What are the Olympics for? 
by Jules Boykoff.
Bristol, 157 pp., £8.99, March, 978 1 5292 3028 4
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Igniting the Games: The Evolution of the Olympics and Bach’s Legacy 
by David Miller.
Pitch, 272 pp., £12.99, July 2022, 978 1 80150 142 2
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Olympism,​ the strange syncretic invention of Pierre de Coubertin, drew on the baron’s misreading of the ancient games and a wilfully romantic appropriation of the English public school cult of the amateur athlete. Coubertin first called for a revival of the Olympics at a symposium at the Sorbonne in 1892, and in 1894 established the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which chose Athens as the games’ first host city. This month, after a gap of a hundred years, the Olympic Games will return to Paris for a third time.

The first Olympics held in Paris, in 1900, were a farce. Coubertin had intended them to serve as the sporting component of the Exposition Universelle. Its chief organiser, Alfred Picard, was less keen, dismissing Coubertin’s games for a few hundred amateur male athletes as ‘cheap and unfit to represent the nation’, while the neo-Hellenism of the Olympic movement was seen as an ‘absurd anachronism’. The official programme of the exhibition included a range of sports that were popular in late 19th-century France: motor races and ballooning, fishing and pigeon racing, as well as mass displays featuring thousands of gymnasts and archers, golf and polo parties, school sports, events for women and children, and – least Olympic of all – professionals competing in tennis, pelota and cycling.

Undeterred, Coubertin in effect decreed that the events in the exhibition’s sporting programme that didn’t involve motor vehicles, professionals, children or animals were Olympic events. The press was confused, describing these contests as festival games, Olympian games and international games. The public didn’t pay much attention. Just one paying spectator seems to have attended the croquet. No laurels or certificates were awarded. Many of the winners were surprised to discover, years later, that they had participated in the Olympics. ‘It’s a miracle that the Olympic movement survived,’ Coubertin admitted.

By the time of the next Paris games, in 1924, Coubertin’s resilience, monomania and focus on what would now be called branding had succeeded in turning the Olympics into a global institution, which would soon supersede the world’s fairs and imperial exhibitions on which it had initially depended. The St Louis World’s Fair staged the Olympics in 1904, and the Franco-British imperial exhibition hosted in 1908. In 1912 the Swedish monarchy, along with the country’s military and bourgeois sports associations, held the Stockholm games as a free-standing event; a similar grouping in Belgium put on the Antwerp games in 1920. The core of invented Olympic ritual was established in this early period: the parade of nations to open the games; gold, silver and bronze medals for the athletes; an Olympic oath; the five intersecting rings. Paris 1924 added the motto ‘Citius, Altius, Fortius’. These Olympics had the aid, for the first time, of an unambiguously supportive national government: the French Foreign Ministry took responsibility for the preparations and put up ten million francs. From then on, whatever the IOC might claim, the Olympic Games were political events with political agendas. Minuscule by contemporary standards, Paris 1924 was significantly bigger and more prominent than earlier games, with more than three thousand athletes – triple the number in 1900. The media too were a significant presence: more than a thousand accredited journalists attended, most events were filmed for newsreel coverage, and there were radio broadcasts around the world.

The Olympics, however, were not the only game in town. The IOC’s notion of sporting spectacle and its belief in the moral superiority of amateurism were challenged by the rise of professional and commercial sport. Baseball in the United States, cycling in France and the Low Countries, football in Europe and Latin America, and boxing everywhere offered a different model, catered to a much bigger working-class audience, and created sporting celebrities and popular narratives that made the Olympics appear fusty. The problems crystallised at the Antwerp games in 1920. Genteel but sparse crowds attended the athletics and swimming in the Beerschot stadium and the tennis and polo competitions held at private clubs. Working-class Antwerp, and much of the popular press, chose instead to watch the sports they were familiar with: boxing, wrestling and football. The football final, Belgium v. Czechoslovakia, was played at Beerschot. Local youths dug an ‘Olympic trench’ under the stadium walls to allow people to get in without paying, so that the stands were filled to overflowing. With Belgium 2-0 up, the Czechs walked off in protest at the officiating. A pitch invasion followed.

