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Sport and Politics - The Olympic Games. Part 8

By Pete Usher.

The Royal Barge Gloriana moored at the London Olympic Park in 2012.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

And so we come to finalé of this series. It’s been an enthralling ride, and previous articles in the series can be found here: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7.



2012: London

204+2* nations; 10,518 athletes; 26 sports; 302 events.

Failed bids: Havana, Istanbul, Leipzig, Madrid, Moscow, New York City, Paris, Rio de Janeiro.


*Independent Olympic Athletes (IOA) from the former Netherland Antilles (which had been dissolved in 2010) and from the new state of South Sudan, which hadn’t had time to form an Olympic Committee.


The winning bid for the 2012 Olympics was somewhat of a surprise. In a race that was very Europe-centric (four of the five finalists were European cities), Paris had emerged as the favourite after the initial IOC reports and shortlisting, with London’s transport infrastructure in particular being called out as needing to be upgraded. The day after the shortlist was announced, the head of London’s bid, Barbara Cassani, stepped back and was replaced by Lord Sebastian Coe. In hindsight, this was a masterstroke, as Coe’s reputation as a successful Olympian (four medals across two Games in the 1980s) and experience as a politician (he was Conservative MP for Falmouth & Cambourne from 1992 to 1997, before being made a peer in May 2000) made him an ideal person to lead the lobbying efforts.


The London bid was significantly improved in the 14 months between the shortlisting and the final decision. As well as improvements in public transport, there was a large focus on ‘legacy’ in Coe’s final presentation, which is widely thought to have had a meaningful impact. Because of the closeness of the race, and the French capital’s favourite status, the London team also targeted voters who would be voting for Madrid, in order to win their votes if the Spanish capital was eliminated. The voting was close, but in the end London won by just 4 votes over Paris, after Madrid was eliminated in third place. The surprise and joy in London was matched by the shock and disappointment in France.


The London bid had also been enthusiastically supported by Tony Blair’s Labour government. Blair had been in Singapore, where the vote was held, for two days beforehand, adding his political support to the British charm offensive, before flying back to prepare to host the G8 summit at Auchterarder, which started the day after the Olympic decision. The jubilation of London was short-lived, as just two days later, the July 7th terrorist attacks took place across London’s transport network. There was no link between the Olympics and the attacks, and the IOC were quick to stand by their choice of London for the Games.


Although the Games (as with all modern events) did not have any boycotts, there were plenty of controversies, which started before the Games had even begun. There may be an element of author awareness bias (as a UK resident who likes sport) but the Olympics protection of their branding in the run up to the Games was seen as very aggressive. Local businesses as far afield as Melton Mowbray and Plymouth ran afoul of the Olympic branding protection laws around the time the torch relay passed through. The sadly-missed Little Chef chain had to get a specific exemption to retain the “Olympic Breakfast” on their menus.


Likewise, the status of Taiwan caused trouble, although not directly. Independent of the Games, the West End of London was decked out in the flags of all the competing nations. The flag used for Taiwan was the one for the Republic of China (ROC), as it is known internationally. However, for Olympics, Taiwan competes under the name Chinese Taipei, in order to satisfy the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Although there was no official link to the Games, it did not prevent complaints going in. The PRC complained to the UK Foreign Office, and the ROC flag was removed and replaced with the Chinese Taipei flag. The ROC then complained about the removal of the flag, leaving no-one particularly happy.


British politics was to the fore from the start of the Games, with the Opening Ceremony, directed by Oscar winning director Danny Boyle. Based around British music, humour, and innovation, the music included snippets of politically charged songs by The Sex Pistols and The Clash (God Save the Queen and London Calling), the famously banned Relax by Frankie Goes To Hollywood, as well as a segment that celebrated the National Health Service. It was generally regarded as something of a triumph.

James Bond, an attack dog, and the latest Bond girl (whose backstory included being a WW2 veteran) also appeared in Danny Boyle's vision of 2012 Britain.

Picture courtesy Digital Spy.

Once the Games started, there were a number of issues, from the political to the more mundane sporting controversies. More flag confusion led to the women’s football match between North Korea and Columbia being delayed for an hour, when the South Korean flag was used in error. By 2017, 29 medals had been stripped for doping, including 13 Russians.


In fencing, South Korean Shin A-lam refused to leave the piste for an hour after an apparent timekeeping error allowed her German opponent to snatch victory in the épée semi-final.

Defeated by a timekeeping error. South Korean fencer Shin A-lam.

Picture courtesy AP.

