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Coronavirus postponed the 2020 Tokyo Games. But the Olympic system is still sick.

It's not surprising that the International Olympic Committee had the hubris to think that it could plough through a global pandemic given the rot at its core.
Members of the International Olympic Committee executive board meet at the IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 3.Fabrice Coffrini / AFP - Getty Images file

The International Olympic Committee finally succumbed to the obvious on Tuesday: The Tokyo 2020 Olympics cannot proceed on schedule. A joint statement from the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee announced that the games will be postponed.

To the bafflement of those with two feet firmly planted in reality, the IOC had long maintained a stiff-lipped insistence that, despite the acceleration of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2020 Olympic Games would start as planned in late July.

If the coronavirus imbroglio has taught us anything, it’s that the IOC requires meaningful oversight.

Finally on Sunday, the IOC announced that it would emerge from its rarefied fantasyland and ramp up its “scenario-planning.” This meant that the organization would finally be reconsidering its unequivocal stance that “cancellation is not on the agenda,” something Tokyo 2020 organizers had reiterated only Monday. Even in Japan, a poll published last week found that only 20 percent believed the Olympics should continue on schedule.

For those who follow the political machinations of the Olympic Games, it came as no surprise that the IOC had the hubris to think that it could plough through a global pandemic and that its financial considerations sat in the same strata as public health. The well being of the world be damned — the games must go on.

If the coronavirus imbroglio has taught us anything, it’s that the IOC requires meaningful oversight. The ornamental relationships it has with groups such as the United Nations and World Health Organization need to be revitalized so the IOC no longer holds all the power, while independent athletes need to have a stronger voice within the organization. Either that, or the postponement the group just announced should extend in perpetuity.

The IOC, long made up of a privileged sliver of the global 1 percent, is run like a cabal and is mired in the muck of corruption. Wall-to-wall media coverage contemplating the fate of this summer’s Olympics has deflected attention from the jaw-dropping bribery allegations that greased a path for Tokyo landing the games in the first place, not to mention the rot at heart of the committee itself.

When the French aristocrat Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the nongovernmental association to organize the Olympic Games in the 1890s, he brought together members who, like him, held the whiff of aristocracy. Today, the group of 100 individuals maintains its aristocratic flavor: Ten IOC members are royalty of one sort or another, with two princesses, four princes, two sheikhs, a duke and, yes, a baron.

For most of its history, the IOC was also literally an all-boys club — women were not brought on as IOC members until 1981. While the IOC has moved toward gender equality for athletic competition, only around a third of IOC members are women. To become a member one must be selected by current members, a process that perpetuates the elite parade.

The privately funded IOC currently derives more than 90 percent of its revenue from other bastions of corporate power, through sponsorships and broadcasting rights (NBC News’ parent company, NBCUniversal, owns the broadcast rights in the U.S. for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games). The host city chosen by the IOC then bears much of the cost of holding that year’s Olympics, with the rules about sports, events and the like decided by the IOC.

With all the money sloshing through the Olympic system and close to no meaningful oversight, it should come as no shock that the games have long been plagued by corruption. Japan is no stranger to such machinations. The 1998 Nagano bid team showered IOC members with gifts, spending an average of $22,000 per IOC member, as detailed in the scholarly article “The Olympic Bribery Scandal.” The research noted that the IOC had placed a $200 limit on gift-giving to its members, but Nagano bidders flouted the rule and nothing happened. Suspiciously, the Nagano bid committee burned all its records after the games, with one Japanese official saying the incinerated documents might “cause unpleasantness” to IOC members.

Similarly, in the race for the 2000 Summer Games, the Sydney bid team became embroiled in a bribery scandal. Sydney Lord Mayor Frank Sartor admitted his bid team had “prostituted ourselves to try to get one more vote for Sydney.”

Within the cabal, people look out for one another, so those with a front-row seat to the shenanigans faced no pushback. John Coates, a leader in the Sydney bid team, admitted offering $70,000 to two IOC members from Uganda and Kenya the day before Sydney defeated Beijing in a 45-43 vote. Today Coates is an IOC member and the chairman of the Tokyo 2020 Coordination Commission. The Sydney shadiness was a precursor for the unbridled bribery in Salt Lake City during its successful effort to land the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Unsurprisingly, the Tokyo 2020 Olympics are also tainted by bribery allegations. This time they involve former Japanese Olympic Committee President Tsunekazu Takeda, son of Prince Tsuneyoshi Takeda, himself a former IOC member. In January 2019, Takeda was indicted on corruption charges related to $2 million in extremely suspicious payments that French authorities allege were bribes. Takeda resigned his post and has insisted he is innocent. His case is ongoing.

Insularity and corruption are not so much Tokyo problems as Olympic problems, of course, and each city that plays ball with the IOC in its bid to host the games also agrees to import an admixture of these ingrained tribulations. The IOC’s recent flirtations with holding the Tokyo Olympics amid the coronavirus pandemic — it’s as if the lords of the rings were hellbent on creating a “Lord of the Flies” scenario — have served to distract from the fact that the entire Olympic escapade is run by a cabal engaged in gobsmacking corruption.

The coronavirus crisis has shown the world that when it comes to putting on the Olympics, the IOC is not just part of the problem — it is the problem.

No matter when the Tokyo Games take place, if they ever do, such corruption demands a public reckoning. The recent upsurge in dissent from athletes and sports administrators who demanded that the Tokyo Olympics should be postponed should be a clarion call for changing the way the IOC does business.

If the IOC is not willing to create an ethics committee with real teeth, or to subordinate its power to bodies like the U.N. and WHO — or, better yet, the athletes who have shown us that their moral compass is set not only by their own health but global health — then it should probably be abolished and the international community should work to find a different way to organize the competition. The coronavirus crisis has shown the world that when it comes to putting on the Olympics, the IOC is not just part of the problem — it is the problem.