Jamaica’s Usain Bolt (third left) sets an Olympic record in the men’s 100m final in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London
Jamaica’s Usain Bolt (third left) sets an Olympic record in the men’s 100m final in the 2012 Summer Olympics in London © Getty

Forty years ago, a fencer from a small town in Germany landed at the Olympic Games in Montreal. “My first impression,” says Thomas Bach, now president of the International Olympic Committee, “was sitting on a bus full of athletes together with security with machine guns and, over the bus, helicopters. So, not really Olympic enthusiasm.” The Olympics were then at a low. At the previous Games in Munich in 1972, Palestinian terrorists had killed 11 Israelis. A boycott by African countries marred the Montreal Games.

Bach came from ordinary circumstances. He had never travelled abroad with his parents, and lost his father early. But Montreal changed his life: he won gold and, just as importantly, in the Olympic Village he got to know athletes from around the world. In short, like countless other people he was captivated by the ideology of Olympism, which mixes two ancient dreams: human perfection and human brotherhood.

Today Bach is 62 years old, small, friendly, chubby, but a ruler of the world. He is sitting on the terrace of the Olympic Museum in Lausanne, Switzerland. It is a cloudless summer’s day. Behind his head, Lake Geneva and the Alps look like a painting. He is the custodian of humanity’s longest-lasting creation. The Games that open in Rio de Janeiro on August 5 connect us with the original Olympic athletes in ancient Greece in 776BC.

But now the Olympics are at their lowest ebb since Bach was a fencer. The crisis goes beyond the many problems afflicting Brazil. More profoundly, Olympism is now at odds with grubby reality. The problems around hosting may be solved, albeit too late for Rio. The problem of doping may never be. The fear is that the Games are losing their grip on us.

The storyline of any modern-day Olympics begins seven years before the opening ceremony, when the IOC chooses the host. Typically the Games go to a country in mid-economic boom (or bubble), which wants to show itself off to the world. When Rio’s name emerged from the envelope in Copenhagen in 2009, the Brazilian delegation “cried, they kissed, they bounced around like popcorn”, writes Juliana Barbassa in her book on Rio, Dancing with the Devil in the City of God. Brazil’s then president Lula ran around the room distributing hugs and kisses, wearing a Brazilian flag like a cape, “an unlikely superhero from the global South”.

IOC chief Thomas Bach in his days as a fencer for West Germany
IOC chief Thomas Bach in his days as a fencer for West Germany © Topfoto

Politicians in the host country typically promise economic bonanza. They predict shopaholic visitors, packed hotels, free advertising of the host city to billions of TV viewers, and the long-term benefits of all the transport and sports venues that will get built.

Then the troubles start. Building Olympic venues usually involves moving people from their homes. Often the Games just act as an accelerator for a city’s natural cruelty towards its poorer residents. China’s Communist party was quite capable of bulldozing traditional hutong houses without an Olympics; the 2008 Games were merely a prompt to bulldoze more. In January 2010, two months after Lula’s lap of honour in Copenhagen, Rio announced “an initial list of 110 communities to be removed”, writes Barbassa. Many were offered inadequate compensation, or rehousing far away. All this was justified by Olympic necessity. In our era of inequality, Rio is the emblematic Olympic host.

If the host city is lucky, like Athens in 2004, the national economic bubble bursts only after the Games are over. But for Rio, as for London in 2012, the bust came beforehand. Brazil entered its worst recession since the 1930s just as the football World Cup kicked off here in 2014 — a cruel joke on any Brazilian still expecting economic bonanza. Then President Dilma Rousseff was impeached. Now the Olympic host’s problems include the Zika virus, giant rodents on the Olympic golf course, slow ticket sales, and an even worse than usual last-minute rush to finish venues.

Bach doesn’t downplay Brazil’s remarkable combination of troubles. “You have a country which does not only have a government crisis but also a state crisis. You have a country which has a financial crisis. You have a country which has a social crisis. You have a country which has to address the Zika challenge. You have a country which, as a result of all of this, is deeply divided.” Yet despite this, he insists, they have managed within seven years to “transform a metropolis into a better city”.