Paris 1924 attempted to bridge these worlds. While Antwerp had put on trade and art shows in palaces, Paris had a sporting exhibition at Magic City, a popular ballroom and amusement park. Antwerp contained the raucous crowds for boxing by holding it at the zoo; Paris held it at the Winter Velodrome, a venue normally packed with working-class crowds who liked gambling on cycle races. It was at the 1924 games that the first big Olympic stars emerged. The Finnish distance runner Paavo Nurmi won five gold medals – two of them, for the 5000 metres and 1500 metres, within ninety minutes of each other. The other standouts were Uruguay’s football team, which sold out its games and, according to one newspaper, ‘pushed towards perfection the art of the feint and swerve and the dodge’. The Uruguayan players were fêted in the city’s brasseries, nightclubs and ballrooms.

For the moment the Olympics could match professional sport for spectacle and celebrity, but a different kind of challenge came from the women’s and workers’ sports movements. The Fédération des sociétés féminines sportives de France, founded by Alice Milliat, held its own women’s Olympics (in Monte Carlo in 1921, Paris in 1922, Monte Carlo again in 1923 and London in 1924) as a challenge to the IOC’s virtual exclusion of female athletes. Worried by the popularity of these alternative games, the IOC and its allies at the International Amateur Athletic Federation incorporated the movement, permitting women’s athletics and other sports at the 1928 Amsterdam Olympics, but on limited terms. Women weren’t allowed to run further than 200 metres at the Olympics until 1960 (they ran the 800 metres in 1928, but were said to be exhausted by it; the 10,000 metres and the marathon weren’t added until the 1980s), and as late as 1984 made up a fifth of the games’ participants. The workers’ sports movement, which had four million members across North America and Europe, was created by social democratic parties and trade unions and offered an inclusive model of sport, favouring participation over excellence and rejecting the rising tide of nationalism that accompanied Olympic sport. In 1925 it staged the first Workers’ Summer Olympiad in Frankfurt, attracting a hundred thousand participants, accommodated in comrades’ houses and festival-style camping grounds. In 1931 Vienna hosted. At the opening ceremony tens of thousands of socialist youths hauled down a giant tower representing Capital. But with the rise of fascism, the German and Austrian core of the movement was disbanded.

Over the next half-century the IOC established and entrenched the global pre-eminence of its version of sport. Los Angeles 1932 added commercialism and showbusiness to the Olympics. Berlin 1936 demonstrated how to mobilise the power of the nation-state behind the spectacle. The 1960s brought live colour television and transformed the staging and reach of the event. Los Angeles 1984 created the media and sponsorship model that underpins the Olympics today, and, because it spent no money on stadiums, turned a small profit. Barcelona in 1992 made the games the final piece of the city’s post-Franco urban revival and convinced the world that the Olympics could bring tourists, growth and development. Neither city’s success has been repeated. TV and sponsorship money was soon taken away from the host cities and kept by the IOC. The biggest change of all was the decision of the IOC’s long-time president Juan Antonio Samaranch quietly to remove the amateurism rules from the Olympic charter. Barcelona’s triumph was not its new pedestrian squares, but the presence of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and the rest of the US basketball ‘dream team’.

What was Olympism without amateurism? Samaranch attempted to fill the ideological void by bringing the IOC into line with the emerging concerns of international politics in the 1990s, incorporating human rights, gender equity and the pursuit of environmental sustainability into the Olympic charter. Under his successor, Jacques Rogge, bidders to host the games were plentiful, television audiences and income grew, and the games became bigger – more athletes, more sports and more media. The number of female Olympians crept up towards half. But the new model had problems.

In 1998 it was revealed in the press that Salt Lake City had bribed many members of the IOC to choose it as the host of the 2002 Winter Olympics. Subsequent investigation suggested that there had been an element of subterfuge or criminality in the awarding of almost every Olympic Games for decades. Academic studies showed that the games did not bring increased employment, growth or productivity, and that they often diminished levels of tourism, as well as saddling cities with venues they couldn’t use or afford to maintain. The Chinese state’s clampdown on protest at the 2008 Beijing Olympics sat uneasily with the IOC’s new commitment to human rights, while the city’s air pollution and carbon footprint, caused in part by construction for Olympic venues, was at odds with its green ambitions.