In the men’s bantamweight boxing, the AIBA had to overturn the result after Japanese fighter Satoshi Shimizu knocked down Azeri opponent Magomed Abdulhamidov no less than six times, but was not awarded the win as the referee never scored a count for any of them.


But the oddest controversy came about in the badminton women’s doubles competition. The competition format was straightforward: four groups of four played in a round-robin stage, and the top two from each group went into the knock-out stage, in a pre-determined draw. The draw was fairly standard, in that the two qualifiers from a group could not meet again until the final, and every group winner played a runner-up in the quarter finals. By the time of the final evening session, Group D had been decided, with the Danes first, and the Chinese pair of Tian and Zhao coming second. Tian and Zhao were the second seeds going into the tournament, and were now in the half of the draw where the winners of Group A would be placed.


The last match of Group A was between two teams that had already qualified, the South Korean pair of Jung and Kim facing the other Chinese pair (and top seeds) Wang and Yu in the final match. The Chinese lost in just 23 minutes, and no rally lasted more than four shots. Many serves went straight into the net, or well outside of the court. The match referee went onto the court to warn the players at one point. With that result, the two Chinese couples could not meet until the final, and the Koreans had a more challenging draw.


The action then shifted to the final match of Group C, where the Korean third seeds Ha and Kim were playing the Indonesian team of Jauhari and Polii. Again, both pairs had qualified, but the winner would face Tian and Zhao in the quarterfinals. If Ha and Kim lost, they would face their compatriots in the quarter finals. The atmosphere was similar, and although the Koreans won in three games, the referee had again been on court, pulling out a black card to disqualify the Koreans, although this was withdrawn after the Indonesians protested.


While the Koreans claimed their actions were because the Chinese had started trying to manipulate the draw “Because they don’t want to play the semi-final against each other, so we did the same,” Sung Han-kook, the Korean head coach said. “We didn’t want to play the South Korean team again.” The Badminton World Federation immediately launched an investigation, and the next day all eight players were disqualified for “not using best efforts” and “conducting oneself in a manner that is clearly abusive or detrimental to the sport”. Tian and Zhao would go on to win the tournament without dropping a game.

Tower Bridge illuminated at night.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

2016. Rio De Janeiro.

205+2 nations; 11,180 athletes; 28 sports; 306 events.

Failed bids: Baku, Chicago, Doha, Madrid, Prague, Tokyo.


The bidding process for the 2016 Games was considered to be rigorous and thorough, and when Rio became the first South American country to be awarded the Games at the 2009 IOC Congress in Copenhagen, it appeared to represent the further stabilisation of the Olympic movement in moving into new parts of the globe. A very solid technical bid from Doha had been rejected as it would have moved the Games from the traditional summer schedule, thus avoiding the controversy that would dog the 2022 FIFA World Cup, held in Qatar.

Welcome to Rio.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The other candidate cities had been embroiled in controversy over the Rio bid. The Rio team accused the Madrid team of sending a spy, something the Spanish group strenuously denied. Negative remarks were made by Richard Daley, the Mayor of Chicago, and José Maria Odriozola, Vice President of the Spanish Olympic Committee, leading to tension – bidding cities are not allowed to criticise their rivals. After the bid process concluded, some in Japan blamed political deals for Tokyo’s failure to win, although they would host the next Games.


In September 2017, Brazilian police raided the home of Carlos Arthur Nuzman, the head of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, as part of a probe into an alleged vote buying scheme to secure Rio’s hosting. Nuzman’s house was one of 11 sites raided in conjunction with French officials. The investigation had begun after Le Monde had published an article finding IOC members had been bribed three days before the 2009 session. In total, it was alleged that around $2-2.5 million had been paid to Lamine Diack, former head of the International Association of Athletics Federations, and his sone Papa Massata Diack, to secure a number of votes for Rio.


Initially, Nuzman was imprisoned, but that was quickly changed to house arrest and probation, which required him to surrender his passport. In November 2021, Nuzman was sentenced to nearly 31 years in jail for a range of crimes. Although charges were raised against a number of other individuals, including Lamine and Papa Diack, those not living in Brazil had their cases dismissed. Nuzman appealed, and in March 2024, his conviction was overturned, as the original judge did not have the jurisdiction to rule on the original case.

Controversy surrounded Carlos Arthur Nuzman, the head of the Brazilian Olympic Committee.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Lamine and Papa Diack were subsequently convicted (in 2020) of taking bribes to cover up Russian doping efforts, including at the London Games. Lamine, aged 87, was sentenced to four years in prison, half suspended, while Papa was given a five-year term. Both received substantial fines, and had already been banned for life from athletics. Lamine died a year later.


