[00:00:00] Jordan Heath-Rawlings: A year ago, the world was a very scary place. A pandemic was ravaging most of the globe’s countries, public gatherings were prohibited basically anywhere, any kind of indoor exercise was banned the National Hockey League and National Basketball Association and Major League Baseball seasons were all on pause. So, yes, the 2020 Olympics were also canceled.
News Clip: The summer of 2021, that’s when the 2020 Summer Olympics will now be held in Tokyo after Japanese officials in the International Olympic committee announced today the games would be postponed.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Or I guess, I should say they were postponed until the summer of 2021, when it was believed that vaccines would have the pandemic under control and the games could be held in Japan safely.
So that was a year ago. And how are things looking now with the games less than two months away?
News Clip: There is a possibility that the South African and Indian variants could [00:01:00] be spread around the world through the Olympics. We also can’t deny the possibility of a new variant being generated. If that happened, it would be called the Tokyo Olympics variant and this would be condemned for the next hundred years as a foolish act of mankind.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Not great, it turns out. That was a representative from a Japanese medical association warning and begging the government not to hold the games. Very few people in Japan are vaccinated. Very few people in most of the countries sending athletes to the games are vaccinated. We sometimes forget how far ahead of the rest of the world we are here in North America. Japan is currently under a state of emergency that won’t expire until one month before the games begin at the earliest.
So will the games actually begin on July 23rd? Should they? The Olympics have often been a symbol of human [00:02:00] resilience and achievement, our ability to overcome, to go, you know, faster, higher, stronger, and Lord knows we could all use a bit of that right now. The 2020, now 2021 Olympics could be exactly what the world needs to mark the beginning of the end of this pandemic.
Or they could be exactly what the virus needs to keep it going. And we won’t find out which one until it happens. If it happens.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings, this is The Big Story. Stephen Brunt is one of Canada’s most acclaimed sports writers. He writes at Sportsnet, he hosts Writer’s Block on Sportsnet 590 The Fan. And Stephen you’ve been to how many Olympics in your long career?
Stephen Brunt: Hmm. Now this is you’re asking, to have memory work is not my strength right now, but, [00:03:00] uh, I, I, 11 or 12? Some somewhere in the neck of the woods, the first one was Calgary, 1988. And I wasn’t, I haven’t been at every one since then. And I haven’t been in one since London, uh, 2012, but most of the ones between Calgary and London I attended, which is, it was a tour of the world among other things.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: So before we start talking about Tokyo and the Olympics that are set to start in less than two months, what is the vibe of the Olympics? What makes them special to cover or special to be at?
Stephen Brunt: I it’s that’s, you know, all the cliches apply, right? It’s the, the entire planet gathering, um, in one place every well, every two years, every four years, depending on how you want to interpret the, the, the cycle of winter and summer games. And, uh, you know, no matter what the actual individual sports are, it’s, uh, you know, I think what links it together is that idea of, well, the, the, the 19th century [00:04:00] ideals of, of Olympism, which, you know, in a lot of ways are utterly phony and were phony in the 19th century, but we it’s, we, we, we happily will give ourselves over to them, which is the idea of, you know, fresh faced people competing for, uh, for home and country. And for the glory of it.
And it’s not about money, except it is about money, but it’s not about money and it’s not about, uh, you know, kind of the, it’s above politics and above, uh, all of the things that separate us. It’s a, it’s a, it’s the great moment of unification. That’s, that’s the vibe. And, you know, sometimes that requires a little bit of a suspension of disbelief. Sometimes it requires an enormous amount of suspension of disbelief, but, um, the formula always works, you know, Pierre de Coubertin was onto something.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And as we’re speaking now, what are the plans for this summer’s Olympics, which I guess should have been last summer Olympics?
Stephen Brunt: Well, the plan is that they will happen, that they will go ahead no matter what. And I think we’re almost past the, well we’re look, we’re not, we’ll get into it, but it’s, we’re not past the absolute, [00:05:00] uh, the moment when you, when you could not cancel them, it could always be canceled. But it is, uh, at this point, you know, I think last year when we talked to people like Dick Pound, about what the, what the day was when they had to make a call on whether the games were going to go last summer, it was April the first. And they canceled before that.
Obviously, you know, that’s in the rear view mirror this year and, uh, they are, they are on, so, uh, unless the Japanese government changes its mind, and that’s really the only body that could change things, uh, the Olympics will happen as scheduled in, uh, in Tokyo and Environs this summer. Now, you know, without fans and, you know, in a very different kind of with a very different kind of vibe than any other Olympics before. But you know, as of now that’s, what’s going to happen.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And what’s the situation in Japan right now? You know, I think, uh, we’re so focused, at least most of us are, on the COVID situation in our neighbourhoods or cities or country. What’s it like over there?