In 2013, Thomas Bach – a German fencer, lawyer and sports bureaucrat – was elected the IOC’s ninth president. It has been his task to try to resolve the mounting problems faced by the organisation. It would be useful to have an account of his time in power that laid bare the forces at work in international sport and considered the gap between the IOC’s claims and the reality of its actions. David Miller’s Igniting the Games is not that book. As its subtitle suggests, it is primarily a celebration of Bach’s heroic attempts to surmount the crisis. Miller has past form for leaving out uncomfortable facts. His official history of the IOC describes the Mexico City Olympics of 1968 without mentioning the massacre of more than three hundred student protesters in Tlatelolco just a few days before the games began – the kind of editorial choice that wins you the Pierre de Coubertin medal for outstanding contribution to the Olympic movement.

Quite a bit of Bach’s time at the IOC has been spent on problems with Russia. First, what to do about its huge, long-standing, state-sponsored doping programme. Second, whether or not to allow Russians to participate in the Olympics after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Neither of these matters has been resolved. Nor has the capacity of the IOC to honour its ‘clean games’ and human rights commitments. Bach has so far presided over two summer games, Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 (delayed by Covid until 2021), and three winter games: Sochi 2014, Pyeongchang 2018 and Beijing 2022. All have had their problems. Rio, the first Olympics held in South America, was supposed to be the crowning glory of a decade of mega-events held in Brazil, including the 2014 World Cup, testament to the country’s economic dynamism and international reach under Lula and his successor, Dilma Rousseff. But by the time the games began Dilma had been impeached, Lula had been arrested and the Lava Jato scandal had laid bare the scale of waste and corruption in public construction projects, not least at the Olympic Park and the refurbished Maracanã football stadium. These projects displaced seventy thousand people from their homes, most of whom received piffling compensation. Many ended up living on the edge of the metropolis in new social housing run by drug gangs. Promises to Rio’s poor – new sewage systems in the poorest districts and the clean-up of Guanabara Bay, the venue for the sailing events – were abandoned as too costly. Boats and floating barriers were used to keep dead dogs and jettisoned sofas out of the competitors’ way.

Tokyo 2020 was transformed by the Covid pandemic. Held in 2021 with virtually no crowds in attendance, it was an eerie and often soulless affair. Unusually fierce typhoons meant the sailing and rowing events had to be rescheduled. The marathon and long-distance walking events, a serious health risk even in a normal Tokyo summer, had already been moved five hundred miles north to the more temperate Sapporo. The heat and humidity meant that tennis matches had to be played in the evening, and that outdoor swimmers had to compete in what was, in effect, a dangerously warm bath.

Sochi 2014, at $51 billion the most expensive Olympics ever, was primarily an instrument for transferring some of the Russian state’s hydrocarbon money to oligarchs and their underlings. Boris Nemtsov, the opposition leader assassinated near the Kremlin in 2015, estimated that $30 billion went to the managers of state corporations and private construction firms. In clear contravention of the IOC charter, the Russian government passed a raft of anti-LGBT laws in the run-up to the games and made life impossible for LGBT sports clubs. Fears regarding Putin’s imperial ambitions, amply displayed in the opening ceremony, were confirmed just four days after the end of the games by Russian-backed action in Crimea. Over the next few years, the details of its state-sponsored doping schemes became public.

Pyeongchang 2018 was much less eventful. Even so, a forest of sixty thousand ancient and spiritually significant trees on Mount Gariwang were chopped down to make way for ski runs. The ski centre for Beijing 2022 was built in the middle of the Songshan nature reserve. These games were conducted under even tighter Covid restrictions than Tokyo the previous year, and any media investigation of the Chinese government’s oppression of the Uyghur people or protest by athletes was shut down. But nothing could hide the impact of the climate crisis on the games. It was clear even in the tightest camera shots that the alpine events were being staged on bare mountains, with just a thin white ribbon of artificial snow. And fewer people were watching: from a peak at London 2012, the global TV audience for the summer games fell at Rio and Tokyo. NBC’s viewing figures for Beijing were its lowest ever for a winter games.

