Column: That Time … Dédé the Sardine and the Olympic big fish

‘The IOC are truly masters of the universe,’ he told me. But in Tokyo, it may face a villain too powerful to overcome with pageantry.

[Illustration by Jawahir Al-Naimi/Al Jazeera]

Dédé the Sardine was an Olympic big fish.

“I’m a master of the universe,” Dédé said a few years before he passed away in 2016 at the ripened age of 97. Dédé was born André Guelfi. His cronies on the International Olympic Committee called him the Sardine, a tribute to their pally having made his fortune in pilchards.

Back on shore, Guelfi was a consigliere to fabled sports godfather and IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch, who in 1980 figured out how to use television and corporate sponsorship to resurrect the dying Olympic Games into the prosperous multimedia behemoth now hospitalised and unvaccinated for COVID-19 in Tokyo.

“The IOC are truly masters of the universe,” the Sardine glub-glubbed. “When we request something, anything, we get it.”

And they did. The Morocco-born French businessman and Formula One driver for decades helped the 91-member IOC navigate its storms of scandal, avarice and woe. Like his friend Samaranch, Guelfi was vaccinated with a phonograph needle and did not give a hoot what you said about him or his sometimes stinky, always colourful escapades on board the multibillion-dollar Olympic gravy train. The only demand was that you spelled their names correctly and the story appeared on page one, above the fold.

Guelfi was slicker than those of us who covered the six Olympics I chronicled back in the days of newsprint. He knew reporting on the boxcar loads of global criminal investigations and US congressional hearings into charges of IOC corruption, embezzlement, malfeasance and racketeering would derail the moment the athletes took centre stage.

Sport is the ultimate in glorious distractions. That was the Sardine’s calculation – because the 3.2 billion fans who watch the Olympic spectacle on TV always prefer heroes over villains. The thrill of victory, the agony of defeat. Everything else is meaningless.

Until now.

COVID-19 is perhaps the one villain Olympic pageantry cannot whitewash. The coronavirus has buried more than 4.5 million globally, some 15,000 of them in Japan. Only Tokyo’s charnel houses are at full capacity. The government has ordered the stadiums vacated, the spectators silenced and the corporate hospitality tents emptied. Yet the “masters of the universe” demand Japan’s $25bn performance – the most expensive in Olympic history – must go on.

The reason, of course, is money.

Postponing the 2020 Games until 2021 left them gargling red ink. The IOC receives almost 75 percent of its income from selling broadcast rights. Estimates suggest it would lose between $3bn and $4bn if the games were cancelled. And spare a thought for Japan’s 126 million people, 83 percent of them unvaccinated and footing some $19bn of the locked-down extravaganza’s tab and with no means to recoup more than $820m in ticket sales.

“How to stop people enjoying the Olympics from going out for drinks is a main issue,” said Japan’s Health Minister Norihisa Tamura. According to Japan’s coronavirus Olympic protocols, anyone caught having a good time faces arrest and, if they are a foreigner, deportation.

IOC President Thomas Bach’s arrival at Narita Airport in Tokyo coincided with the onset of a fifth wave of COVID-19 and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga announcing a six-week state of emergency because of rising caseloads. Bach was whisked past anti-Olympic protesters to the lavish Okura Hotel for three days of self-quarantine, an in-room dining menu that counsels a $40 plus tax portion of soy milk skin and sea urchins with starchy soy sauce, and a lobby of mannerly Japanese officials reportedly too shy to formally ask him for a few more bucks beyond the IOC’s $1.3bn investment in the Tokyo Games.

The discomfort left Bach seeking a grand televised gesture to shift the focus away from the COVID-19 casualty count, ultimately emerging as the favourite to win the 2021 Olympic gold medal in cognitive dissonance for his sprint to Hiroshima. That is where a 15-kiloton nuclear blast in 1945 killed more than 135,000 people and triggered the greatest unprocessed human trauma before the coronavirus. IOC Vice President John Coates’s pilgrimage to meet Nagasaki’s 64,000 radioactive ghosts is picked to collect the silver.

No matter that civic organisations in both cities said the fissionable stunt “dishonoured” what happened in their communities. The outrage was palpable. They sent Bach a petition signed by more than 40,000 people, all begging him to scrap the events. But the IOC only takes guidance from Mount Olympus, where the modern-day Muse Otter likely commanded Bach to heed the wisdom he offered another distressed Greek Life organisation in the film Animal House:

“This situation absolutely requires a futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.”

It is what the Greek Gods – who inspired the games and whose mythologies the IOC enthusiastically embrace – called hubris. It was a crime and the judges of Ancient Greece were not shy about convicting. Sometimes the penalty was left in the hands of a higher authority. “After Hubris,” a Greek poet wrote, “comes Nemesis”, the Goddess of Justice appointed by Zeus to visit Earth in the form of a goose. Not even Croesus was able to buy off Nemesis.

But the IOC has better cash flow than the king of Lydia and Tokyo is just another goose to pluck. The fraternity’s next stop is Beijing 2022, followed by Paris 2024. Once the masters of the universe leave town, whatever financial misfortunes, political mayhems or medical calamities left behind are of no consequence to them, as was the case in Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Salt Lake City and all other host cities.

The Sardine once bitterly joked that the IOC’s interest in changing its behaviour rarely went further than ordering something other than jumbo shrimp cocktail from the room service menu. I suggest they sample the Okura’s $30 bowl of seaweed seeped in vinegar.

Source: Al Jazeera