As the 2022 Beijing Olympics near completion, Brock University Assistant Professor of Sport Management Taylor McKee says it can be tough to gauge which stories from the Games will live on in public consciousness.
As an expert in Olympic history, McKee says stories that gain traction in the global media can at times crowd out some of the critical events taking place in and around the countries where the Games are hosted.
“The 1968 Summer Olympic Games in Mexico City were defined by the convergence of politics and sport, including Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ raised fists on the Olympic podium, Věra Čáslavská’s anthem protest of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Czechoslovakia, and South Africa’s exclusion under threat of athlete boycott,” he says. “However, for those attending the Games themselves, a massacre that had occurred 10 days prior cast a dark shadow over the proceedings. Mexican government soldiers opened fire on unarmed, and mostly student, Olympic protesters in the Tlatelolco neighborhood of Mexico City, killing hundreds.”
While the athletes’ protests are remembered, the violent action is often overlooked, which Mckee says is indicative of the way the wants and needs of those living in host cities and countries can be ignored.
“The Games are received and observed differently by those in their host cities, many of whom may have been opposed to their imposition on their homes,” he says. “The Olympics can overwhelm their hosts: a marauding, cumbersome, all-consuming experience, forever altering the fabric of the community in which they arrive.”
However, in centrally run states, the issues faced by citizens are often unheard, and instead the spectacle of the sporting events is used for short-term gains to legitimize governments, McKee says.
“There were Summer and Winter Games in Germany in 1936, and we went to both of them while concentration camps were already under construction,” he says. “Even as recently as 2014, the Russians hosted the Games in Sochi and then invaded Crimea weeks later.”
McKee says in the instances where the Games have served to legitimize abusive regimes, the public memory shifts again.
“We try to focus on the positive,” he says. “Jessie Owens’ achievements in Berlin are remembered as flying in the face of Hitler, and they were remarkable and deserve to be remembered. But how much more could have been accomplished if we didn’t go at all?”
Although questions of human rights abuses also hang over Chinese hosts and diplomatic boycotts from countries in attendance this year initially flooded media coverage, McKee says a greater theme may wipe that from the public’s memory and the history books.
“I thought Beijing 2022 would be remembered as another COVID Games,” he says. “But China has turned the Games into a spectacle that ignores potential boycotts related to the genocide of Uyghur people in Xinjiang.”
In spite of this, McKee believes another story will live on as the most prominent, after a 15-year-old Russian figure skater tested positive for a banned performance-enhancing substance.
With Russia already under a range of sanctions due to previous doping infractions, McKee says the development has overshadowed almost everything else going on, due to the implications it may entail for the Olympic movement going forward.
“This ended up being another doping Games,” he says. “We want to celebrate athletes, but we risk sublimating the things that are valuable to us the other 50 weeks of the year. You are seeing the two-week surfacing of a doping program that has lasting effects on Russian athletes. We have to start imagining Olympics without Russia.”
For these reasons, McKee says the legacy of the Games will ignore both COVID-19 and human rights questions as the Olympic movement contemplates how to remain inclusive while also establishing firm limits.
“This has to be part of this Olympic story,” he says. “It has been a sterile event in terms of COVID, but the boycott question is dead, and it’s instead whether we will remember these Games as the moment when we kicked out a nation.”