However bad this catalogue of disasters and embarrassments, much more pressing for Bach is the increasing lack of interest cities appear to have in hosting the Olympics. There were ten candidates to host in 2008, the list then whittled down to five. The fight for 2012 was also closely contested. But there were just five prospective bidders for the 2020 games and three final candidates. Enthusiasm for hosting the Winter Olympics has also declined: the choice for 2022 was between Beijing (a city with no mountains) and Almaty, the former capital of Kazakhstan (a city with mountains but no winter sports infrastructure). More worrying still was the number of candidate cities that withdrew from the bid process. Winter games bids were scuppered after votes in Oslo, Kraków, Lviv and Stockholm; Hamburg, Boston and Rome gave up on their ambitions to hold the summer games. Hungary’s prime minister, Viktor Orbán, lost his only significant political battle of the last decade when a local campaign collected a petition big enough to force a referendum on Budapest’s bid, a test Orbán and the organisers declined to take. Only Paris and Los Angeles were in the running for the 2024 summer games and no one seemed interested in 2028. Recognising the danger, Bach gave 2024 to Paris and persuaded Los Angeles to take 2028, without the irritation and fuss of an IOC vote. After a similar manoeuvre in 2021, the 2032 games were awarded to Brisbane, which was the only plausible bidder.

Ithas taken a long time for potential bidders to clock that the Olympic model has not been working, but there has been opposition from those living in potential host cities for decades. Denver’s plans to host the 1976 Winter Games were ruined by an unlikely coalition of low-tax Republicans and environmentalists, who forced and won a local referendum. Bids by Amsterdam, Berlin and Toronto in the 1980s and 1990s were all scuppered by noisy protests from housing activists, squatters and anarchists. More recently Indigenous groups have challenged the iconography of Sydney 2000, and protested against a highway constructed on unceded native land to serve Vancouver 2010. Rio, Paris and Los Angeles all generated anti-Olympic campaigns. Jules Boykoff, who has been a participant in the anti-Olympic movement, offers a good guide to these developments in What are the Olympics for?

In 2014, Bach published his manifesto for change, Agenda 2020. The document, and its many successors, proposed ways that the Olympic bidding process could be streamlined, infrastructure costs reduced and white elephants avoided. It promised to prioritise bids that created a positive urban legacy and were climate-friendly, and imagined a new version of Olympism in which clean athletes were protected, human rights observed and young people inspired to participate in sport. Sochi, Rio and Pyeongchang, awarded before Bach’s presidency began, would all have failed to meet these aspirations. Tokyo might have been a better test, but Covid and postponement caused its cost to soar to $13 billion, twice the initial estimate, and its TV viewership to collapse. So it has fallen to Paris, as it did in 1924, to stage a games that tests the viability of a new Olympic model.

It is the responsibility of the IOC, rather than the host, to stage a clean Olympics that are in accordance with the IOC’s commitment to human rights and international law. The absence of the Russian and Belarusian teams from Paris 2024 means that the games will be cleaner, but given the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in global sport and the unequal pharmacological arms race between concealing and discovering their use, the Olympics will never be drug-free. The human rights component of the charter is just as problematic. The world’s sporting federations have turned a blind eye to psychologically and sexually abusive coaching practices and have failed to safeguard the athletes in their charge. The IOC’s response has been pitiful. Russia’s exclusion from the games on the grounds that its invasion of Ukraine constitutes a breach of international law is to be welcomed, but how does this fit with the seemingly legitimate participation of Israel?

The more immediate questions facing Bach and the organisers of Paris 2024 are to do with cost. Allowing for inflation, Paris 2024 is the cheapest games for more than a quarter of a century, and the first since Los Angeles 1984 for which so little new infrastructure has been built – just the aquatics centre, the Olympic village and the international media centre, all concentrated in the banlieue of Saint-Denis, on the northern edge of central Paris. The construction budget, most of it from public funding, has crept up to $4.5 billion, but compared to other recent games the French have kept a tight rein on overspending. The actual staging of the event will cost a similar amount. This has been paid for by selling a lot of expensive tickets and product licences, by local sponsors and, surprisingly, by the IOC itself. In recent years the IOC has kept all the money from global media rights and sponsorship deals to itself but, panicked by mounting criticism, it has added $1.2 billion to the pot.

