Time to split up the Olympic Summer Games?

Photo: Nigel Goodman/Flickr

Photo: Nigel Goodman/Flickr


Comment by Christer Ahl
Annual Olympics could be a way to salvage the Games, says Christer Ahl in his returning column and suggests to split up the Summer Games in three separate events, while hoping to create a debate which goes beyond considering cosmetic changes to the status quo.

For a long time now, the suitability of the Olympic Games in their current format has been questioned. There are many fundamental reasons, such as the flagrant commercialization and politicization, and also the increasing difficulty in finding host cities which are viable from an economic, political and sustainability standpoint. Many observers even argue that the Games have outlived or outgrown themselves, and that they are no longer able to play a strong role in promoting the values of sports and encouraging widespread participation in sports. 

Personally, I am more inclined to find ways of salvaging the Games by ‘thinking outside the box’ in terms of their specific format and organization. Therefore, I might be mildly encouraged by the IOC’s efforts under President Bach to review some of the fundamental aspects under the project ’Olympic Agenda 2020’, which has been recently explained in articles on Play the Game’s home page. Fourteen working groups are supposed to develop recommendations related to ‘key themes’ and some ‘clusters of ideas’.

Clearly, the IOC realizes that the sheer size of especially the Summer Games places demands on the host cities in terms of facilities (which risk becoming ‘white elephants’), infrastructure and one-time investments and organizational efforts, which are just too much for all but a few potential cities. 

Moreover, some of these bidders may not always be perceived as the most palatable or reliable ones.  At the same time, there is tension between the ability of some major sports to attract spectators and media interest and the legitimate claims for exposure on the part of struggling traditional sports and brand new ones. 

How about annual Olympic Games?
Having been immersed as a handball official in five Summer Games (and having been a spectator at two more), I have a clear sense for what the IOC means when they emphasize the ‘uniqueness’ of the Olympic Games and that this is something one would not want to lose. There is something special about this huge event and the fact that athletes and spectators for so many sports come together in one place at one time. But does it really have to be quite so massive to maintain its spirit and is it absolutely vital that 28 (or more) sports are seen as being part of one and the same event?

The Winter Games and the Summer Games can obviously not be combined, and the IOC already moved away from the notion of only one Olympic year in each quadrennial, by placing the Winter and the Summer Games on different cycles.  And the IOC also talks about ‘keeping Olympism alive 365 days a year, seemingly wanting to reduce the intensive focus on one two-week period. Moreover, we hear about plans to rotate athletes in and out of the host city, instead of keeping all of them there for the whole period, as a way of reducing the size of the Olympic Village. So they will not all meet anyway.

Does this not logically lead to the notion that there might be many positive reasons, and not so many strong negative arguments, for suggesting that the Summer Games should be divided up in three separate events, so that, together with the Winter Games, there would be one event every year!  In one fell swoop, the demands on an organizer are drastically reduced, with fewer facilities needed and less enormous requirements for infrastructure and investments with a short life span. Clearly it seems a much more viable approach than having the Games split up on several different locations at one time.

Many advantages
The reduced burden on an organizer would have a chain reaction of effects. Not just the IOC but sports fans around the world would find it terrific if many more countries and cities, especially in locations which could not even think about it under the current format, would now see it as realistic and desirable to bid for the Summer Games. This would also serve to take the sting out of the bidding process, as the opportunities would increase, the stakes would be somewhat smaller and the drama could be reduced.

With the current sports divided into three groups, one could also afford to relieve the pressure in two ways, without undermining the inherent advantages of the split and the emphasis on smaller games.  One could easily afford to add at least half a dozen sports and also be more ready to experiment by giving new, youth-driven sports a chance. And there would be no need for a fervor in eliminating disciplines in certain sports, including some which are well-established when these sports hold their respective World Championships. Also, somewhat smaller events would presumably make it easier to meet the IOC objective of keeping the individual athletes ‘at the heart of the Olympic Movement.’

It would be feasible to group together sports with specific requirements, such as sailing, rowing and canoe/kayaking.  And one would of course spread the big three sports, athletics, swimming and gymnastics onto different Games. Similarly, one could have major indoor team sports, such as basketball, handball and volleyball, in different years. But those details would be easy to work out. The main thing is that mid-size and smaller sports would not be ‘dwarfed’ by the major ones and could each get the TV and spectator attention which they all crave. At the same time, there would still be enough variety for both the TV viewers and the on-site spectators. It would still have an Olympic feeling and would be different from the individual World Championships.

As it seems that the IOC’s existence is mainly that of an organizing machinery for the Olympic Games, it should clearly be equipped to make the transition. In fact, in many ways the split into annual Games should ease the burden. There would be more organizing cities, but the workload for each one would be much reduced. And cynically, there would be additional opportunities for IOC members and others to appear in the limelight. From a financial standpoint, there may be some trade-offs between the impact of one massive event and the more ongoing Olympic presence, in the minds of sponsors, advertisers and their targets among the general public.

As we all know from unfortunate experience, the larger and more prominent an event is, the more obvious a target for abuse in different forms it becomes. Political boycotts and terrorism are part of the Olympic history. It is conceivable that annual Games would gradually become more of a ‘routine’ occurrence and less of a target for those with bad intentions. It may also, because of the reduced demands in terms of public investment, become a less likely cause of opposition and social unrest in the host countries. All in all, it would become more manageable.  

We need a debate
My ideas may well have caused some traditionalists to get ready to poke holes in my arguments. And I want to underscore that I do not believe I have suddenly come up with ‘the’ solution to a dilemma. But through my suggestions, I am hoping to create a debate which goes beyond considering minor or cosmetic changes to the status quo. I am not so optimistic about the IOC’s readiness for major change, but I would be happy to be proven wrong, as I am sure there are many good ideas worth considering.

  • George Leacock, Trinidad & Tobago, 20.11.2015 12:46:
    More than useful discussion.

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