Games festival.

Television coverage shows us that the stands are not empty. Who are cheering on the athletes in Tokyo? They are, indeed, resting sportsmen and sportswomen. Teammates who have already competed or are waiting to compete are supporting the performances of fellow athletes with whom they have common and intimate knowledge of training and competing this extraordinary level. They bear witness to the event in real time and in real space. Coubertin’s visions, however untethered it may have been from reality, has been given a test run in Tokyo thanks to the global COVID 19 pandemic. Ironically, the ban on paying spectators has created a type of sport festival that Coubertin might have recognized as his vision come to life.

This essay was inspired by the work of John J. MacAloon.  MacAloon, John J. Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle : Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Institute for the Study of Human Issues, 1984.



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