Sapporo, which hosted the first Asian Olympic Games in 1972, looks set to host the Games again in 2026. Photos: Twitter
Tim Noonan
Tim Noonan

Asia will return golden lustre to Olympics – and for that the ‘Lords of the Rings’ should bow forever

Battered and bruised, the International Olympic Committee is counting on Asia to restore the greatness to the Games over the next four years

The Olympic Games long seemed to matter. They were a global phenomenon and many nations could barely contain their lust for the opportunity to host the quadrennial international circus. Their appointed representatives would come from far and wide bestowing lavish gifts upon the International Olympic Committee (IOC) regents, who became known as the “Lord of the Rings”. Exalted and imperious, every itch was scratched for the Lords. But on the heels of numerous corruption and doping scandals, as well as a mountain of public debt, all that glitters is now far from gold on the Olympic front.

Once the most desirable international gathering, sporting or otherwise, the IOC can’t even give away hosting rights for some games. Beijing was almost defaulted the 2022 Winter Games when four of the six hosting candidates withdrew leaving delegates to choose between Almaty, Kazakhstan, and China’s capital.

Bidding for the 2024 Summer Games looked like it would be a battle of behemoths with Paris, Rome and Los Angeles vying alongside Budapest and Hamburg. But when Rome, Budapest and Hamburg pulled out, the IOC decided to go with Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028 without even a vote.
Beijing rescued the IOC when it won the vote, of two candidates, to host the 2022 Winter Games, less than 15 years after hosting the showpiece Summer Games. Photo: Simon Song

Enter the supposed “saviour”. When the torch is lit in a few days in Pyeongchang, South Korea, it will mark the beginning of Asia’s Olympic era, with Tokyo following in 2020 and Beijing in 2022. And if that’s not enough, Sapporo in Japan has now emerged as the clear favourite to host the 2026 Winter Games.

Despite having 60 per cent of the world’s population, only four of the last 26 Olympics have been held here – two summer (Seoul 1988, Beijing 2008) and two winter (Sapporo 1972, Nagano 1998).

Of course, there are always extenuating circumstances and the simple truth is that countries like China and Korea were not fiscally equipped to host the games 40 years ago. But today China is the world’s second-largest economy, Japan number three and South Korea at 11. Combine that with a legacy of efficiency and it is not difficult to see why the IOC very much needs Asia.

However, Asia very much needs the Olympics as well.
Nagano in Japan hosted the Winter Olympics in 1998. Photo: AFP

Beijing 2008 became the official coming-out party for a China anxious to show the world a new superpower was on the scene.

In Japan, after more than two decades of decline economically and in global significance, the government is hoping the Olympics will be a much-needed jump start.

For many, however, the blatant politicising of the Olympics is sacrilegious. They claim that the true spirit of the event is friendly competition and global unity.

It’s certainly a noble sentiment. But does anyone truly believe governments spend billions upon billions of dollars and perpetuate state-sponsored doping protocol because they want to foster global brotherhood and understanding? Please. And it’s not just the supposed “outlaw states” either.

Every country big or small has their share of drug cheats and enablers because once you compete and fly the flag for your country in an international competition you become an invaluable propaganda tool.

Propaganda is inherently political hence the Olympics are overtly political. It’s a simple but sad truth.
The National Stadium – better known as the Bird’s Nest – was the centrepiece of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Photo: AFP

There is perhaps nowhere in the world more politically charged right now than the Korean peninsula. While much of the globe is dealing with political rhetoric, Korea is dealing with political reality.

A little more than an hour north of Pyeongchang, as the crow flies, is North Korea, an openly hostile and nuclear-armed state led by a man who could be charitably characterised as unhinged. The animosity between the two nations is palpable and bringing the world into the cross hairs for an Olympic gathering seems reckless to many.

However, the news that North and South Korea will march together for the opening ceremonies and compete as one team in the women’s ice hockey event has to be among the most heartening development of these games.

There is absolutely no guarantee that the world, and in particular this part of the world, will be a safer place in a little over three weeks when the Games end. But there is no guarantee it won’t. At the very least there is hope and that sure as hell beats the alternative.
The Alpensia Ski Jumping Centre will host events at the Pyeongchang Winter Games next month. Photo: Kyodo
If the 2018 Winter Olympics are the catalyst for any kind of meaningful dialogue on the Korean peninsula, then there can be no greater legacy for this Asian Olympic era.

And, conversely, there would be no greater debt than the one the IOC owed Asia for helping to restore significance and pride in their Olympic Games.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: A mutual Olympic need