In the United States, very little attention is generally paid to the ebbs and flows of Olympic politics, processes and procedures unless it directly impact U.S. athletes, or whether an Olympic Games is coming to the U.S.
So there wasn’t much notice taken of the astonishing announcement made by the Paris 2024 organizing committee last week that it was submitting a recommendation to the International Olympic Committee that the 2024 surfing events be held in Tahiti.
Tahiti! The island that is about 9,766 miles from Paris, in the middle of the Pacific Ocean!
Now, to be clear, Tahiti is part of French Polynesia and its residents are citizens of France. The official language there is French and the capital, Papeete, isn’t a village, but a city of 136,777. The travel site Booking.com lists 366 hotels on the island, so there shouldn’t be much trouble booking the 48 competitors and accompanying officials.
But the broadcast and competition infrastructure for an Olympic competition in any sport is hardly insubstantial. But space for just 1,500 spectators is projected, maybe a tenth of what could be expected in, say, Biarritz in France, some 487 miles south of Paris on the Atlantic coast.
And who can blame the Biarritz folks for being furious, especially after the area quite successfully hosted the 2017 World Surfing Games and the 2019 World Longboard Championships.
So it’s worth asking if the reform movement of International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach of Germany, starting with the passage of his Olympic Agenda 2020 in 2014, hasn’t gone haywire.
The key elements of this reform flipped the IOC’s own concept of the Games, that the event should fit into the nature of the host city, and even have events outside the host city, if that would keep the costs and environmental impact of the event to a minimum. No more requirements of new venues being required to host events, with little or no regard for any future use for the sites.
So now a Games awarded to France and specifically to Paris, is going to put on one of its sports in the middle of the Pacific Ocean instead of in Europe. Isn’t this going too far?
The IOC sees it, so far, as an experiment and a way to bring more of the world into the Games. The magnificent, sometimes brutal waves off Teahupo’o certainly will be more spectacular than anywhere in Europe and Bach signaled that he’s in favor of this wild idea. At his news conference following the Executive Board meetings on 5 December, he was asked if the Paris 2024 venues should be closer to home.
“For equal conditions, we stay closer,” he said. So much for that.
But Bach and his colleagues have to also understand that such decisions, taken freely and without extenuating circumstances – like the quarantine of horses in Australia that forced the equestrian events to be held in Stockholm in 1956 – create precedents.
Taken to its logical conclusion, the placement of surfing in Tahiti – the only foreign country to be part of the French Republic – is the start of the deconstruction of the Olympic Games.
The idea of holding an Olympic Games all over a country or even across a geographic region with multiple countries included, is here. Now.
Stockholm’s unsuccessful bid for the 2026 Olympic Winter Games proposed the sliding sports in an existing facility in Sigulda, Latvia, 356 miles across the Baltic Sea. Now the approved distance will be about 10,000 miles.
So what can we look for in the future?
First, as the IOC is desperate to hold events in Africa, as shown by the award – without election – of the 2022 Youth Olympic Games to Dakar, Senegal – which events from Paris 2024 can be switched to former French colonies? Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia in the northern part of the continent, and Benin, Burkina-Faso, Cameroon, the Central African Republic, Chad, Congo, Cote d’Ivoire, Djibouti, Mali, Gabon, Guinea, Mauritania and Senegal all qualify.
Beyond 2024, the question can then be asked about Los Angeles in 2028?
In 1984, FIFA insisted that the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee hold soccer matches outside the L.A. area, even though there were sufficient venues to host the entire tournament locally. Besides the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, preliminary matches were held at Stanford, California (Stanford Stadium) and on the East Coast at Cambridge, Massachusetts (Harvard Stadium) and Annapolis, Maryland (Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium).
So why not have 2028 events in Puerto Rico, a U.S. commonwealth? Major League Baseball has held games there over several decades and there are good arenas for basketball or similar sports. And the distance is just 3,364 miles from L.A. to the middle of the Caribbean, or just a third of way from Paris to Tahiti.
The LA28 organizers will have little interest in this, and are readying to host the Games of the XXXIV Olympiad in a region which has welcomed this event like nowhere else on the planet for nearly a century. And as the IOC and Paris 2024 consider beginning the disassembly of an event modeled after an ancient celebration that took place in only one venue – Olympia – for centuries, Bach himself gave the rationale for staying together at the IOC’s eSports Forum back in July 2018. Noting the comments of Overwatch star Jake Lyon of the U.S. about the feeling of online competitors for each other through eSports events, Bach explained:
“That’s our world. This is why the Olympic Games, so far, as the only event and they still are, even with regard to e-games, where we have all the world together at one place at the same time. We have in the Olympic Games all 206 National Olympic Committees being in one stadium and living together in one Olympic Village. So this is just the idea of our universe.
“You manage this in a different way. And again, it’s the same passion, it’s the same idea in some respects but there is still the difference, you know? In our world, the communication is real. They look into each other’s eyes. They go afterwards to share their meal. In your world, it’s online.”
With the IOC’s imminent approval of surfing in Tahiti for “Paris 2024,” the only glimpse those competitors will get of the Olympic Village, or of athletics, swimming or gymnastics, will be on television or online. Is there an eSports surfing game? Let’s hold that in Tahiti, too.