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Sensemaker: Olympic nightmare

Sensemaker: Olympic nightmare

Wednesday 21 July 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • British officials proposed a “wholesale change of approach” to the Northern Ireland Protocol, six months after it came into effect. 
  • The UK’s home secretary promised £54 million to France to stop migrants crossing the Channel (more on both below).
  • The Norwegian women’s beach handball team was fined €1,500 by the European Handball Federation for wearing shorts rather than briefs. Eight of the federation’s nine executive committee members are men. Male players wear shorts.

    Headline number: 96 – deaths yesterday in the UK within 28 days of a Covid diagnosis.

Olympic nightmare

Asked if the Tokyo Olympics could still be cancelled, the man in charge said yesterday he would keep an eye on Covid infection numbers and stay in touch with officials. The story went around the world that he wasn’t ruling out pulling the plug three days before the opening ceremony. The truth was Toshiro Muto dodged the question. The story was flimsy but editors seized on it anyway, like hyenas on a carcass.

The games will almost certainly go ahead in some form. These ones are especially plagued by grim anticipatory headlines because there’s an actual plague on, but we should remember we’re in that familiar quadrennial news cycle in which the slough of pre-games despond tees up two weeks of sports heroics very nicely thank you. 

Or is 2021 different? The ghost of Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Olympic movement, does have reason to worry. 

In Tokyo:

  • The hosts are dead against. It’s not just the 80 per cent of Japanese who wish the games weren’t happening; it’s the demonstrators’ placards (“Olympics kill the poor”), catnip for underemployed TV crews waiting for the first round of the softball.
  • The ban on spectators looks political – Covid case numbers in Japan are low at about 3,000 a day and falling, and baseball stadiums just outside Tokyo are full. 
  • Big advertisers including Toyota and Panasonic have pulled out.

Looking forward:

  • Hosting the summer games is getting less and less popular among big cities. There were five bidders for the 2024 games of which three pulled out; one for 2028 and one for 2032. For comparison there were 10 bidders for the 2008 games and nine for 2012.

Looking back:

  • Ever since Atlanta (1996), the International Olympic Committee has looked vulnerable to PR faceplants. And many have been about much more than PR. Atlanta was marred by the Centennial Park pipe bombing; Salt Lake City (winter 2002) by bribes in the bidding process; Vancouver (winter 2010) by Nodar Kumaritashvili’s death on the luge track; Sochi (winter 2014) by $50 billion in opaque construction contracts, rampant doping and snow like lobster bisque; and Rio (2016) by doping disqualifications for 111 Russian athletes.

For more than 30 years the IOC has enjoyed a reinforced concrete foundation in the form of prodigious upfront broadcast rights fees from NBC, which feeds and nurtures an unabashed North American enthusiasm for the Olympics. The latest NBC/IOC deal is worth $7.75 billion and lasts until the 2032 Brisbane summer games. 

When that comes up for renewal we’ll know if de Coubertin’s ghost can breathe easy again. It would be a shame if he couldn’t. Please write in to let us know what sports you want included in the Olympics before they die. Squash, anyone? 

And please join us for Friday’s Sensemaker Live ThinkIn on whether the Olympics are doomed (and whether they should be).

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

UK borders
Today the EU gets confirmation that signing a treaty with Brexit Britain doesn’t mean a thing, and the UK launches its first formal test of whether the EU will react with a groan or a writ. The latter seems more likely. Brandon Lewis as Northern Ireland minister and David Frost as Brexit implementation bruiser will propose that GB-made goods can enter Northern Ireland without checks (£) even though the UK explicitly agreed to such checks as a fundamental plank of the Northern Ireland Protocol to the Brexit withdrawal agreement. The EU agreed to them as an alternative to a hard border on the island of Ireland. But it needs checks somewhere to ring-fence the single market, which the UK has decided to leave even though Vote Leave told voters in 2016 they wouldn’t have to. The Frost strategy is to tear up the deal he negotiated and blame the other side. Perhaps this is one of the things you can do with “independence”. We shall see.

It’s no less fraught in the English Channel, crossed yesterday by 430 would-be migrants in small boats, a record for a single day. Nearly 8,000 have crossed so far this year, roughly as many as in the whole of last year. The numbers are minimal compared with those of migrants attempting to enter southern Europe from Turkey, Libya and Morocco, but still an embarrassment for Priti Patel, the home secretary, who has promised the Daily Mail she will halt cross-channel migrant trafficking with the help of the Nationality and Borders Bill, which makes arriving in the UK without permission a criminal offence. Under international law, refugees are entitled to seek asylum on arrival. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Fly high
Vladimir Putin, who has a fetish for military tech, has inspected a new Russian jet fighter called the Checkmate that is a) intended as a rival to the American F-35 and b) supposed to be able to fly without a pilot. At $25 million per plane it is a quarter the price of an F-35… but a very expensive drone

Separately, Jeff Bezos went to space and back yesterday in 11 minutes in his Blue Origin rocket. We’re glad to report that he and his fellow passengers, including the 82-year-old Wally Funk, returned safely. But as a space flight it was dull. The vertical landing thing is cool but old hat now. Putting aside for a moment the ethics of being a billionaire space cowboy, Richard Branson’s flight last week won hands down on innovation, style, price and getting there first. 4-0. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Violence against women
Credit where it’s due, the busy Priti Patel is preparing to criminalise the public harassment of women and girls as part of a broader strategy to combat VAWG (violence against women and girls). The plans may include banning non-disclosure agreements in sexual harassment cases. As Tortoise has reported, NDAs have long been a favourite tool of sexual predators anxious to silence women they have targeted. The VAWG strategy is based partly on a consultation to which 180,000 people have contributed, mostly since the murder of Sarah Everard in March. It earmarks a meagre-sounding £5 million for a “safety of women at night” fund, and Jess Phillips, the shadow minister for domestic violence, tells the Guardian there’s nothing in it on the sexual exploitation of adult women. But she also says there’s much to welcome. 

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Out of oil
BHP Billington, one of the world’s biggest mining companies, also drills for oil. Now it wants to get out of the oil business while it can do so at a profit. Bloomberg says it’s looking for someone who’ll pay around $15 billion for its petroleum assets in the Gulf of Mexico and off the coast of Australia. They produce about 100 million barrels a year. Two questions: who’s next? And who buys? It will be interesting to see if wholesale divestment starts being taken more seriously by the majors, and if national oil companies like Saudi Aramco are interested… or not. Just how fast is the value of untapped oil and gas reserves going to sink?

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Diamond heist 
There are several weightier business stories around today, including China’s crackdown on US listings for Chinese companies and Ben & Jerry’s run-in with Israel’s new government over its decision to stop selling ice cream in the occupied territories. We’ll get to them. But first: Lulu Lakatos, 60 and with nerves of steel, is on trial in London for her part in a made-for-Hollywood heist at Boodles the jewellers, in which she replaced diamonds worth £4.2 million with worthless pebbles in locked purse, left the purse in a vault and walked out the door with the diamonds. She was on a Eurostar to Paris within a couple of hours. She denies conspiracy to steal. The trial, as they say (£), continues. 

Thanks for reading, and please share this with your friends.

Giles Whittell

Photographs BBC/PA Wire/ Getty Images

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