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Are the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Cursed? A Political Scientist Weighs In

Political scientist and former player for the US Olympic soccer team Jules Boykoff explains why the Tokyo Olympics could finally break the IOC and change the games forever.

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In November 2019, long before the pandemic booted the 2020 Olympics to a still-fraught 2021, construction crews unearthed 187 human skeletons underneath Tokyo while building Japan’s National Stadium. The grim discovery was just the latest in that country’s troubled history with the games — one that includes everything from entanglement in the International Olympic Committee’s long-running charges of bribery and corruption to local bears breaking into Fukushima’s softball stadiums (and getting away with it). 

But portents of doom in the run-up to the Olympics are as much a part of the games as shattered world records or questionable mascots. Remember the missing door knobs and lightbulbs of Sochi? Or the 60,000 Brazilians who lost their homes to the Rio games?

Most people don’t. As soon as Leo Arnaud and John Williams’ brass fanfare kicks in, the world’s focus tends to shift to the superhuman feats performed by athletes so elite they have to name tricks after themselves. The IOC counts on all that athletic élan to refill the reservoirs of instant nostalgia and paper over its sclerotic politics. Then it’s on to the next city, ready to rake in billions and wreck another local environment and economy. 

Professor Jules Boykoff thinks this year might be different. “The calls would basically stop coming for me right about now, because you know, I’m a social scientist,” says Boykoff, who played soccer for Team USA in the 90s, in addition to teaching at Pacific University in Portland, Oregon, and authoring several books on the Olympics. “Not this time — people are still willing to talk about it. We’re definitely in uncharted waters here.”

With opening ceremonies just completed and at least 14 athletes testing positive for COVID-19 since July 1, we talked with Boykoff about this year’s Olympic gamble, and how athletes themselves could be the key to fixing future Olympics.

Headshot of Jules Boykoff.
Jules Boykoff is a former professional and USA Olympic soccer player. He teaches on politics and dissent, and is an international expert in sports politics. Photo: Jessi Wahnetah

OUTSIDE: The Olympics have seen their fair share of troubles through the years — corruption, tragedy, and other scandals. Where does Tokyo 2020 rank on the scale?

BOYKOFF: Well, even when the world isn’t gripped by a pandemic, the Olympics tend to create pretty significant problems for working people in the host city. The games have become known among people who study the Olympics for four main trends. Overspending — there’s a really serious pattern of that, and also gentrification and forced displacement of everyday working people. There’s the militarization of public space to protect the Olympic spectacle; all sorts of securitization happens that doesn’t go away after the games. And fourth, for greenwashing — talking a big environmental game, but not necessarily following through.

And so even before the pandemic, all that was happening. And then you lacquer a global health pandemic on top, and you’ve got a real wild, dangerous situation — not only for the Olympic athletes, but for the wider community in Tokyo.

OUTSIDE: Japan itself has had quite a troubled history with the Olympics, hasn’t it?

BOYKOFF: For starters, if we go to the last time they hosted in 1998 in Nagano, this was the era when there were big scandals — most people in the United States will know about the Salt Lake bid scandal, where there was all sorts of bribery. But Nagano appears to be pretty bad on the bribery front as well — we only don’t know the full extent of it because they incinerated all their records in the wake of the games. So I guess that’s a historian’s nightmare, but it happened. 

They were supposed to host the 1940 games before they unceremoniously invaded another country and had to call off those Olympics. And that’s caused some people in Japan to point to an Olympic curse. I’m not really necessarily one of those people to buy into that sort of thing. But my goodness, when you watch and see what happened around Tokyo this time around, maybe some of that curse stuff has a little bit more credence.

OUTSIDE: But people seem to forget about all these bigger issues once the competition begins. Do you think that will happen this time?