[00:06:00] Stephen Brunt: Um, okay. And I will, here’s my qualifier. I’m neither an epidemiologist nor an expert on Japanese politics, but, but I’ll do my best, okay.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yes.
Stephen Brunt: Uh, I’ll, I’ll, I’ll play one on the, on a podcast for today. And they are, you know, the, the, the situation there is that, um, you know, Japan for one reason or another has a very, very low vac- vaccine rate, vaccination rate. You know, it’s somewhere at this point, it’s between 2 and 3% of the population, which you know, is incredibly low compared to here or the United States or the UK, or almost anywhere else in the world we would talk about, so.
Um, they have dodged some of the worst of the COVID pandemic, but they’re, you know, they are at a point right now where there’s certainly significant amount of number of cases, you know, but there’s, you know, there was so much invested in this Olympic games in terms of political capital and in terms of capital capital in terms of money, uh, that, you know, having deferred, you know, having pushed them back by a year, they’re they’re left really with only with only two options. One is to hold [00:07:00] the games now, and one is to cancel them. There’s no, you can’t push them back another year.
So, uh, you know, and there’s all kinds of reasons to believe that the Japanese public is not onside with this right now, though. Every public opinion poll would tell you that that’s, you know, that’s coming out of Japan. Um, and I think, you know, one of the most significant kind of signposts to the last couple of weeks, was that the one of the major newspapers in Japan, national newspapers, the Asahi Shimbum, which is also an Olympic sponsor, in an editorial called for the games to be canceled. So that’s somebody with skin in the game. You know, that’s an organization with a lot of skin in the game coming out and saying, no, these should be canceled. So they’re right now, what seemed to be a disconnect between what public sentiment is in Japan and what the government is going to push ahead and do.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Has the government said anything publicly about, uh, these opinion polls in, in the editorial and the, the concern there?
Stephen Brunt: I, nothing that I’ve seen, again, I’m not going to pretend to have an encyclopedic knowledge of [00:08:00] what’s going on in Japan right now, but every every message that’s come out of the government is that it’s going to go ahead. They’ve just begun, uh, vaccinating, Olympic athletes, for instance, you know, there, there, there, there are no signs that this, that these Olympics, the double negative here. There are no signs that they will not happen. Um, uh, everything points to the fact that the games will start on schedule this summer.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now I’m going to ask you, stop playing epidemiologist and political reporter-
Stephen Brunt: Thank you!
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And get back to you. Yeah, you’re welcome. We just needed to set the scene to kind of have this discussion because why we wanted to talk to you is you’ve written a lot and spoken a lot about the IOC and how it works and what’s at stake at the games. Can you give us a picture of just when you say capital capital, um, how much money is at stake here? Like how big is this?
Stephen Brunt: Well, it’s, uh, enormous. Like, I, I, I’m not sure I could put a dollar figure on it, but you know, you [00:09:00] imagine, you know, the, the global Olympic business run by the IOC out of Lausanne, imagine all of those corporate sponsors, imagine all of those broadcast and content rights deals. This is the stuff that actually fuels the games. Um, you know, the, the, imagine ticket sales, although, you know, the local organizing committee is going to take the hit on that because they’re not going to be able to sell any tickets, they’re gonna have to refund money to anybody who bought a ticket.
So the local organizing committee is going to take a bath no matter what. Uh, and Japan is going to take a huge bath on this, no matter what. But the IOC, you know, is similarly going to have a huge, you know, a huge drop in it’s normal, it’s normal revenue would be. But you know, beyond that, Jordan, I think this is kind of a, uh, you know, it is potentially a crisis point for like, I hate to call it the Olympic movement because it sounds, it makes it sound like something bigger than a business. It’s a business. But this, this is a real crisis point, um, for the Olympics, uh, they have had issues finding host cities. They have had [00:10:00] issues, finding countries willing to invest the amount of money necessary to host an Olympic games, that has become, they’re facing, now and again, I don’t think there’ll be a boycott of the Beijing games next February, but there are threats to boy- boycott the Beijing games.
