David Owen

So yesterday's revelation that the Mayor of one of the world’s great cities - London - still regards the Games as enough of an electoral asset to talk publicly about exploring a bid just two days before polling day must be accounted a considerable public relations bonus.

Labour politician Sadiq Khan, who is seeking a second term as Mayor, described exploration of a bid for the 2036 or 2040 Olympic and Paralympic Games as "the ultimate demonstration of my plan to build a brighter future for London after the pandemic".

He added that a fourth London Olympics, less than 30 years after the third, would "help fast track much needed green infrastructure projects” and asserted his ambition for London to host "the most sustainable Games ever".

A couple of early thoughts on this:

1. While London 2012 has imbued the capital of the United Kingdom with essential Olympic sports infrastructure, such as a pool complex and a velodrome, it is not as if the city is altogether "Games-ready".

A new Olympic Village would presumably be required, and I wonder how adequate the remodelled 2012 Olympic Stadium would be judged for an event at least 15 years away.

On the other hand, the new Tottenham Hotspur football stadium in North London has endowed the city with another outstanding new sports venue.

Sadiq Khan revealed this week that he would target a London bid for a future Olympic Games if he is re-elected Mayor ©Getty Images
Sadiq Khan revealed this week that he would target a London bid for a future Olympic Games if he is re-elected Mayor ©Getty Images

2. The early functioning of the International Olympic Committee (IOC)'s new host selection process seems to me to suggest that guidance from a super well plugged-in IOC insider is likely to be a big advantage.

The UK is fortunate to possess such an individual - yes, Lord Coe; but would he wish to play such a full-on role on behalf of another London bid?

And if he does not, does anyone else have the contacts and skill-set necessary?

Khan would be very well advised to ascertain the answers to these questions before this gets very much further.

Perhaps he already has.

• The closer Tokyo 2020 looms, the harder it is to conclude that the primary reason for pressing ahead is anything other than staving off the deep recession in the Olympic sports economy that forfeiture of something like $3 billion (£2.2 billion/€2.5 billion) of TV rights revenue would engender.

It makes little sense to talk of a light at the end of the tunnel while India, home to around one in six of the world’s people, is engulfed in Stygian gloom, and other countries - Japan included - await tensely for signs that the worst is behind them.

It is difficult to assess how much satisfaction, let alone pride, proficient staging of these Games would now bring the host nation, even if those who have worked so prodigiously over many years at the hub of the project would at least have something to show for their efforts.

In such circumstances, it seems a good time to recall that it is only comparatively recently that funding Olympicland has become such a key part of the Games’ raison d’être.

London hosted the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to widespread praise and adulation ©Getty Images
London hosted the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games to widespread praise and adulation ©Getty Images

When Baron Pierre de Coubertin initially plucked the Olympics from the pages of history in the late 19th century, some of the thinking that planted the seed was linked to the desirability of better military preparedness.

This was also part of the justification for the original Games: in Ancient Greece, as in fin-de-siècle France, the development of a corpus of young men with the motivation, intellectual capacity and physical fortitude to make a good fist of defending their fatherland, if needs must, was held to be no bad thing.

After the First Great War had provided gruesome affirmation that military success in the 20th century hinged far more on industrial than physical prowess, the Nazis set about turning the Olympics into an instrument of statecraft and propaganda.

This continued, albeit with different actors, in the Cold War era which followed World War II, when the Olympic medals table became a scoreboard for the rival communist and capitalist systems that were carving up the world as the empires assembled by the main European powers crumbled.

At this time too, an Olympic team became one of the appendages through which a raft of newly-independent countries asserted their arrival on the world stage.

Even when the amounts of money it became possible to extract from commercial broadcasters became more significant, the master manipulator Juan Antonio Samaranch at first used it more to establish and cement the IOC’s command over the Games than to nourish the sort of trickle-down Olympic sports economy which exists today.

The International Federations (IFs) were in any case increasingly enthused at the time by the commercial prospects of their own potential new gold-mines – single-sport world championships.

The reason for pressing ahead with Tokyo 2020 is largely financial - but it was not always this way ©Getty Images
The reason for pressing ahead with Tokyo 2020 is largely financial - but it was not always this way ©Getty Images

It was only in the second half of the 1980s, when the IOC turned to sponsorship and established direct commercial relationships with some of the multinational corporations whose advertising funded the TV networks, and the value of Olympic broadcasting rights really went through the roof, that the Games started to become a truly substantial source of revenue for Olympic-related bodies all over the world. 

Thirty years on, proceeds from Rio 2016 enabled more than $1 billion (£720 million/€832 million) to be distributed to National Olympic Committees and participating IFs.

Would the loss of approximately two-thirds of anticipated TV revenues for what started out as the 2017-2020 quadrennium hurt?

Yes, of course: it would lead almost certainly to wholesale cuts of programmes and personnel across Olympicland.

Some pain is, moreover, already to be expected: increased costs and disruption associated with COVID-19 seem likely to eat into the sums that the IOC makes available for redistribution even if Tokyo 2020 goes ahead and is deemed a success, whatever that means in current circumstances.

But while loss of that income would spark a recession, I do not believe that it would provoke an existential crisis for Olympic sport.

The IOC, along with some IFs and other bodies, have used the years of plenty to accumulate substantial reserves; there would still be more money in the vaults and balance-sheets of Olympic sport than for most of its long history.

There would of course need to be a redefinition of aims and a scaling back of ambitions, but the show would go on.