BOYKOFF: ​​That’s not happening this time because of COVID, and it’s not just that we’re discussing COVID — we’re actually discussing a wide range of issues that need discussing, like, say, the ethics of the International Olympic Committee. People who have studied the IOC have long been concerned about the group’s ethical metric, but now it’s all out in plain sight for everyone in public. But what Tokyo is definitely showing in a clear and unvarnished way is that things need to change in Olympics land.

I’ve been saying for a while that the International Olympic Committee is essentially a profit-gobbling cartel — and I was being specific and descriptive, not polemical. Athletes only get 4.1% of the revenues as opposed to sports like the NBA, NFL, or English Premier League soccer, where they get between 45 and 60%. 

I’ve written that it’s the most pervasive and least accountable sports body in the world, which is saying a lot because there’s still FIFA around. How do you corral this sort of incorrigible band of elites that are this peripatetic force of the global 1%? How do you actually stop them from carrying off an Olympics during a pandemic where the local population doesn’t want it, the medical community thinks it’s a horrible idea, and it basically has rendered the prime minister of Japan as a sort of contractual supplicant?

OUTSIDE: But if the IOC is so impervious to external pressures, who can hold them accountable after Tokyo?

BOYKOFF: One possibility is athletes, because we’re seeing more and more athletes organize. I point to groups like Global Athletes, the International Swimmers Alliance, and the Athletics Association, an independent body of track athletes. For me, these are incredibly promising developments because right now there are no leverage points to fight back against the IOC. And if athletes were to really use their power, they could be the one group to do it. And I don’t mean to put all the onus on athletes — they’ve got plenty on their plates already. But that would be one possible leverage point.

OUTSIDE: Following that, we have seen athletes engaging in protest. That’s expected to be a bit of a flashpoint in these games. Do you think the IOC bending a little in allowing athlete expression is a sign of athletes stepping into a bit more power?

BOYKOFF: It really should not be overstated how much they’ve bent on Rule 50, the notorious rule in the Olympic charter that basically squelches the political dissent of athletes and asks them to check their human rights at the door when they arrive at the games. But that little tiny space that’s been made so that they can now say something before their event is just a testament to how far we’ve already come with athlete activism. 

Whenever you have vibrant social movements, you improve the chances of there being athletic activism. These athletes are well aware of this extended Black Lives Matter or Me Too moment that we’re living in. They’re not just aware, they’re part of it — some of them are out in the streets, attending protests and so on. So one of the things I’m most looking forward to at these Olympics is the possibility of athletes standing up for justice.

Man in soccer uniform on soccer field in France.
At the age of 19, Boykoff played for the United States men’s national under-23 soccer team in the 1990 Toulon Tournament. Photo: courtesy Jules Boykoff

OUTSIDE: How has your past as a professional and Team USA athlete shaped your approach to studying the games?

BOYKOFF: This isn’t like an abstract idea for me, what it would be like to be an elite athlete on a big stage, so that certainly informs my empathy. No doubt about it. But at the end of the day, social science has standards you need to abide by. Everything is built upon the pedestal of historical, political, and social science work. Otherwise, no one would really want to talk to me. I mean, seriously, I wouldn’t call me. If I was just somebody who stayed on the Olympic team in the eighties and nineties, like who cares?

OUTSIDE: If we put aside the obvious negatives clouding the games, do you see any positives coming out of Tokyo?

BOYKOFF: I think I should say I very much believe these Olympics should be canceled. I’ve been very public about that viewpoint. I’m not just putting on my sports goggles here and getting ready for the games. We should have listened and still can listen to medical professionals inside and outside of Japan who have long been saying that the Olympics are a terrible idea. We should listen to the large majority of the population in Japan who feel similarly.

But I think the Tokyo Olympics could be a pivot point in the historical road of the Olympics, where our conversations are already becoming much deeper because of what the whole world has seen on the global stage. And I think that’s a real positive. If we actually truly want to change [the games], then this is a good starting point. Now, it’s a hell of a price to ask the Japanese population to pay just so we can have a bigger conversation about the Olympics, and I don’t think they should have to pay it. But maybe that’s a side benefit and a positive.