• Despite concerns about COVID-19, the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo begins later this month.
  • Historically the Games have been used as a platform to raise awareness about cultural, political and socio-economic issues.
  • This year however, with no spectators and under the shadow of a pandemic, can sport still be a unifying global force?

Exactly 125 years after the first modern Olympic Games took place in Athens, the first ever summer Olympics to take place without spectators are set to begin in Tokyo this week. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused much speculation about the viability of the postponed games as the host country, currently in a state of emergency, grapples with a six-month high figure of coronavirus cases and only a third of the population vaccinated.

Previous instances of the world’s largest sporting event have celebrated many feats of unity, for example, bringing the two Koreas together under a unified flag at the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, but will the current circumstances enable a much-needed opportunity for the world to come together?

Over 11,000 athletes are housed at the Olympic village bubble where the first COVID-19 cases have been reported. While some bubbles have proven to be successful over the last year, implementing effective safety measures at such a large scale can only go so far as athletes convene from all over the world with varying levels of vaccinations.

Recent sports events, such as the UEFA Euro 2020 and Wimbledon, have amassed stadiums of up to 60,000 spectators and brought out cheering crowds in pubs and bars, but at a cost of rising COVID-19 cases across Europe according to the World Health Organization. Banning spectators from the Olympics was a sound decision to minimize infections, but continuing with the games behind closed doors may hinder the power of sport in bringing communities together and bridging divides in society.

Catalysing inclusive change

Sports are uniquely positioned to be a driver for inclusive change. Many sports leagues and players across the world have been stepping up to leverage their platforms to accelerate movements to drive social cohesion and bridge divides based on race, gender, ability, and other identity factors. The World Economic Forum’s Power of Media Taskforce on DE&I, comprised of leading sports leagues and media organizations, is committed to fostering industry commitment on the creation and distribution of more inclusive content, and seeks to leverage the reach of media platforms to broadcast important messages that promote equality and bring us together.

Rule 50 of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) Olympic Charter states: "No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas." However, the IOC has relaxed its rule following criticism from athlete groups to allow them to protest before their competition, but not on the medal podium. While Rule 50 has been contested for decades, this amendment was a result of recommendations from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) to “end the prohibition of peaceful demonstrations” following a series of athlete activism around Black Lives Matter.

What's the World Economic Forum doing about diversity, equity and inclusion?

The COVID-19 pandemic and recent social and political unrest have created a profound sense of urgency for companies to actively work to tackle inequity.

The Forum's work on Diversity, Equality, Inclusion and Social Justice is driven by the New Economy and Society Platform, which is focused on building prosperous, inclusive and just economies and societies. In addition to its work on economic growth, revival and transformation, work, wages and job creation, and education, skills and learning, the Platform takes an integrated and holistic approach to diversity, equity, inclusion and social justice, and aims to tackle exclusion, bias and discrimination related to race, gender, ability, sexual orientation and all other forms of human diversity.

Under the same rule, South Korea has agreed to remove banners that invoked certain Japanese far-right groups. These banners were hung from balconies of South Korean athletes that were protesting the use of the Japanese “rising sun” flag, which symbolizes Japan’s wartime history, at Tokyo stadiums and Olympic venues. Sports can be a means to lower barriers, but political and cultural sensitivities can be challenging and require rules to progress through several iterations to iron out issues.

Regulations around gender equality have also evolved but continue to face scrutiny in the fight to provide a level-playing for everyone. The IOC and the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) have constantly revised their guidelines, from subjecting women to mandatory genital testing in a “nude parade”, to a chromosome test under a “gender verification” strategy, to testing testosterone levels. While the racial justice movement may have predominated others in securing concessions from the IOC around Rule 50, it continues to face its battles. The international swimming governing body, Federation of Internationale de Natation (FINA), is reconsidering its decision to ban the Soul swimming cap that is used by black athletes.

Future looks bright

In the true spirit of sport, the Tokyo Olympics are expected to lift our spirits amid the looming pandemic and bring the world together for a common purpose. Undeterred athletes and teams will leverage the platform to demonstrate solidarity against racism and inequality. For example, the women’s English football team will take a knee before kick-off despite the men’s team being subjected to fans booing and being targeted with racial abuse at the Euro 2020 cup final.

Sports journalist, Matthew De George, said "In the most famous Olympic protest, by Americans Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, the media attention was focused on the Black power salute of their gloved fists. Overlooked was the symbology of beads worn to protest the lack of justice for victims of lynching in the United States or the men standing barefoot to protest a system that strands millions in unrelenting poverty.”

We should not have to wait for a breaking point, such as George Floyd’s murder in the Black Lives Matter movement, to ignite the need for change in our constant struggle for justice. The global sports community needs to proactively break down the institutional structures and rules that discriminate all forms of inequality due to race, ethnicity, gender, religion, ability, sexuality and other identity groups.

Athletes, international standards bodies and regulators, governments and other influential organizations in the sports ecosystem have to collaboratively define appropriate frameworks and governance structures for sport to truly break down barriers within society.

Last year was notable for its social activism by players, fans and the entire sports ecosystem that has inspired reviews of archaic rules and practices, and helped to advance voices of underrepresented groups. The rules that govern sports have to be adaptive to empower individuals and communities to embrace inclusive change. While progress has been made, there is still a lot to be done to combat diversity, equity and inclusion in sport.