Op-Ed: Despite the gloom, don't bet against Tokyo 2020

26 Jul 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

The fate of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games has been hanging by a thread for more than a year. Despite being consistently bullish about them going ahead, last week IOC President Thomas Bach admitted just how close the call was. The continued uncertainty has led to a build-up that is subdued at best - controversial at worst.

The brands that sponsor these Games are trapped in a high-pressure situation of their own. Committed financially, but rightly nervous about how public opinion will judge these Games,  many are left in a hokey cokey situation - half-in half out.

You can understand the dilemma. These Games are facing an endless list of logistical and ethical challenges to overcome. 

One of the most obvious blows is the lack of crowds. Despite some great sponsor activations, it feels like we’ve moved past the playful novelty of fans watching remotely. Whilst not perfect, the Euros reminded us of the phenomenon of a full stadium. It creates a mental holiday from the nightmare we’ve been living in. Going back to staring at row after row of plastic seats roots us in the reality of our world. This is especially true for an event like the Olympics where that festival atmosphere is so unique.

If the sporting story is strong enough, empty seats become irrelevant - the British and Irish Lions have proved that this week. But the Olympic Games are not an event where we’ve followed athletes over four years, instead we usually fall in love with our heroes during the Games themselves. Without the crowds and atmosphere will those stories have that same sense of shared meaning?

We also need to consider the inevitable disruption to athletes and those sporting stories. British skeet shooter Amber Hill was the latest athlete to have their Olympics end early due to a dreaded positive test. How credible will medals be if the best athletes aren’t free to compete for them? 

Of course problems for sponsors aren’t just in the stadium. Far more of an issue is the hostility of the hosts. There’s a proportion of all host cities who are against the cost and disruption of the Games, but usually by the time they are upon us everyone is united and excited by what they’ll bring. This time is different. All year long polls have consistently shown anti-Olympic views running at around 80%. This scepticism has turned into hostility and it has trapped some sponsors into a nightmare situation. Toyota - for whom this should have been the sporting event of the century - have announced that they will not run ads in Japan and their CEO did not attend their opening ceremony. 

If this was an issue unique to Japan then - even for a Japanese brand like Toyota - the situation is salvageable. But sponsors need to be very careful they fall on the right side of history, and they can’t trust rights-holders to make that call for them. We have seen several recent examples where the judgement of governing bodies has been out of touch with that of society. In their desperation to recoup lost earnings and protect their sports many are making questionable moral decisions. Ironically the reason why The Olympic Games receives such eye-watering sponsorship revenue, is because it is seen to be above money. The Games have always claimed a moral superiority to other sporting events. But they are also a very fragile concept, and if the Games are seen as irresponsible and money-making the magic can crumble in an instant. 

With all that negativity it’s tempting to write-off these Games. But before you switch off your TV, don’t bet against them just yet. Games are not remembered by how they begin, they are remembered by how their sporting achievements make us feel. 

This is certainly not the first time a Games has started in controversy. In 1968 the Mexico Olympics were held at a time of huge political and social strife for the Mexican people - 300 of whom were shot dead at a protest 10 days before the opening ceremony. The 1980 Moscow Games were boycotted by the US and allies after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. And let’s not forget the toxic atmosphere in which the 1936 Berlin were staged in Nazi Germany. 

These Games still took place and made their mark in history. Without them we wouldn’t have seen Jesse Owens win four gold medals or Tommie Smith and John Carlos’s black power salute in 1968. These are some of the most iconic Olympic moments that transcend not just sport but history itself. The build-up to a Games doesn’t necessarily dictate its outcome.

We consistently forget how amazing Olympic Games are and how they make us feel. Both Rio and London had their critics in the build-up but both captivated the world when the Games were on. Earlier this year I argued that nothing signifies the incredible resilience and determination of humanity than the Olympic Games. I still believe that to be the case. It is a festival of hope that celebrates what is possible and what the human race can achieve. 

We need the Olympic Games, not when everything is well in the world, but in the darkest moments when we need hope and inspiration the most. The IOC realise this, and the role they play in inspiring us. The addition of Together to the Olympic motto of Faster, Higher, Stronger feels like a small change but is a huge statement in what these Games are all about. This is not a money-making exercise or a few thousands athletes seeking individual glory. This is a demonstration of what humans can withstand, what we can do and what we can achieve together. Brands that understand this can help lift an entire world and as such these games could be the most important ever in our history.

It’s not unusual for negativity to precede an Olympic Games. That doesn't mean the whole world won’t be lifted by them. Whether these Games are a success or not is partly down to how media and brands commit to them. For me I certainly wouldn’t bet against them. I think they might just be exactly what the world needs right now.