Rio’s sporting venues should be ready on time for the Games. There is more doubt about the metro extension to Barra, which is due to open only this Monday, and even then at limited capacity. Certainly, the $4.6bn spent on these Olympics (according to a study by Oxford university) plus the previous World Cup spending have not noticeably improved transport here. “Sometimes you wish everything would be in place three months before,” Bach sighs. “Of course you would prefer to have the host country prosperous, united, looking forward to the pleasure of hosting the Olympic Games every day. But this is wishful thinking in today’s world.”

It’s true: disaffection with Olympic hosting goes way beyond Rio. Not many cities are now itching to spend billions remaking themselves for 17 days of sport. For the 2022 Winter Games alone, Oslo and Stockholm dropped their bids because of worries about costs, while St Moritz/Davos, Krakow and Munich pulled out after negative referendums. Instead those Games will go to Beijing, which has no snow but, crucially, no referendums either.

Bach understands the change in global sentiment. He became president in 2013 “armed with an agenda for minor change”, writes David Goldblatt in his new Olympic history, The Games. Top of that agenda was making hosting less onerous. Bach admits, “In the past, an Olympic candidature was like the tender for a franchise of a chain. They would get a list of conditions: the tables have to be white, the waiters have to be dressed in red and white, your bread you have to buy here. Now we have turned this around by saying, ‘You tell us: how can the Games serve as a catalyst for your own urban plan, your development?’ ” The idea now is that hosts should be allowed to choose to build facilities that will be useful for decades to come, instead of bending their cities out of shape for a sponsor-pleasing 17-day Olympiad.

Certainly, future Olympics should be simpler. No city bidding for the 2024 Games is planning an Olympic park, which almost inevitably becomes a white elephant afterwards. Simpler venues shouldn’t put off fans. After all, nobody watches an Olympics for the stadiums. Hosting is a problem that the IOC can probably fix.

The moment the opening ceremony starts, the host city’s problems recede into the background. On Friday, the teams of all the Olympic nations will be accompanied by a new stateless entrant. When I asked Bach what moment he was most looking forward to in Rio, he replied, “Seeing the refugee Olympic team marching into the stadium; it will be very difficult for me not to wipe my eyes.”

Each Olympics is a retelling of the same narrative: ordinary people achieving greatness before a watching world. The Games are a showcase for human progress. Every four years, our species becomes more perfect. In 1984 the Swiss marathon runner Gabriela Andersen-Schiess tottered over the finish line crippled by heat exhaustion; nowadays hipsters wearing Spider-Man suits run double marathons for charity. Each new world record is humanity applauding itself. The Olympic motto sums it up: “Citius, Altius, Fortius”, or “swifter, higher, stronger”.

Best of all, most Olympic heroes emerge suddenly from obscurity. Even the athletes on steroids are ordinary people on steroids. When a clerk from Sydney or a housewife from Amsterdam wins, one of us becomes champion of the world. Even today, although amateurism is no longer required, most Olympic athletes live like very hardworking students. They spend years anonymously preparing for the Games on a sort of meagre stipend. When their moment comes, journalists exult. After the British rowers Helen Glover and Heather Stanning won gold in London in 2012, Alan Green, commenting on BBC radio, said through tears: “I love seeing people who aren’t consumed by ego having success.”

That’s the standard contrast: good Olympians versus bad spoiled footballers or American major-league ballplayers. There’s a widespread feeling that the machine for allocating celebrity and wealth is giving the wrong people outsize rewards. The Olympics are a device for reversing that, at least for 17 days.

Of course the reason that rowers, fencers and shot-putters appear unspoilt and ego-free has little to do with intrinsic moral purity. Rather, it’s because hardly anybody watches their sports except during an Olympics. Celebrity and wealth simply weren’t on offer for them.