The run-up to the Rio Olympics was dogged by a number of issues, any one of which could have derailed the Games.


Operation Car Wash started out in March 2014 as an investigation into money laundering at a car wash in Brasilia. The Brazilian police were focussing on doleiros – black market money dealers who used small businesses to launder the proceeds of crime. But in this case, the investigators realised they were uncovering something much bigger. As the investigation progressed, it transpired that the black marketeers were working for Paulo Roberto Costa, an executive at Petrobras, the Brazilian state petroleum multinational.


The importance of Petrobras to Brazil is hard to understate. Founded in 1953 under the government of Getúlio Vargas, Petrobras had a monopoly on oil production in Brazil, which lasted until 1999. During that time, Petrobras grew to become one of the biggest conglomerates in the world, ranking in the top 100 public companies in the entire globe with a revenue of over $100 billion per annum by 2010. Exploitation of new oilfields off the coast of Rio had made Petrobras leaders in deep water drilling, and it was estimated that up to one eighth of all investment in Brazil came from the oil giant.


As a state owned enterprise, there was also a large political element to Petrobras. During the first presidency of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (commonly known as Lula), executive positions in Petrobras were offered to political allies. The company was so important from a commercial and strategic perspective that the US National Security Agency wanted to consider it a target for surveillance. And as a state owned success, it was intimately linked into Brazilian life.


The threads that Operation Car Wash pulled out unravelled things in a way that could not have been anticipated.


The doleiros working for Costa were the tip of an iceberg of corruption. It emerged that various Petrobras executives had been over-paying on various contracts across multiple elements of the business. In return for these lucrative contracts, the contractors channelled a share back into slush funds, to the tune of billions of dollars. These slush funds were then used to funnel money back to the politicians who had a hand in appointing the executives, with the aim of keeping the governing coalition in power. Everyone involved was benefitting, from cash to gifts.


And those at the top had inadvertently sown the seeds of their own downfall. Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff, had fast-tracked laws in 2013 allowing plea bargaining, in response to nationwide anti-corruption demonstrations. This meant that the Operation Car Wash investigators were able to use plea bargains to make deals with suspects, reducing their sentences as they gained information on ever more powerful people involved in the conspiracy and fraud.


As the scale of the corruption became public knowledge, millions of Brazilians protested across the country, as it coincided with a severe economic crisis, with a deep recession in 2015 and 2016. Although President Roussseff strenuously denied any involvement, impeachment proceedings were started in December 2015, and concluded at the end of August 2016, just days after the Games had closed. Rousseff was removed from office, and replaced by her vice-president, Michel Temer.


By the end of the investigations, 429 people had been investigated, of which 159 were convicted. $2.5 billion of misappropriated funds had been identified, of which just under a billion had been recovered, and fines of over $700 million had been paid. Although former President Lula was initially found guilty and sentenced to nine and a half years in jail, later increased to twelve, his conviction was later overturned, and he was re-elected as President in 2022.


Next, paralleling the Global issue that would delay the following Games, was an outbreak of Zika virus, spread by mosquitos. Originally isolated in Uganda, the virus had spread to Brazil by 2013 or 2014. As well as causing symptoms such as fever and rash, there is a link between Zika infections in pregnant women and birth defects. Because Zika fever tends to be mild, accurate estimates of infection are difficult to obtain, but the best estimate is that 1.5 million people were infected. Over 3500 cases of infant microcephaly were reported in Brazil between October 2015 and January 2016.


Once the outbreak was known, there were calls to postpone the Games, with concerns being raised that the anticipated attendance of athletes, media, and fans from all over the world could further spread the virus, allowing it to become a wider global problem. The counter position was that, as the Games were being held in the southern hemisphere winter, the risk of mosquito-borne infection was much lower than at the peak of the outbreak. Both the CDCC and WHO came out supporting the position that there was no risk.


Nonetheless, several athletes decided not to participate in the Games, the majority of whom were golfers or tennis players. After the conclusion of the Games, the WHO confirmed that there were no cases of Zika virus amongst athletes or spectators at the Rio Games.


As with most Games, concerns were expressed about the readiness of venues and accommodation. Although every venue was ready on time, there were complaints about the standard of the Olympic village, with a number of the complaints being about the conditions, mostly driven by sanitations and electrical hazards still present a fortnight before the opening ceremony. A huge team was put in place to rectify the issues, but the Australian team boycotted the site after officials deemed their accommodation “unliveable”.


