The struggle to control narratives at the Olympic Games


Last week, after 13 years of dedication to the British diving squad, Tom Daley stood high atop the podium with his synchronised diving partner Matty Lee to accept his title of Olympic champion.

As well as this being an astounding sporting achievement, Daley emphasised its personal significance. He took to the conference table and championed his victory as a symbol of collective empowerment for the LGBTQ+ community, which he has openly been a part of since 2013.

The existance of narratives highlighting inequality within the Games sometimes risk being suppressed

Sitting between Chinese silver medallists and Russian bronze medallists, Daley stated that he was “proud” to be an openly gay Olympic champion, admitting that in his youth he “didn’t think [he’d] ever achieve anything because of who [he] was”. He calmly but unequivocally confronted the harmful narratives the LGBTQ+ community is subject to both at home and abroad, especially highlighting those within the sporting realm.

Neither China nor Russia has legalised same-sex marriage. Further, conservative attitudes to homosexuality remain pervasive within the host country, despite a court in Sapporo recently deeming Japan’s ban on same-sex marriage “unconstitutional”.  

With Daley’s words broadcast live and uncensored in China, Russia, and across the globe, the Olympics’ unparalleled potential as a platform from which individuals can challenge the oppressive narratives perpetuated by the governments of powerful nations has been intensely realised.

Of course, Daley is not the first to take the unique opportunity to speak out against harmful ideologies that this international stage provides. Tommie Smith and John Carlos raised gloved fists on the podium in defiance of continued racism in America during Mexico City 1968, and the Games throughout the 20th century have seen bans and boycotts during Apartheid and periods of Cold War tensions.

The existence of narratives highlighting inequality within the Games sometimes risk being suppressed, however, by the overwhelmingly positive narratives that host countries deliberately push to their people and to the world’s media. These individual narratives are in further danger of being suppressed by the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) ban on protest and strict policy of political, religious and racial neutrality.

During Berlin 1936, for example, Adolf Hitler utilised the Games as a way of distributing a false narrative of a tolerant and harmonious Germany to the world while only hints as to the extent of his racist Nazi regime were detectable to visiting nations.

Japan has been challenged in its ability to sustain its chosen narrative in this Games

For Tokyo 2020 the dominant narrative has been that of ‘recovery’. Japan had planned for the original focus of this recovery to be from the triple-disaster of 2011, when an earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown devasted the nation – not from the pandemic, although this uncontrollably became the case.

Japan has been challenged in its ability to sustain its chosen narrative in this Games, with conflicting opinions on safety during Covid-19 coming from the scientific community, the IOC, and the general public.

Following the sudden resignation of Japan’s former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe due to illness, the Games have also now turned into a political test for his successor Yoshihide Suga. At present, approximately only 30-35% of Japanese adults are fully vaccinated. This figure itself is beyond the reach of many competing nations, and the public remains sceptical about the new government’s promise to host the Games while continuing to keep case numbers under control.

Trends have shown that host-nations tend to rank well in the medal table at their own Games, and the pressure for Japan to challenge the top of the table this year and validate their narrative of recovery and resilience (politically and economically) before a sceptical, pandemic-fatigued world appears to be greater than ever.

Undoubtedly, the pandemic has also exacerbated and accentuated many more international inequalities and dangerous ideological narratives concerning poverty, age and disability, to name a few.

Tom Daley’s status as an openly gay Olympic champion has likewise drawn attention to homophobic attitudes perpetuated within the Games and has proven that while host-nations are often free to shape the narrative that the world associates with them, many individuals have narratives imposed upon them.

It has also proven yet again that injustice and inequality of every sort, in such an international tournament, are simply impossible to ignore.

Image: Flikr via Wikimedia Commons

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