Each country lionises its own Olympic heroes in what the London Review of Books has called “orgies of lachrymose nationalism”. But the Games are also a rare transnational moment when a watching world is united on the sofa. In the Olympic Village, too, many athletes experience the borderless brotherhood Bach felt in Montreal. He chortles as he recalls the giant frame of a Soviet weightlifter named Leonid blocking the entrance to the Olympic cafeteria in Montreal. The young Bach befriended fencers from communist countries, and would bring them blouses for their girlfriends in exchange for Russian matryoshka dolls. He says Olympic fraternising sends an important message “in this fragile world, which is a world of war, of terror, of crises, of mistrust, which is a world of less and less solidarity”.

Fraternising happened even at Hitler’s Games in Berlin in 1936, where the black American Jesse Owens and his German rival “Luz” Long walked around the track arm in arm after Owens won the long jump. At the Barcelona Games of 1992, held as South Africa emerged from apartheid, the black Ethiopian Derartu Tulu and white South African Elana Meyer ran a victory lap hand in hand after finishing first and second in the 10,000 metres.

Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu, left, and Elana Meyer of South Africa join hands in a victory lap after the women’s 10,000m final in Barcelona, 1992
Ethiopia’s Derartu Tulu, left, and Elana Meyer of South Africa join hands in a victory lap after the women’s 10,000m final in Barcelona, 1992 © Getty

Such bonds can last a lifetime. After the 200-metre sprint at the 1968 Olympics, the American runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the “Black Power” salute from the medals’ podium. They were kicked out of the Games, but the third runner on the podium, the white Australian Peter Norman, supported their gesture. Thirty-eight years later, Smith and Carlos were pallbearers at Norman’s funeral in Australia.

Often the best bonding happens in the Olympic Village after athletes finish their events. Many retire on the spot. They go around the village at their physical peak, bursting with unspent energy, and surrounded by other perfect bodies. The result: orgies that are neither lachrymose nor nationalist. In Sydney in 2000, each athlete was given 51 condoms on arrival in the village. Still supplies ran out.

However, our once naive celebrations of Olympic winners are now overshadowed by a growing pall: doping. For decades the Games didn’t bother with doping tests. Then came ineffectual ones: there were zero positive tests at the Moscow Games of 1980. The age of innocence ended on September 27 1988, the day Ben Johnson tested positive for doping just after breaking the world record in the 100 metres. That added a final element to the standard Olympic storyline: the exposure of winners as cheats, often years after the Games end.

Olympic refugee team swimmer Rami Anis dives while training at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium
Olympic refugee team swimmer Rami Anis dives while training at the Olympic Aquatics Stadium © Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

Doping is rarely caught in real time. In his new book on cheating in sport, The Edge, political scientist Roger Pielke Jr cites a study in the journal Sports Medicine estimating that between 14 and 39 per cent of elite athletes dope. “By contrast,” notes Pielke, “the drugs tests over the same time period administered by Wada [the World Anti-Doping Agency] . . . detect the use of prohibited substances in only about 1-2 per cent of samples.” In part, as Wada’s former chairman Dick Pound has said: “Nobody wants to catch anybody. There’s no incentive. Countries are embarrassed if their nationals are caught. And sports are embarrassed if someone from their sport is caught.” But it’s also because innovative dopers stay ahead of the testers. In 2004 the Ukrainian Yuriy Bilonog won gold in the shot put. It took testers so long to expose him that only in 2013 did the original runner-up, the American Adam Nelson, receive his gold medal in an Atlanta airport food court. Hero-to-zero has long been a common Olympic postscript. As Pielke notes, the American hero Carl Lewis, long seen as the innocent victim of Johnson’s cheating in 1988, “admitted in 2003 that he had failed three drugs tests before the 1988 Games but was allowed to compete”.

