The Olympic Games provide a platform to celebrate athletic achievement. They can also be a platform to showcase inclusion and create broader social impact.
Every two years, the global gaze turns towards the Olympic Games and its host nation. In spite of growing concerns about the sustainability of these mega-events, and potential for negative impacts on the host cities and their communities, we have seen shifts in the role that the Olympic Games can play to create and showcase positive social impact and provide a platform for social change. The Tokyo 2020 Games provided places and spaces to demonstrate inclusivity and redefine success on and off the field of play. As Australia prepares for the 2032 Brisbane Olympic Games, it is important to consider how these Games can be leveraged for social and community impact for the Australian community.
The Inclusive Games
Tokyo 2020 was arguably the most visibly inclusive Games ever witnessed. Record numbers of women athletes participated at this year’s Olympic Games across all events and disciplines. These women were amongst Australia’s most successful medallists and record breakers.
Tokyo 2020 was also the first Games to permit trans athletes to compete, with Laurel Hubbard representing New Zealand in weightlifting and Canadian footballer Quinn becoming the first openly transgender, non-binary athlete to win a medal. We saw women like Allyson Felix returning to the highest level of elite sport after having children, breaking the myth that motherhood equals the end of your athletic career, or that mothers are less worthy of support or sponsorship. We celebrated vision of Tom Daley, an openly gay man, not only winning gold medals but also knitting in the stands while supporting his colleagues. Each of these moments in these Games provide a platform to show the world that there is more than one way to look, more than one way to be, and more than one way to succeed. While there is still more work to do for the Games to become more inclusive, these were exciting and positive steps forward.
Advocacy for Change
Athletes across sports have increasingly been using their public profile and platforms to make political statements or protest for social change, through actions such as taking a knee on the field of play prior to a game, making visible signs of protest like a raised fist or crossed arms, or wearing clothing or masks with messages representative of their cause (e.g. I can’t breathe) or names of those who have experienced injustice (e.g. Naomi Osaka’s masks at the US Open). After much debate, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) amended Rule 50, which prohibits any form of propaganda or political statements, to allow for silent protest pre-competition and on the podium.
Importantly for Australian athletes and the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community, this allowed for proud displays of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags across multiple events, and the achievements and celebration of our Aboriginal athletes provided visible recognition of and progress towards Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander reconciliation.
Re-defining success in sport
In a year when getting to the Olympics took on more meaning than just qualifying, success and victory at these Games started to take on more significance than a podium finish. The human stories of sport, particularly in the Olympics, have always brought more fans in, but in the most unique circumstances of the pandemic, these stories gave fans the chance to reflect on the broader meaning and value of success of sport.
When Australian BMX racer Saya Sakakibara crashed out the final turn when leading the pack to make the final, she expressed how much she felt she had let everyone down, especially her brother Kai, who would have been in Tokyo competing with her until a crash left him with permanent brain damage last year. The outpouring of support from fans was the opposite of disappointment, with supporters proud of all Saya had overcome to even make it to Tokyo.
While celebrating the achievements of athletes on the podium is part of the Olympics and centres our pride as fans, Tokyo offered many moments where fans were able to redefine what success, sportsmanship and spirit mean to them. When Japan’s favoured to win skateboarder Misugu Okamoto fell from her board and finished fourth, it was Australia’s Poppy Olsen who led her fellow competitors to chair a devastated Okamoto off the park. Olsen, who finished fifth, cited the friendships the opponents had developed in recent years as they began competing internationally, bonding over shared experiences of being the only girls in the skatepark.
The IOC changed the Olympic motto for 2021, adding the word “together.” The new Olympic motto now reads: “Faster, Higher, Stronger – Together.” “Together” was reflected in these moments and many more. Australia’s Cedric Dubler sacrificed his personal performance to give teammate Ash Moloney the encouragement he needed in the last event of the decathlon to win bronze. Italy’s Gianmarco Tamberi and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar agreed to share a gold medal in the high jump. US gymnast Simone Biles withdrew from events due to her mental health, not wanting to impede her team’s chances while also drawing attention to the importance of mental health management.
Success on the podium is still important, of course. Medals carry more than their weight in gold with funding, incentives, and targets to grow participation, but Tokyo may just inspire more approaches to how we define success in social impact and human spirit to continue to use sport for change.
In 11 years, Australia will once again host an Olympic Games. The platform and visibility of this mega-event provides an enormous opportunity for Australia to create an event that celebrates not only the highest level of athletic achievement, but also contribute to creating and showcasing the best version of Australia it can be. The challenge for Australia is to ensure that these Games are inclusive, sustainable, and leave a positive legacy for the host community and for the nation more broadly.
Professor Emma Sherry is a researcher at the Swinburne University Sport Innovation Research Group in Melbourne, Australia. Professor Sherry is an international expert on sport for development, and access and inclusion in the sport sector.
Dr Kasey Symons is a researcher at the Swinburne University Sport Innovation Research Group in Melbourne, Australia. Dr Symons is a research fellow with expertise in sport media, sport fandom, and women and diverse communities in sport.
This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.