Now, like I like I do, I have spent a bit of time looking at Olympic history in my life. And you know, one of the games that’s really interesting is 1948 in London coming out of the second world war. When, uh, when the Olympic movement almost sputtered and died in its tracks, because London was still rebuilding and there was a huge understandably kind of a push towards austerity in a lot of the war ravaged world. And of course, the end of the previous Olympics, before that the last ones staged were in 1936 in Berlin. And, you know, people didn’t have very fond memories of the 1936 Berlin Nazi Olympics in 1948. Uh, so getting those games on in London in 1948, which required a whole bunch of, you know, improvisation and, uh, you know, doing things in a kind of a bare bones way [00:11:00] and extraordinary lengths to get people, to get athletes there from other parts of the world probably saved the Olympic movement, the Olympic business in ’48.
I, this isn’t quite as precarious, I don’t think, but, you know, just imagine this that well, and again, there’s no, there’s no good outcome here. You know, their good outcome, I guess, is that there will be a competition and we’ll get to see those athletes, and, uh, it’ll be inspiring and entertaining and all of that. But you know, financially this, this can’t be anything but a disaster. And then you head straight into Beijing, whereas I see, you know, Beijing has the winter Olympics because essentially no other country wanted to stage them. It’s it’s really, uh, it’s a, it’s a moment when if the Olympic business is going to be, you know, was ever going to be forced to kind of redefine itself at very least, you know, let alone maybe be imperiled, I would think now’s the now’s that moment.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Maybe you could give us a little more context about how we got to this place where so few countries want to host the games and it just, [00:12:00] it seems like it lacks, I mean, uh, I remember way back when, when Vancouver was awarded the games and it was like a moment of national celebration. I know there was, there were some people who did not want the games back then, but you know, 20 years ago to see your country host the Olympics was considered an overwhelmingly positive thing.
Stephen Brunt: It was. Yeah. And, and, and the, the, the Canadian experience of those games, I would say was overwhelmingly positive. And the, and the, the final bill was manageable if you, you know, depending on how you want to do the accounting, right. And how, who, you know, who actually paid for the Sea-to-Sky highway, or the SkyTrain from the airport at Vancouver.
But, uh, you know, I think what’s happened is that the Olympics, well, they were grotesquely corrupt and became grotesquely expensive. And that’s, you know, the bidding process was forever grotesquely corrupt. You, nevermind the Vancouver games, think about the Toronto bids for the summer games and some of the stuff that went on behind the scenes with those. You know, because the IOC understood, they had kind of a captive market that countries would fight each other, uh, [00:13:00] and line up to lavish money and lavish bribes and lavish whatever on the IOC, in order to secure the games. Uh, that’s it, it was, it was a seller’s market in every way.
Um, but it, it has become a harder and harder to justify the cost of the games, at least in democracies, in functioning democracies, in places where there’s real dissent, uh, because you know, when you, when you actually kind of put it to the people, like the most telling one, I think was, uh, you know, the, the last time like Norway stage, when I have all those Olympics, I, I attended the, the, the best and most perfect ones where the, the winter games in Lillehammer, Norway in 1994, like it was. Couldn’t have been more perfect to country that you know, where winter sports are organically part of the culture, people cross country ski to, to go out and watch a cross country, ski race, race. They get around town on a little kick sleds, right? It’s it’s right there. It’s in the culture and they, and there was, and there were beautiful, perfect [00:14:00] Olympics.
And then Oslo put in a bid for the games. Um, I’m not sure if it was the ones that went to South Korea or it’s these Beijing games. I forget which, which part of the, which process it was. And they would have, you know, they would have been handed the games. They were by far the best bidder, but the people in Norway turned it down in a plebiscite said no, because, because of the cost, because they weren’t willing to do what would have to be done.
So, you know, and you know, some of that is a follow-up from like the Sochi games, which were, you know, where, where there were no one saw the bill right. Putin made sure that didn’t matter what, what they spent. Um, so you know, some cynicism about the process and then fear about the actual cost of staging the game. So those two things became almost impossible to sell in places, again, where you had political dissent. Hence, you know, the last time we, the winter Olympics were were bid for it was Beijing and Kazakhstan. There was nobody else in line.
Um, and, uh, you know, that’s, if you don’t, you know, if [00:15:00] you don’t have those willing bidders who are willing to, again, fight each other and are willing to put out enormous amounts of money to build a facility, some of which are, you know, immediately become white elephants, um, there’s just no use for a lot of the stuff you end up building for games. Plus taking on the security costs, which since September 11th have gone become a crazy part of it. And you know, and you don’t know what they’re going to be. That’s a, uh, you know, until you do it like countries, aren’t going to line up, right? There’s no, there, there are fewer and fewer bidders and there’s less and less appetite even among the sports loving public to get behind an Olympic games.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And if the IOC is facing an existential crisis, in terms of, you know, what’s the value of the Olympics, why do countries want to host them. And then you have doctors, as we played in the intro, going on TV in Japan and saying, you know, this could create an Tokyo Olympic COVID strain, um, that will be marked as a generational failure for a hundred years. Like why is the IOC [00:16:00] so desperate to play in that realm and risk, the kind of, I guess, you know, image defining screw up that really could sink this thing?