Polls initially found that around 60 per cent of the French population approved of hosting the Olympics, but in Paris itself, as the games and their inconveniences come closer, this figure has dropped to around half. Compared to other host cities at a similar point this is a reasonable performance. There have been complaints about the high cost of tickets and about the steep rise in metro and bus fares during the games. But Parisians have bought tickets to the games in huge numbers, and those who have season tickets on the metro or buy passes in advance will avoid the price rise. In an effort to reduce the pressure on public transport, the government has asked residents to work at home during the games and to accept that deliveries to many parts of the city will be impossible owing to security checks. The city’s traditional August exodus is likely to be bigger than ever, though the police and civil service have to stay put. They threatened to go on strike and, miraculously, additional money for bonuses has been found.

Every​ Olympics since Sydney 2000 has promised to be the ‘greenest games ever’, but the record has been dismal. Aside from installing recycling bins, Athens failed to achieve any of its environmental objectives. Beijing’s already toxic air was no better after the 2008 games than before. London and Rio promised to keep carbon emissions down but still emitted as much as Haiti or Madagascar do in a whole year. The Seine is supposed to be clean enough for the first time in more than a century for aquatic events to take place on the river, but recent tests have shown high levels of E. coli. New facilities in the city have been built to high environmental standards, and all the Olympic sites have been connected to the electricity grid, meaning that the usual phalanx of diesel generators that mega-events depend on can be ditched. There have been environmental losses too: an observation tower just off the coast of Tahiti, where the surfing events are being held, has had to be rebuilt, damaging the coral reef. Acres of parkland have been sacrificed to the international media centre.

The organisers have avoided claiming that the event will be carbon neutral. When Fifa made that claim about the 2022 Qatar World Cup it was struck down by a Swiss regulator, which ruled that Fifa had failed accurately to account for the event’s emissions and that its carbon offset programme was inadequate at best. What’s more, the Paris organisers know that consumption at the games as well as the transport of more than ten thousand athletes, maybe thirty thousand coaches and officials, and even larger numbers of journalists and media workers, let alone spectators, will produce more than 1.5 million tonnes of CO2. This is half the carbon emitted by London 2012 or Rio 2016, but we are close to the limit of easy emission reductions and have no meaningful ways of compensating for the rest. If there’s a case to be made that moving dressage horses and volleyball teams around the world is a reasonable way to use up the carbon budget, I would struggle to make it. In the meantime, there is the worry that the games will be staged during one of France’s increasingly frequent and intense heatwaves.

Berlin 1936, Tokyo 1964 and Moscow 1980 all made considerable efforts to make rough sleepers, drug addicts and petty criminals invisible during the games. The Nazis relocated Berlin’s Roma population to Marzahn, a concentration camp on the edge of the city. Tokyo arrested pickpockets and vagrants and asked the local yakuza gangs to take a holiday. Moscow drove chronic alcoholics and heroin users beyond the city’s ring road and dumped them there. In 1984 the LAPD expanded its already extensive and violent sweeps of the homeless to take in Black and Latino youths, forcing many of them into de facto lockdown for the duration of the games. In 1996 Atlanta handed out free one-way coach tickets to the homeless and passed local ordinances that made being in a car park without owning a car or ‘reclining’ in public a crime. The police were issued with printed arrest dockets marked: ‘Male, African American, Homeless’. Shade, toilets and water fountains, temporarily installed in the city centre for the duration of the games, were removed afterwards. The city demolished the remaining social housing and Black business premises in central Atlanta and replaced them with commercial real estate.

Rough sleepers in Paris, according to the last count, number around four thousand, but they are just the most visible members of a much larger homeless population. Tens of thousands of people are squatting in old industrial buildings, or setting up encampments in marginal public spaces. Around 150,000 people live in other forms of temporary accommodation. Since early 2023, the police have been evicting people from all these places. Four hundred migrants, mainly from Chad and Sudan, were turfed out of the old Unibéton cement factory close to the Olympic village, as were seven hundred Roma camping to the north-east of the city. Informal camps, like the one under the Charles de Gaulle bridge, have been aggressively dismantled and the space fenced off. The government and the police have claimed that none of this has anything to do with the Olympics, and is in fact part of a plan to move homeless people into better temporary accommodation, even if this is to parts of the country they have never visited before. Students who occupy accommodation that has been set aside for the international press corps have been told they will have to get out for the duration of the games, and have been given two free tickets and €100 – a sum unlikely to cover many nights’ alternative digs, given the city’s startlingly high rents. Airbnb, which paid half a billion dollars to be an Olympic partner, lists a hundred thousand properties for rent in Paris during the games. Despite the efforts of the Parisian mairie to curb Airbnb, the Olympics will accelerate the shift from long-term private rents to short-term leisure lets, in a city already desperately short of accommodation for its residents.