Politics reared its head again in the participant’s list. Kuwait’s organising committee was banned from officially entering due to government interference. Kuwait had been previously banned in 2010, but reinstated ahead of the London Games. For Rio, Kuwaiti athletes were allowed to participate under the Olympic flag.

Rio, 2016.

Picture courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

The continued investigations into Russian state-sponsored doping also had an impact. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) concluded in July 2016 that the Russian Ministry of Sport and Federal Security Bureau (FSB) had been hiding evidence of doping from 2011 to 2015, and recommended that Russia should be banned from competing at the 2016 Games. The IOC rejected the recommendation, stating that the IOC and the various sports international federations would make decisions on an individual basis. The day before the Olympics opened, 278 athletes were cleared to compete under the Russian flag, while 111 were removed because of doping concerns. Russia came fourth in the medal table, and had one of five medallists to be stripped of their medal after the Games.



2020 (2021). Tokyo

206 nations; 11,319 athletes; 33 sports; 339 events.

Failed bids: Baku; Doha; Istanbul; Madrid; Rome (cancelled).


Tokyo became the fifth city to host multiple Summer Olympic Games when it was awarded the 2020 Games at the IOC Congress in 2013, securing a comfortable victory in a three-horse race. As with Rio, the bidding process was robust.


It was only in 2016, after the WADA investigation into corruption which had brought down Lamine Diack and his family, that it emerged that there were allegations (from the Istanbul bid team) that the Japanese bid team also paid consulting fees to a company known as Black Tidings (which went out of business in 2014), which was linked to Papa Massata Diack, who would also be convicted of corruption charges. The release of the files from the US Treasury’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) in 2020 appeared to confirm payments to Papa Massata, as well as the payments to Black Tidings.


Of course, the biggest impact on the Tokyo Games was the Covid-19 pandemic. As early as the start of February 2020, the Organising Cimmittee was denying stories that the spreading virus could lead to the cancellation of the Games. At that point there were only 17 reported cases in Japan, but the early stages of the pandemic were already impacting on the Games, as qualification tournaments for women’s football, women’s basketball, and boxing had been moved from China to Australia, Serbia, and Jordan respectively. In mid-February, Shaun Bailey, the Conservative candidate for the Mayor of London in 2021, suggested that London could host the Games if a cancellation was required, utilising the infrastructure from 2012. The suggestion was rejected by the Japanese.


As the pandemic worsened and spread, more and more qualification tournaments were postponed as international sport began to be widely cancelled. The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) raised concerns that tests could not be carried out, and there was a risk around mobilising enough staff due to health concerns. By the end of March, anti-doping measures had been scaled back across the globe. On 24th March, the Games were postponed until 2021.


As the pandemic continued, there were calls for the Games to be completely cancelled due to the risks, and support for the Games in Japan fell. Medical professionals and some prefecture governors called for cancellation, and public support dropped to new lows in May 2021 when a poll indicated that 83% of the Japanese public wanted the Games postponed again or cancelled, against a backdrop of slow vaccine rollout and spiking cases. A petition calling for cancellation collected over 350,000 signatures. There were also commercial pressures from Games sponsors, some of whom were pressing for a delay to later in the year when the weather would be cooler, vaccination levels would be higher, and public perception could have shifted in a more positive direction.


At the start of July 2021, it was announced that all events in Tokyo would be held behind closed doors, and that refunds would be issued for purchased tickets (but not for hotel booking). The Games went ahead, and by the end of the Games, 64% of those who responded to the poll said it was good the Games had gone ahead, with the overwhelming majority supporting the lack of spectators. Covid cases in Japan increased during and after the Games, although only 46 athletes tested positive from both the Olympics and subsequent Paralympics. Additionally, North Korea did not participate over Covid concerns.

Covid. Tokyo 2020 was held in 2021, behind closed doors. What gets lost when the athletes perform with no spectators in the stadium?

Picture courtesy PBS.

Finally, doping had eventually caught up with Russia. WADA had banned Russia from all international sporting events in December 2019, after government interference in lab data from the Russian Anti-Doping Agency was confirmed. WADA would allow individually cleared Russian athletes to enter under a neutral banner, but this was later amended to competing as the “Russian Olympic Committee”, under the acronym ROC, not using the Russian flag or anthem. A depleted Russian team finished fifth in the medals table, behind the USA, China, Japan, and Great Britain.




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