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The Olympics: Politicized Games That Serve as a Civilizing Force

Satō Takumi [Profile]


The Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang this year provided a showcase for the recent thaw in relations between the two Koreas. Some complain about politicization of the Olympics, but the games cannot be divorced from politics; what is important is their positive effect as a civilizing force.

At this year’s Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, Japanese athletes took home 13 medals—4 gold, 5 silver, and 4 bronze—a new national best for the winter games. Japan is gearing up to host the Summer Olympics and Paralympics two years from now, and our media organs added heat to the nation’s Olympic fever with their coverage of the Pyeongchang events.

I confess that winter sports like skiing and skating hold little appeal for me, so what interested me more than the live coverage of the events was the news about related developments on the international political front, notably North Korea’s last-minute decision to take part. The slogan of the Pyeongchang Olympics—“Passion. Connected.”—turned out to be something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, inasmuch as the games led to a historic North-South summit between the two Koreas. The modern Olympics are billed as a festival of peace, hearkening back to the sacred truce that was proclaimed during the Olympic games in ancient Greece, and it is evident that they continue to have a certain amount of political effectiveness even today.

Today’s Media-Centric Olympics

Most major sporting events, including the Olympics, are actually staged in order to generate media coverage. They are “pseudo-events,” to borrow a term from the American historian Daniel Boorstin, put on deliberately to serve as material for the press and broadcasters.

In terms of media theory, watching the Olympic events at the venues cannot be called more of a real experience than watching them on television. If anything, it is the opposite: Being in the stadium is rather like being a visitor to the set where a movie is being filmed. It allows one to feel the excitement directly, but it does not allow one to see the entire picture. By contrast, watching an Olympic event on TV at home is analogous to viewing a movie as a finished product in a theater. Theatergoers have a fuller experience of the movie than visitors to the set. Similarly, we can say that TV viewers have a more genuine Olympic experience than those who go to see the events in person. The games may be described as the “media Olympics.”

If we accept that the Olympics are media-centric, it is no surprise that ticket sales are poor and local hotels have empty rooms. There is currently a hotel construction boom underway in Tokyo in preparation for the 2020 games, but unless the media-focused character of the Olympics changes dramatically, we can only pray that excess accommodation capacity will not turn into a negative legacy. I might also note that Japan’s population is projected to plunge from the current 127 million to about 70 million as of 2070, and more than 40% of these people will be over 65. I wonder if the Tokyo 2020 organizers have a long-term plan for maintenance and operation of the New National Stadium and other grand facilities now being built for the upcoming games.

It would have been a good idea, I think, to pay more attention to Isozaki Arata, the architect who repeatedly argued that the media Olympics did not require a stadium. In a November 2014 press conference at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Isozaki proposed holding the Olympic opening and closing ceremonies on the plaza in front of the Imperial Palace. The palace is on the site of Edo Castle, the former seat of the shogunate, and the backdrop for the ceremonies would be the great stone wall that remains from the castle. This open, urban-scale site, he argued, would be appropriate for today’s media age, with a billion people around the globe watching the event live— better than a closed stadium accommodating 100,000 spectators. It seems to me that this is the sort of approach we should have taken in planning for the games so as to leave a sustainable legacy for a country with a shrinking, aging population.

In any case, the age of the Olympics as a major customer-drawing card for local businesses is over. One clear indication of this is the fact that the sites of the 2024 and 2028 summer games—Paris and Los Angeles, respectively—were chosen with effectively no competition. One after another, rival cities had withdrawn from the running to host the Olympics after deciding that they could not bear the cost of all the new construction that would be required.

Plagiarism vs. Imitation: The Flap over the Olympic Emblem

Though the Olympics may no longer be much use as a customer draw for local enterprises, they continue to provide business for the advertising field of the media world. The emblems for the 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics adopted in July 2015 became the source of a major flap and ultimately had to be replaced in the face of a wave of online allegations of plagiarism. This fracas was indeed “emblematic” of the place of the Olympics in the media.

From the viewpoint of media researchers, plagiarism and other violations of copyright are of course out of bounds, but imitation and sampling are not necessarily wrong. In his 1890 work Les Lois de l’imitation (The Laws of Imitation), French sociologist Gabriel Tarde argued that invention and imitation were not opposites but rather were separated by a paper-thin margin. Society is shaped by imitation, and human behavior that is not based on imitation, whether conscious or unconscious, is not a subject for sociological study.

In a book Kashima Takashi published last year presenting a historical analysis of the emblem plagiarism issue, he described the difference between design and art: Design appeals to use by clients and others; art leaves it up to critics and others to view works as they will. Next I will consider the Olympics not as sporting events to be viewed but as media events designed to be used as an outlet for nationalism.

  • [2018.05.28]

Professor, Graduate School of Education, Kyoto University. Specializes in media history and popular culture. Born in 1960. Graduated from the Faculty of Letters at Kyoto University. Studied for two years at Ludwig Maximilian University (Research Center of Modern History) in Germany for two years. Received his PhD from Kyoto University. Held posts at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Journalism and at the International Research Center for Japanese Studies. Assumed his current post in 2015. Major publications include“Kingu” no jidai (The Age of “Kings”), a 2002 work that received the Suntory Prize for Social Sciences, and Saigo no media kūkan: Rondan to jihyō 2012–2013 (The Media Space After the Disaster: The Press and Current Events Commentary 2012–2013).

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