Suspicion of winners will reach a new crescendo in Rio. These Games are taking place without the Russian track-and-field team, banned after Russia’s state-backed doping programme, which ran from 2011 to 2015, was exposed. Agents of the FSB, the KGB’s successor, helped swap positive urine tests for clean ones, said a report for Wada. (The FSB’s “eureka moment” seems to have been figuring out how to remove caps from urine sample bottles.) Wada’s findings inevitably cast doubt on some of the 82 medals that Russian athletes won in London in 2012, and the 33 with which Russia topped the medals table at the Sochi winter Games of 2014.

But as Russia’s sports minister Vitaly Mutko correctly says: doping is “not just a Russian but a global problem”. Separately from the Russian case, the IOC said this month that a reanalysis of urine samples found that 23 medallists in Beijing had used banned substances. How many heroes of Rio will be unmasked in years to come?

Refugee and judo athlete Popole Misenga (right) from Democratic Republic of Congo fights during a training session ahead of the Rio Olympics
Refugee and judo athlete Popole Misenga (right) from Democratic Republic of Congo fights during a training session ahead of the Rio Olympics © Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images

“This is not a situation you like, as a sports fan like me,” Bach told me. “This is an unsatisfactory situation.” Still, last week the IOC decided against banning all Russian athletes from Rio. Bach said he had balanced “collective responsibility” against “individual justice”. Wada, which had recommended a blanket ban for Russia, said it was “disappointed”. Many critics accused Bach of being afraid to take on mighty Russia. Robert Harting, the German discus-thrower who won gold in London, said: “For me he is part of the doping system. I am ashamed of Thomas Bach.”

Doping, for all Bach’s schemes to fight it, is probably an insoluble problem. And one day, athletes might be able to give themselves genetic enhancements that would render doping almost irrelevant. The ethicist Silvia Camporesi has warned that, possibly within 50 years, “ ‘natural’ able-bodied athletes will just appear anachronistic”.

My earliest Olympic memory is a red and white souvenir sleeping bag from the Moscow Games of 1980. It went with me on family camping trips for much of my childhood. My mother must have bought it on sale for next to nothing, after western nations boycotted those Games in protest at the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Thomas Bach had led a West German athletes’ campaign against the boycott, in vain. He never competed in another Olympics after Montreal. The trauma of the 1980 boycott must help explain his decision to let Russians participate in Rio.

After the successive failures of Munich, Montreal and Moscow, the Games hit a postwar nadir. By 1984, Los Angeles was the only city willing to play host, and the communist bloc stayed away in revenge for 1980. What we didn’t know then was that a new Olympic era was starting in the Californian sun. That’s because the world was changing. The spread of TV and the rise of sponsorship brought in more money, so that LA became the first profitable Games since 1932; and soon the waning of the cold war ended Olympic boycotts.

Today the Games are in their biggest hole since Los Angeles. Another momentous change is required to rescue the Olympics from doping, but for now it’s hard to imagine what that might be.

Simon Kuper is an FT columnist

Who to watch out for

Jessica Ennis-Hill (GB) vs Katarina Johnson-Thompson (GB)

Two British heptathletes will fight it out for gold in Rio. Rising star Johnson-Thompson finished 28th at the World Championships last year but is ready to push the Olympic champion to her limits in Brazil.
When to watch August 12-14

Usain Bolt (Jamaica) vs Justin Gatlin (USA)

Bolt is aiming for an unprecedented “triple triple”: gold medals in the three major sprinting events at three consecutive Olympics. Gatlin, at the other end of the popularity scale after serving two doping bans, wants to be the man to stop him.
When to watch 100-metre heats start August 13. The final is on August 14

Katie Ledecky (USA)

The American swimmer is undefeated in international racing since winning gold in the 800-metre freestyle in London as a 15-year-old, and currently holds the world records in the 400-, 800-, and 1,500-metre freestyle events. Four years on, she is still the youngest person on the US swimming team. Will her dominance continue?
When to watch: Swimming runs from August 6-13

Compiled by George Shankar

Photographs: Topfoto; Reuters; Getty Images

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023. All rights reserved.
Reuse this content (opens in new window) CommentsJump to comments section

Follow the topics in this article