David Owen

Deteriorating relations between the West and the next Winter Olympic host China; a renewed call for a referendum on Paris 2024; the placing on hold of Queensland's bid for the 2032 Games.

It is starting to become clear that, quite apart from the intricacies of rearranging Tokyo 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) needs to turn its mind to formulating a major new public relations offensive, to be disseminated once the worst of this brutal pandemic is over and some sort of new normality settles.

This campaign will need to articulate a convincing answer to one of the most fundamental of Olympic-related questions: "Why?" – as in, "Why do we do this every two/four years?"

What is more, this necessity will become all the more pressing should the most challenging scenario from a public relations standpoint come to pass.

This is that Tokyo 2020 proves impossible to save, but Beijing 2022 goes ahead.

This could see the IOC – with its unavoidable and, in some respects, admirable commitment to political neutrality – boxed in to a situation where it returns to the public consciousness and is at once perceived by many to be buttressing an unsavoury regime.

Insofar as I have any nailed-down, immutable view on the above question, it has tended to be that, on balance, the world is better off with the Olympics than without them, but that it can be a mighty close-run thing.

(I think the world is assuredly a better place with than without the Paralympics, but that is a different PR campaign.)

It ought to be possible for Lausanne to win the argument, but it would be a mistake to take victory for granted, still more to ignore the need, in our reduced new circumstances, to make its case.

This will not be the first time that a new justification for the Games has had to be articulated.

If I have read and interpreted my Olympic history correctly, a significant part of the rationale underpinning both the Ancient Games and Pierre de Coubertin's initial revival had to do with military preparedness.

The IOC will be faced with a PR challenge if Tokyo 2020 is cancelled and Beijing 2022 goes ahead ©Getty Images
The IOC will be faced with a PR challenge if Tokyo 2020 is cancelled and Beijing 2022 goes ahead ©Getty Images

Both Ancient Athens and fin-de-siècle France were held to require a corpus of young men with the motivation, intellectual capacity and physical fortitude to make a good fist of defending the fatherland, if needs must.

The Great War provided gruesome affirmation that military success in the 20th century hinged far more on industrial than physical prowess – though Ancient Greece's cult of the body continued to fascinate the Nazis.

In the Brundage-Keller-Killanin years of the 1950s-to-1970s, hallmarked as they were by the black-and-white political polarity of the Cold War, the primary perceived purpose of the Games, and of sport in general, morphed into something fuzzier.

This found its most emblematic expression in Ancient Rome, rather than Ancient Athens; that is to say in the phrase of the poet Juvenal, “Orandum est ut sit mens sana in corpore sano” ["The goal should be a sound mind in a sound body"].

This was, in turn, extrapolated by Thomi Keller, the charismatic rowing and International Sports Federations leader, in a speech in 1968.

"Our aim in the final analysis," Keller argued, "must be to teach young people to become valuable members of human society".

Since sport became an industry and a big business a generation ago, the justification for the Games seems to have branched off again, pitching them as a spectacular fundraiser, promoting and helping to deliver sport as a beneficial, universally accessible good.

With COVID-19 forcing a global, and more or less instant, reassessment of priorities, it seems to me that this mantra is set to come under intense scrutiny, both because of the inefficiency of the delivery mechanism – the Games cost a lot to put on – and because the hitherto successful business model looks to be headed for a spot of at least short-term turbulence.

What should the new message for a new age attempt to convey? 

For my money, it needs to leverage the Olympics' core strength of universality, the sense that international co-operation benefits us all and that pernicious nationalism of a type on the rise in so many countries correspondingly demeans us.

The Olympics are largely held along national lines ©Getty Images
The Olympics are largely held along national lines ©Getty Images

That means rowing back firmly from the intense patriotic fervour that fetishises the medals table as a barometer of national validation and makes the Games less a celebration of our common humanity than an exercise in jingoistic solipsism.

The trouble is, of course, that the Olympic Movement is organised largely along national lines, and Olympic events, by and large, are so immense that cooperation with Governments, who generally expect payback of one kind or another, is indispensable.

In this sense, overtly commercial sports constructs – such as the famed Liverpool Football Club forward-line, embodying effective cooperation between Senegal, Egypt and Brazil (and England and Germany) – appear better-suited to the task in hand.

The growing stack of problems in the IOC in-tray indicates, nevertheless, that someone on the shores of Lake Geneva needs to locate the right chord to reanimate the Games's allure – and be prepared, when the moment comes, to strike it, hard.

As Keller also said, "In society the role of sport will be ever more important, either with Olympism or without".