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Paul Vallely: Money eclipses sport at the Olympics  

30 July 2021

Rights deals have denied many a chance to watch, says Paul Vallely


A television camera films a men’s table tennis match at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, on Monday

A television camera films a men’s table tennis match at the Olympic Games in Tokyo, on Monday

ALREADY, the Olympics have produced some golden moments, reminding us of so much that is great about the human condition: application, determination, power, resilience, tenacity, and even, for the silver medallist, grace in the face of disappointment. It is a shared experience which brings people together. The last Olympics, in Rio in 2016, were watched on television by more than half the world.

It is all the more sad, then, that this time — though we have shared big moments in the big sports — viewers throughout Europe are being denied the opportunity to experience “never miss[ing] a moment”, to borrow the BBC’s 2016 slogan when it live-streamed every individual sport. This time, the European rights have been sold exclusively for €1.3 billion by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to the Discovery Channel, which wants to use the Games to win audiences from Disney, Apple, Netflix, and Amazon Prime. British TV is allowed only to cover two live events at any given time.

The official motto of the IOC is “Faster, Higher, Stronger”. Perhaps they should also add “Dearer”. Today’s Olympics are increasingly all about money.

Host cities almost always lose vast amounts. Every Olympics since 1960 has run over budget. In 2012, the London Games cost three times what was planned. Japan budgeted $7 billion, has spent $28 billion, and is predicted to lose at least $35 billion. This is why five major cities pulled out of the bidding to host next year’s Winter Olympics.

The organisers at the IOC experience no such jeopardy. Over the years, they have evolved an elaborate structure of sub-committees and agencies which consumes about 15 per cent of Olympic revenues. The huge IOC entourage in Tokyo has been estimated to number 10,000 VIPs.

In theory, IOC members do not make anything, although the President receives an annual “indemnity” in excess of €200,000, and lives free of charge in a luxury hotel. Ordinary members, who are treated to lavish hospitality by Olympic would-be hosts, have in the past been embroiled in bribery and corruption, as well as opaque processes and questionable decisions.

Nowadays, 75 per cent of IOC income comes from television rights. That is perhaps why IOC officials were so adamant that the Games this year could not be cancelled — despite rising Covid infections in an unvaccinated Japan, opposition from residents, and medics’ fears that the Games could become the world’s largest superspreader.

Had the Games not gone ahead, the IOC would have had to repay not just the €1.3 billion to Discovery, but what NBC has paid for the rights in the United States. Then there is the 18 per cent of their income from sponsors — many of whom have, like Toyota, already pulled their advertising and brought in marketing consultants to minimise the damage that the Games may do to their brands. Had the IOC cancelled, it would have had to refund between $3 and $4 billion.

It is time for the world’s governments to take a closer look at the International Olympic Committee. Then, at the very least, at the 2024 Games in Paris, television viewers might be able to engage properly with the full range of activities that make up what ought to be the world’s greatest celebration of human sporting achievement.

Leader comment: Mental strength at the Olympics

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