After the games, the athletes’ village will provide around three thousand apartments, just under half of them sold privately, the rest let at affordable rates or made available as social housing. The development will be served by two new metro lines, and feature the usual mix of leisure, retail and commercial spaces. Olympic villages’ record in delivering affordable housing and economic regeneration is very poor. Mexico City’s towers were handed out to civil servants. Apartments in Barcelona’s Olympic village, on the city’s new beachfront, soared in price as it became a hotspot of gentrification and property speculation. Athens allocated the apartments in its Olympic village by lottery, open only to households in need. As a consequence, the new village had high rates of unemployment, long-term sickness and disability. Once the new tenants moved in, the quality of the bus service that had run during the games rapidly declined, the shops soon closed, and education and health facilities were run down. It is now one of the poorest and grimmest areas in Athens. Vancouver and London promised to deliver ample affordable and social housing, but Vancouver cut its plans in half and London’s 4500 affordable rental properties dwindled to a few hundred. Rio never pretended that its Olympic village would become anything other than a privately owned upscale neighbourhood, but it remains virtually empty, next to an Olympic Park full of desolate venues. The private flats in Saint-Denis are selling like hot cakes, at prices that very few locals can afford. The new metro links and business parks are attracting corporate firms, but jobs there aren’t being given to locals. They’re no more likely to find employment at the new offices of the Interior Ministry when it moves to Saint-Denis in 2026.

The banlieue has been the site of riots for years, and in 2022 there was trouble at the Champions League final between Liverpool and Real Madrid, played at the Stade de France, which is going to be used as the main Olympic stadium. Madrid’s supporters had a fan park a few minutes’ walk from the stadium, but Liverpool’s was ten kilometres away, and the route to the stadium from the nearest metro station led through congested streets and a narrow subway under a motorway. Under-stewarded and under-policed, crowds of Liverpool fans built up around the subway, a checkpoint and the ticket turnstiles, which had been closed. The police tear-gassed and pepper-sprayed them. The kick-off was delayed for almost forty minutes, and after the match there were hundreds of assaults outside the stadium as local gangs fought the police and attacked the fans. French police and politicians attempted to blame the Liverpool fans for what happened (just as the British authorities did following the Hillsborough disaster in 1989), saying they had arrived late and tried to gain entry with fake tickets. A year later, Uefa issued a report absolving the fans of blame, accepting that it, the French authorities and French police were responsible for the chaos.

This time round the level of security in Saint-Denis will be of a different order. Even the torch relay that is bringing the Olympic flame from Marseille to the stadium has a guard of a hundred elite police officers, including rapid response units and anti-drone specialists. During the games themselves, France will employ thirty thousand gendarmes, fifteen thousand members of the armed forces and secret services, and 22,000 private security guards. The military will deploy surveillance drones, AWACS aircraft and helicopter-borne snipers. This will cost €320 million and hand the security forces and the police an upgraded infrastructure of intrusive digital surveillance. Residents of the security zones around the Olympic venues will need to acquire and show QR codes. Saint-Denis has a brand new urban supervisory centre connected to four hundred cameras. Data and privacy laws have been rewritten so that the images generated can be used as material for AI-augmented surveillance. This legislation is scheduled to be rescinded after the games: we shall see.

Formost of the 20th century, Olympic opening ceremonies were like military tattoos, and any music played was martial or classical. The use of an electronic glockenspiel during the opening ceremony at the 1972 Munich games was considered a major break with tradition. But in Los Angeles in 1984, the opening ceremony took the form of an open-air Broadway musical and the closing ceremony was given over to Lionel Richie, who performed a nine-minute version of ‘All Night Long’ with hundreds of dancers on a stage lit by pulsating pink neon Olympic rings. Since then, opening and closing ceremonies have featured, among others, Kylie Minogue in Sydney, Lang Lang in Beijing, and Paul McCartney and the Spice Girls in London.

