As social movements go, the Olympics have proven themselves to have plenty of staying power.
Much more than a sporting event, the modern Olympics were conceived of by, among others, a French educator, Pierre de Coubertin.
The International Olympic Committee was formed to govern them back in 1894 two years before they actually took to the field of play in Athens, Greece in 1896.
The Charter holds dear things like persistence, hard work, fair play, tolerance, and togetherness. It is unapologetic in professing the notion that sport is ultimately a good thing.
International Olympic Day came into being in 1948. The same year the London Olympics were held after two editions of the Games, both winter and summer, had been lost due to the Second Word War.
The purpose of International Olympic Day is to celebrate the birth of the Olympic Movement, to encourage mass participation in sport regardless of race, religion, gender, orientation, circumstance, or ability, and also to be mindful of living the “Olympic Values.”
Upholding Olympic Values
Recent events in the world have made all of this very difficult.
Corruption in leadership, rampant doping issues, athletes who feel disenfranchised, a worldwide pandemic which has stopped the current congregating power of the Tokyo Olympics in its tracks, plus a call for freedom of expression in light of anti-Black racism has forced the IOC to take a long, hard look in the mirror.
One of the most powerful social movements on the face of the earth is now forced to confront dramatic change or risk becoming out of step with the times or, even worse, irrelevant.
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Canada’s past and present members of the IOC unanimously agree that the Olympic Movement must now face these issues head on, and when making changes, they have to get it right or else lose their constituency.
“It’s about defining what living the Olympic values means in the current context,” said Canadian Olympic Committee president, 4-time Olympian, and IOC member, Tricia Smith.
Athletes are at the centre of the change which is afoot and all of the Canadian IOC members we contacted, competed at the Olympics in one sport or another.
“Athletes are familiar with setting ambitious goals, working towards achieving them, in the process, learning from both success and failure,” said Richard Pound, a swimmer at the 1960 Olympics who was first elected to the IOC in 1978 and is currently its longest serving member.
“On occasions, such as we now face, during which the usual paradigm of our society and interpersonal relationships come under unprecedented pressures, it is important to maintain a healthy perspective and to recognize the need to realign our conduct and goals. The Olympic Movement has an extraordinary opportunity to demonstrate that these qualities have an impact for not only sport but also across the entire gamut of society.”
As a Black, track and field, athlete, she understands the importance of the IOC making its stance on racism defensible.
“Sport is a powerful platform in the fight against systemic racism,” Crooks stressed.
“Now more than ever, the voices of athletes here in Canada and around the world are coming together as a team to be a catalyst for accelerating sustainable change and promoting the values that unite us well beyond sport.”
The athletes are increasingly finding their voices and are eager to use them to prompt an Olympic evolution.
“The biggest challenge is to stay humble and connected to the little guy and the athletes versus ‘playing God’ which many believe the IOC does,” said 4-time Olympic hockey champion and current IOC Athlete’s Commission member Hayley Wickenheiser.
“Humility, transparency, and allowing the athletes to truly have a voice are all keys to success. The athletes need to understand they have more power than they think. The collective voice is strong. I believe the right thing, the truth, will always win out in the end.”
“I think the biggest challenge the Olympic Movement faces right now is potentially also its biggest opportunity,” said cross country skiing gold medallist Beckie Scott, who served on the IOC from 2006-2014 as well as chairing the World Anti-Doping Agency’s Athlete’s Commission.
“Sport has historically consolidated a majority of its power at the top level, leaving athletes out of the equation and powerless to influence the decisions that affect them the most. It’s a business model that has worked very well for a very long time for some. But the foundation of the model needs to shift in order to grow and stay current. Athletes are at the heart of the Olympic Movement, its most important and precious stakeholder. What a fantastic challenge to acknowledge, embrace and – as a result – progress the movement.”
It is a critical time for the Olympics.
There are serious issues to deal with and it’s not overstating the case to say the future of something, which we have all become accustomed to, is on the line.
Still, on this International Olympic Day, those from within who advocate change universally acknowledge that the Games are worth fighting for.
“Everything I have in my life, I owe to the Olympic Games,” Wickenheiser concluded.
“There is nothing that unites the world like the Olympic Games. They are the most incredible display of humanity I’ve ever been a part of.”
Now the task for the Olympic Movement is to prove that it not only has staying power but that it is also open to change for the better.