Stephen Brunt: Well, because of money.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Right.
Stephen Brunt: I, you know, really honestly like, and, you know, image wise, like let’s remember that the IOC in 1972, there was a massacre of Israeli athletes in Munich. Um, and the response was let’s get on with the show as soon as possible.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Stephen Brunt: Like let’s just, you know, and you know, this is the same organization that refused to acknowledge the victims of that massacre until what was Atlanta ’96, I think when Samaranch finally deigned to say something. So they’re, they’re not, they’re not all that image conscious, you know, like I think they would, I’m not saying they would trade off, uh, you know, the deadly co uh, deadly Tokyo Olympic variant of the COVID virus for money. But maybe they would. Like, you know, again, they’re, they’re hearing the same stuff you and I are hearing.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah.
Stephen Brunt: Right. They’re saying, you’re hearing [00:17:00] the same stuff that people in Japan are hearing. Now, like, you know, there have been, some large events have been carried out, large sporting events have been carried out in bubbles during the pandemic successfully. Uh, if you don’t have fans in the stands, you know, if you, uh, if, if all of the athletes and all of the support staff and all of the media and, uh, you know, are, are kept within the confines of a bubble and you just bring them into the country and then send them out of the country it’s it’s happened, right. And other things that we were told were going to be horrible, super spreader events haven’t necessarily turned into horrible, super spreader events, but, you know, to some degree or another, it’s a roll of the dice, isn’t it?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Well, I’m glad you mentioned what the actual conditions will be, because I want to know how would they plan to pull that off? I totally get no fans in the stands. You know, we’ve seen that, uh, as you mentioned, we’ve seen bubbles in the NHL and the NBA, like, and again, I’ve never been to the Olympics, but this is a whole other order of magnitude in terms of like the number of athletes [00:18:00] coming from a number of different places. And, you know, I’m just going to say it, one of the few casual stories everybody knows about the Olympics is like they put bowls of condoms in the Olympic village and it turns into a party, right?
Stephen Brunt: Yeah. But those, but the other part, but the flip side of that is that again, and especially post Munich and, you know, post 9/11, um, the Olympics are kind of hermetically sealed onsite. They are, there are secure, that there’s, there are perimeters, right? The, uh, the athlete’s village exists unto its, or villages exist unto themselves behind walls. The, they, you know, behind enormous amounts of security. Athletes stay within that Olympic perimeter by and large, or, or quit stay within that perimeter the entire time they’re at the games. They’re not necessarily wandering the streets of whatever city they’re going to be in any way.
Um, the entire sections of cities and Olympic villages, you know, Olympic, uh, uh, venues can be sealed off the way they were in London, for instance. Um, so there’s a, you know, a [00:19:00] huge perimeter and everybody to get inside requires going through several layers of security.
So, you know, in some ways it kind of lends itself to a bubble. Um, you know, you could put almost everybody necessary within that bubble and keep them in a bubble. And as long as you keep the fans out, but, you know, w we think of what they did with the Stanley Cup playoffs last year in Toronto and Edmonton, and then multiply that by what several hundred, you know, in terms of magnitude? But that’s, you know, that same kind of a setup where the outdoor hockey players here stayed in a hotel, they walked down a kind of a guarded pathway to the rink. They had their own restaurants, they had their own gyms. They had their own places where they could hang out. Um, but they essentially didn’t go outside of the walls the entire time that they were in the playoffs. This is 17 days plus. So, but you know, but also not all athletes are there for the 17 days. They were there a lot, there’ll be coming and going. But, but again, staying within that, that universe, I think, I think that’s possible, you know, knowing [00:20:00] how the Olympics operate anyway. So I can imagine that part. I’m just not sure what it’s going to feel like, but that’s, you know, that kind of plays to every other sporting event in almost every other cultural event that’s happened during the pandemic, doesn’t it.
Yeah. And I mean, you mentioned, uh, the post-war Olympics and the ’72 Olympics and, you know, I kind of alluded to it in the intro that the Olympics can be a real rallying point where, you know, all of humanity comes together. And you mentioned that glorious picture, uh, when we introduced you, right. That like at their best, the image of the Olympics can, you know, highlight humanity’s ability to overcome and to accomplish. And in some sense, and again, this is now me playing the optimistic card after, you know, being negative for the last 20 minutes. But in some sense, is there a chance that this could be a memorable event that, that marks the end or the beginning of the end?
