The highly-respected Alan Abrahamson, one of the best commentators on Olympic sport, wrote on his 3WireSports site last Saturday that:
“The Games and the values for which the Olympics purport to be about — excellence, friendship, respect and, by extension, tolerance — are the very thing that stand in marked contrast to an abhorrent shooting spree like the one that ripped Thursday across two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.”
He made the point, at some length, that the International Olympic Committee – especially via current President, Thomas Bach – has continuously underscored the “values-based” nature of the Olympic Movement.
In specific, Bach said at an IOC-arranged meeting with the eSports industry last July that “I think, we have a great need for discussion, because there we have a red line. We must be very clear from the outset. There we have a red line when it comes to an activity, to a game where it is about the glorification of violence or discrimination. There, this red line cannot be crossed by the Olympic Movement.”
And in a CNN interview, he said of esports, “we see the development, we see the differences and we are looking for things we may have in common. And the differences are pretty clear; we have on the one hand, an industry – a profit-oriented industry – and we have on the other hand, a values-based, not-for-profit organization and to bring these together is not easy.”
Moreover, Bach has made the point that the Olympic program must change in order to stay relevant. A year ago in a news conference in New Delhi, he said:
“Olympic Games have always been open to new sports without forgetting our roots. Tradition alone is no value. If you just stick to tradition and don’t open up to sports practised by the younger generations, then you can lose your relevance very quickly.
“This is why we have to remain open to this and this is why we are happy that in Tokyo we’ll see some of these sports on the Olympic programme.”
Add this into the continuous concern about the size – and resulting cost – of the Olympic Games and you have the opportunity for real change in the sports included in the Games that will reduce the number of athletes, events and venues.
The question is about combat and weapon sports, of which there are eight in the 2020 Tokyo Games, with a total of 1,954 athletes involved (using the Rio 2016 participation figures).
In an organization which says it is devoted to peace and rarely fails to mention having the two Koreas march together in the 2018 Winter Games Opening Ceremony and compete together in some sports where neither has any shot at a medal, why are combat or weapons sports still on the program?
One reason is tradition, as most of these eight sports have been around a long time. Consider these sports and when they first appeared:
● 1896: Fencing (212 in 2016), Shooting (390), Wrestling (344)
● 1900: Archery (128)
● 1904: Boxing (286)
● 1964: Judo (386)
● 2000: Taekwondo (128)
● 2020: Karate (80)
But if the IOC is going to stay relevant and still find a way to make the Games smaller, it cannot simply add events without compressing – or eliminating – multiple events and sports.
It’s true that the IOC is looking hard at whether boxing should continue to be governed by the International Boxing Association (AIBA), but the IOC Executive Board has also made a point of saying that the boxers will not be “penalized,” which can only mean that a boxing tournament will be held. So the sport is still very much in the 2020 Games.
So, what about dropping some of these sports? Is there a reason why three Asian-inspired, martial arts sports are on the 2020 program? Abrahamson has made the case against shooting, which also requires a special facility to holds its competitions. Archery is actually fairly inexpensive to stage, but neither of these target sports can realistically be held before large crowds in the center of a city like Bach loves because of the danger involved.
The best case for a combat sport can be made by wrestling, which is not designed to injure its participants, and was part of the ancient Olympic Games. But it has significant problems with its scoring, which is so convoluted and hard to follow that few spectators can understand why one wrestler wins and another loses when a match ends tied on points. (This is also a problem for Sport Climbing, but it’s not a combat sport.)
Fencing is a sport which – culturally – made perfect sense in the 19th Century, but what about now? The FIE has cooperated with the IOC in trimming its field sizes and trying to become easier to watch, but how “relevant” is it in the 21st Century? Remember Bach’s quote: “Tradition alone is no value”?
And, coming back to boxing, how can the IOC continue to back a sport which is (a) a nightmare to judge, (b) has been corrupt for almost its entire history, (c) has a viable professional structure which does not require the Olympic Games in order to continue and (d) is about beating people up!
This is actually the year to be discussing this, as the IOC has a commission on the Games program and changes can be proposed for the 2024 Games in Paris.
The IOC often needs some reason, event or crisis to make major changes. Using the spread of gun violence and/or the challenge offered by esports are fine reasons to take a hard look at the eight combat sports on the roster for 2020 and eliminate some or all or make significant changes that will bring the number of participants, coaches, venues, staff, volunteers and cost downwards.
And for those who say we still need more (non-violent) excitement? Bring back tug-of-war, which was actually part of Athletics from 1900-20!