jesse owens

The Olympics can kickstart change, and in our nationalist world, it needs to

Think of African American athlete Jesse Owens in 1936, winning four gold medals under Hitler’s nose in the middle of his Aryan, eugenic society. Women finally being able to compete at the highest level of sport at the 1900 games in Paris, the birth and growth of the Paralympics, and the famous black power salute in 1968. The Olympic Games have a long history of initiating and accelerating social and political change, and of starting to alter firmly-set minds. Following the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, it is clear that we desperately need more of it.

In the half-decade since the last games, in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, the world has become more divided and nationalist. Democracy has faltered, not expanded, and the post war world order of liberalism, freedom, free trade, and peace is in free fall. A University of Cambridge study found that across the world, discontent, frustration, and indifference with democracy is at its highest for 25 years. Our politics over the last few years has become far more populist, and our rhetoric far more dangerous.

The pandemic has, in a rather frank way, reminded us of this liberal retreat. Countries took on the virus in a very nationalistic way, with international co-operation on Covid protocols, testing, equipment, isolation, and borders extremely limited. A kind of vaccine nationalism has ignited, leaving the less developed countries of the world in a potentially years-long wait for their much-needed doses. Plus, patents continue to be held, preventing larger production of vaccines for the world. Evidently, this was an international crisis, but it has been tackled very much nationally.

Amid the cover of the pandemic, autocratic governments and nations slipped through oppressive and deeply controversial laws. A harsh national security law was passed by China to deeply limit the freedoms of Hong Kongers and fasten the end of the one-country-two-systems approach. In Hungary, Victor Orban passed a coronavirus bill at the start of the pandemic that allowed him to rule by decree with no end date, and allowed the state to potentially imprison people for spreading misinformation. And it goes without saying that, via President Trump’s big lie that he actually won the US election in 2020 and the consequent insurrection of 6 January, the great pantheon and symbol of democracy, the US,  slid into a fascist dip.

The challenges we face are immense, but if we can channel that international spirit that the Olympics provides in abundance every games, we can do seemingly unthinkable things

We cannot forget the spread of illiberal politics in the years before. Of course, there was the election of President Trump, and the Brexit vote, but also massive gains across Europe for far-right parties from Germany, to Italy, to Sweden, leading to, at times, inhumane policies against migrants who were risking their lives to flee dreadful violence.

What we need now is an end to this populist trend, and a restart for the more international, diplomatic, and open era that existed before the 2008 economic crash and undemocratic late 2010s. The world faces an extraordinary number of problems, from the enormous threat of climate change, which has already battered us in 2021, to population, hunger and food security, and global health. Obviously, these require global coordination – not cheap, politically beneficial nationalist speeches from leaders.

So where does the Olympics come in? In essence, it is a global festival, that for two weeks, every four years, the world focuses its sole attention on. We all collectively learn about other nation’s and people’s cultures and deeper stories. The success given the difficulties an athlete has faced from thousands of miles away can touch us just as much as the trials of a home athlete. It is a global celebration of what extraordinary things humans can do when we truly focus and put our minds to something. Inspired by the collective struggle against Covid-19 that has united the world in the last 18 months, the new Olympic slogan is “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together”. We must dearly hope that this energy and spirit can be applied on the political stage so we can accelerate the political change we so desperately need.

The challenges we face are immense – but if we can channel that international spirit that the Olympics provides in abundance every games, we can do seemingly unthinkable things. The crises we face in the next few decades require us to shed our destructive and isolating populist politics. It’s time we came together, for the benefit of all the nations of the world, to take on the challenges that face us all.


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