Well, yeah. Okay. So we’ll, we’ll park the IOC cynicism aside. Cause I, I always have to do that, right. So like I’m not going to think about it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Yeah, no, this is, this is pure image, [00:21:00] rosy picture. And here’s how we’ll sell it in documentaries 20 years from now.
Stephen Brunt: Yeah. Th th the, yes, that is possible. That’s a hundred percent possible that we, that we, that we will be swept away and that it will feel like, you know, as you said, kind of the beginning of the end of this, that it’ll feel like a great unifying global moment that I, you know, I guarantee you, you know, heroes will emerge and compelling stories will emerge and people will shed tears. It, it, it, it always happens.
And like, again, I been to a couple of these things and I’ve also covered the, you know, some of the worst stuff that the IOC has done. And I spent the 17 days in Vancouver covering the Vancouver Whistler games in a kind of perpetual state of bliss as a Canadian, right. I just felt like I was in the happiest place on earth with the happiest people on earth. And we were all in it together, celebrating and, and it was, it was beautiful and innocent. And, and I [00:22:00] didn’t really care about the corporate trappings or the, uh, political machinations.
And, you know, but I guess what I should point out is that if you were in Vancouver two weeks before those games, which I was in the roll-up. People were kind of cranky, right? People in Vancouver were cranky and all the talk was about, well, the, the, the traffic, and this, you know, the snow was melting on the mountain and people were saying, they’re going to rent their houses out during the games and get out of town cause it was going to be a shemozzle and how much money is this going to cost? And where’s it coming from? And then, you know, some horrible, tragic stuff happened right before those games and it, this, you know, the, the, the vibe right before that Olympics, before that, and again, remember the lighting, the torch lighting ceremony, the Flame Lighting ceremony, which was a technical shemozzle was, oh, this is, you know, let’s just get this over with. And let’s hope we don’t get embarrassed. And 17 days later, everybody was hugging. They’re hugging strangers and crying your eyes out.
So yeah, that it, it could do that. Um, you know, someone’s got to [00:23:00] pay a lot for that and I’m not, you know, I’m not sure I want to be in Japan the day after it ends. But yes, it could accomplish that. It’s it is, it is very, among other things, it is incredibly powerful theater. It is, you know, it is incredibly, it is sport as art in that sense, it, it creates its own narrative in a way that, you know, no other sporting event can, well, some sporting events can, but not as reliably. Like the Olympics is it’s it’s, it’s, it’s a sure thing emotionally. It really is.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Last question. Do you think, you know, as I just mentioned that this is one of the games like the ones you said it earlier that we will remember one way or another, because it’s either going to be that moment we just discussed or it’s going to be something else entirely and probably not something great.
Stephen Brunt: Yes. Yeah. This is, uh, this is, uh, there, that is one thing that is guaranteed again, assuming it happens that the games happen and I, again, if I was betting my own money on it, I would bet that they will go on as scheduled. I, I [00:24:00] think it’s pretty hard to U-turn out of this. But I think given everything that’s going on on earth and giving what it’s going to look like and feel like, you know, it’s not quite, if it had happened last summer, you know, when everything, we were just barely seeing anything, you know, re-emerge, uh, pandemic wise and sports wise, maybe even more so, because now, you know, now, like it’s, you can watch a baseball game for the United States and there’s 25,000 people in the stands or a hockey game or. Uh, there are, we, we can see normal on our television now a lot more than we could a year ago. But even in that context, um, to see those athletes gathered from around the world and, you know, in a huge empty stadium. Uh, it, I think we will all kind of tick that box and say, yep, I remember, I remember the summer of 20, 21 and somehow they managed to pull it off and for 17 days I was kind of swept away and, [00:25:00] and, uh, forgot about, or, or, you know, or forgot or focused one or the other on, uh, on the, on the state of the world in that moment. So, yeah, I, I th I think like a lot of things this year, if we don’t try and immediately forget all of them, uh, I think we will remember all of them.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Stephen, thank you so much for this. And uh, I guess we’ll see what happens.
Stephen Brunt: Yeah, we will, uh, like a lot of things we will we’ll see what happens. Thanks Jordan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Stephen Brunt, one of our favourite guests from Sportsnet. That was The Big Story, for more from us head to thebigstorypodcast.ca. Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime via email, thebigstorypodcast, that’s all one word, all lowercase, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And as always we’re in your favourite podcast player, pick the app, look us up, leave us a rating, leave us a review.
I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. Thanks for listening. We’ll talk tomorrow. [00:26:00]
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