Prof Daniel Jackson
Dr Alina Bernstein
Tel Aviv University
Prof Michael Butterworth
University of Texas at Austin
Dr Younghan Cho
Hankuk University of Foreign Studies
Prof Danielle Sarver Coombs
Kent State University
Dr Michael Devlin
Texas State University
Prof Chuka Onwumechili
Viewers of the Closing Ceremony for the 2016 Rio Olympics may recall the energetic and technologically sophisticated preview of the 2020 Games in Tokyo. Featuring a video tour of the host city, an homage to the legendary video game character Super Mario, and a surprise appearance by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the production “hinted at the innovation, originality and creativity that we [could] expect from Tokyo 2020.”
Such optimistic commentary is a standard part of Olympics discourse. As a sport mega-event and commercial spectacle, the Games are as much a ritual exercise in geopolitical idealism as they are about athletic competition. Yet, the chasm between the festive closing of the Games in Rio and the subdued opening of those in Tokyo feels unusually large. 2016 is only five years ago, but that span of time fails to account for the distance between now and then in socio-political terms. Consider that, at the closing of the 2016 Olympics on August 21:
- Neither Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil, 2019), nor Boris Johnson (UK, 2019), nor Donald Trump (United States, 2017) were the leaders of their respective nations
- “Athlete activism” was still largely understood as an artifact of the 1960s and 1970s (Colin Kaepernick first “took a knee” less than a week after the Games concluded)
- The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had not revisited or revised its controversial “Rule 50,” which prohibits political or religious expressions within the Games
- No one anticipated a global health crisis, let alone the COVID-19 global pandemic, a development that delayed the Games by a year
In light of such events (and many others) over the past five years, it might seem miraculous that the Tokyo Olympics took place at all. Depicting the 2020 Games as a triumph over adversity, IOC President Thomas Bach declared, “This is the unifying power of sport. This is the message of solidarity, the message of peace and the message of resilience. This gives all of us hope for our further journey together.”
Bach’s celebratory message is muted by the well-reported opposition of the Japanese public, with more than 80% of citizens having been against holding the Games. Meanwhile, the original $7.5 billion USD budget proposed in 2013 ballooned to $15.4 billion USD by 2021, with government audits speculating costs could be as high as $25 billion. Regardless of final cost, Tokyo represents the most expensive Olympic Games on record.
Ultimately, the athletes provide the lasting images and memories of any Olympiad. During the Tokyo Games, that included not only an array of record-breaking athletic feats but also the moments of humanity and courage displayed beyond the competition: Simone Biles’ insistence that her mental health be a priority; a shared gold medal triumph between Mutaz Essa Barshim and Gianmarco Tamberi in the men’s high jump; the nod to Black Lives Matter in the floor routine by Costa Rican gymnast Luciana Alvarado. Such moments express the beauty of the Olympic ideal, but also point out its limitations.
Between the logistics of hosting the Games during a pandemic, the beauty, power, and joy of the athletes’ performances, and the mediated production and consumption of the Olympics, Tokyo 2020 has given us much to contemplate. In this report, we turn to scholars from around the world to reflect on and evaluate this Olympiad. Our focus on global sport is primarily in symbolic terms—that is, we are guided by the construction, interpretation, and contestation of messages and their meaning. We think of these messages and meanings expansively, taking an interest in communication at individual, organizational, mediated, and political levels. Our academic experts reflect this point of view, with scholars of communication and media as well as those with interests in history, political science, psychology, sociology, and more.
In keeping with the Olympic theme, we have adapted the five Olympic rings to the five sections of our report. Section 1 examines the Games by focusing on the Olympics as a “mega-event,” including discussions of the scope of Olympic spectacle in general and the logistical concerns of staging the Tokyo Games in particular. Section 2 turns to media coverage and representation. The Summer Olympics remain the largest televised spectacle in the world, and these contributions evaluate the global production of the Games as well as the choices made about who to feature and how to represent those athletes. Section 3 focuses on performance and identity. This relationship of terms affords the opportunity to think both in terms of athletic performance and in terms of the choices athletes make about identity during the Olympics. Section 4 considers various forms of fandom and national identity. The Olympic Games remain a showcase of patriotism and, at times, problematic expressions of nationalism. Here, we examine the presentation of “nation” both within and between the countries competing in the Games. Section 5 concludes with an assessment of the politics of sport. Despite the IOC’s insistence that it is apolitical, few observers deny the conflation of politics and the Olympics. This final section thus attends to the political issues from the outside that might affect the Games as well as the moments of activism and political expression found within the Olympics themselves.
We hope you will engage with each of the contributions in this report. They are accessible, relatively short, and, most importantly, insightful. We are grateful for our authors’ time and expertise, and we thank our readers for engaging with this project.