Paris apparently hopes to book Aya Nakamura. Indeed, President Macron has publicly stated that he would like her to perform. Nakamura is by some way the bestselling French-language singer in the world. Born in Mali, she grew up in Aulnay-sous-Bois, a banlieue in the same département as Saint-Denis. You might think she’d be the perfect choice for Paris 2024, but in one poll 73 per cent of the French public said that her work was not representative of French music and 63 per cent were against her playing the opening ceremony. A majority preferred the DJ David Guetta (who is white and primarily records in English) or Daft Punk (who are also white, primarily recorded in English and split up in 2021). The rumour that Nakamura might sing Edith Piaf’s ‘La Vie en Rose’ infuriated the far right. Éric Zemmour, leader of the Reconquête party, claimed he could only hear a ‘foreign language’ in Nakamura’s songs, while an extremist group called Les Natifs unveiled a banner on the banks of the Seine that read: ‘No way Aya! This is Paris not the Bamako market.’

However grand the opening ceremony, however, the Olympics has already ceded its place as the greatest show on earth to the World Cup. Football is now without peer in the vast majority of national sports cultures, and has a major foothold in all the refusenik countries too. It has fan cultures of a scale and intensity nothing else can match. Football means something to much of the world, while the core sports of the Olympic spectacle – athletics, aquatics and gymnastics – do not, still less the real minority pursuits like fencing, equestrianism, archery and rowing. The 64 matches in the World Cup accrue fewer viewer minutes than the more than three hundred events at an Olympic Games, but have a narrative simplicity and focused intensity. Consider Morocco’s run to the semi-finals of the Qatar World Cup in 2022, which was celebrated in the streets of cities across the Middle East, from Casablanca to Baghdad, and by the Moroccan diaspora in Europe. Chants and songs reflected pan-Arabic and pan-African identities, and the Palestinian flag was on widespread display.

At the closing ceremony of the Paris games, the Olympic flag will be handed over to Los Angeles 2028, which will also be hosting its third Olympics. It will have its work cut out, not least because the city has ten times as many rough sleepers as Paris. Los Angeles isn’t building an Olympic village, but the games are being used to rush through the construction of hotels and student housing, displacing Latino and African American communities. In the final chapter of What Are the Olympics for? Boykoff asks whether the games should be held in a permanent location. Athens is the usual candidate for this honour, but given its disastrous experience in 2004 might not be keen. In any case, the demands of the games are constantly changing, meaning that any infrastructure is unlikely to remain usable for long. If that idea can’t be made to work, Boykoff wonders if the process of choosing the host could be democratised by insisting that the candidate city hold a referendum on the issue. The last city to do so successfully was Vancouver in 2003, with a ‘Yes’ campaign that had more than a hundred times the budget of the ‘No’. Boykoff also argues that the IOC should refuse to allocate the games to autocracies and dictatorships, and ban teams from states that have broken international law. Maybe the answer is to keep the Olympics and abolish the IOC. Boykoff argues that the whole show – its intellectual property and bureaucracy – could be put into the hands of athletes and their unions. This might well be an improvement on the self-selecting membership of the IOC, but I’m not convinced that these organisations are good representatives of the sporting world or that they have adequate forms of democratic accountability themselves. In any case, the IOC is not going to reform itself out of existence.

Perhaps, like Coubertin, we should take our inspiration from antiquity. In 392 CE the Roman emperor Theodosius I, head of the Christian church, banned pagan festivals and practices. The ancient Olympic games, which fell under that rubric, did not immediately disappear. They limped on, smaller and more marginal each year, their divine pantheon dissolved, their statuary and relics looted, their rituals rendered suspect. The final gathering at Olympia in the mid-fifth century must have been a melancholy affair. A century later, riverine floods covered its temples and stadiums in silt. Perhaps, if we choose to treat Olympism with the moral scepticism it deserves, something like this will be the fate of its modern incarnation too. The games will limp on for a few decades, unloved and increasingly disregarded, until in the end almost no one can remember why they were ever held in the first place.

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