Athletes still strive for those coveted gold, silver and bronze medals, but now they are watched by billions of people around the world, on a multitude of devices, and the constant evolution of Olympic sport has been necessary to ensure that those eyeballs remain focused on the Summer and Winter Games for 16 days every two years.
“The pace of change continues to accelerate in both sport and society,” explains Franco Carraro, the chair of the Olympic Programme Commission, “but the construction of the Olympic programme continues to find a balance between the traditional forms of sport and those newer sports that are growing in popularity and reaching out to new audiences.”
The most recent changes to the Olympic programme were announced in July this year, with the addition of innovative and exciting new events for the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022, including monobob and freestyle ski big air.
Many of the new events reflect the changing nature of society, the changing nature of technology, and the changing role of sport within wider society.Franco Carraro Chair of the IOC Olympic Programme Commission
“These changes reflect what has proved to be both popular and practised around the world,” says Carraro. “Many of the new events reflect the changing nature of society, the changing nature of technology, and the changing role of sport within wider society. The Olympic programme is still focused on the world’s greatest athletes performing on the world’s greatest sporting stage, in the world’s most popular and highest profile sports. But obviously the composition of those sports has changed over the last 120 years.”
Perhaps one of the most significant trends has been the emergence of urban sports and adapted formats, with the likes of BMX freestyle park, skateboarding and 3x3 basketball all set to make their debut on the Olympic programme at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. According to Carraro, these changes to sport are inevitable due to the increasing numbers of people living in urban settings around the world.
“The changes to the Tokyo 2020 event programme reflect the changing nature of sport and the changing structures of sport,” he explains. “We’re seeing more urban sport. We’re seeing more adapted or shortened formats. These reflect the changes in society, the overall global urbanisation of populations and, therefore, the changes in the ways that they can access sports facilities and experience sport.”
While many of these emerging events and formats are new to the Olympic Games, they have already been seen at previous editions of the Youth Olympic Games (YOG). Monobob, for instance, first appeared at Lillehammer 2016, while 3x3 basketball has been on the YOG programme since Singapore 2010 and BMX freestyle park has made its debut at Buenos Aires 2018 this October.
This use of the YOG as a platform to test and validate new sport formats has now become one of the key strategic goals for the IOC, which hopes to enhance the YOG’s role as “an incubator for innovation”.
“The Youth Olympic Games reflect wider trends in sport,” explains Carraro, “such as the urbanisation of certain formats of sport, or shorter, more youth-focused forms of team sports. We now have 13 events that have come through from the YOG to inclusion in the Olympic Games, thanks to the increased flexibility we have around the Olympic programme on a Games-to-Games basis. “So the YOG does provide a testing ground for us, and that’s not only important for the Olympic programme, but it’s also important in terms of the sports themselves, by providing an opportunity, and a showcase, for these new formats.”
Alongside urbanised and more youthful formats, the YOG has also led the way with innovative mixed gender events, which are now also becoming commonplace at the Olympic Games.
At Tokyo 2020, for instance, there will be 18 mixed events – twice as many as Rio 2016 – while Beijing 2022 will feature new mixed events in short track speed skating, ski jumping, aerials and snowboard cross. The inclusion of these mixed events is a significant step towards achieving the 50 per cent gender balance at the Olympic Games and Olympic Winter Games for both athletes and events, which is a clear objective of Olympic Agenda 2020. It is also another concrete example of how the Games continue to lead the way in promoting gender equality in sport.
Ever since female athletes first competed in Paris in 1900 – before women had even been granted the right to vote in most countries around the world – the Olympic Games have played a key role in breaking down gender barriers.
According to Carraro, the ever-increasing participation of women at the Games has been one of the most important developments over the last 50 years and the milestone of full gender parity is a key target for the future.
“The growth of gender equality in the Olympic Programme is critical to us,” he says. “It has grown considerably since the first modern Olympic Games, and has been a real focus of recent decisions for the Olympic programme.”
We know every opportunity we provide for women in the Olympic Games has a flow-on impact for the promotion of gender equality and the opportunities that are given to female athletes around the world.Franco Carraro Chair of the IOC Olympic Programme Commission
Changes to the Olympic programme will lead to record female participation in Tokyo (48.8 per cent) and Beijing (45.4 per cent), but the YOG will once again lead the way with full gender parity already achieved at Buenos Aires 2018 and the upcoming Winter YOG Lausanne 2020. For Carraro, this milestone will also have a further impact beyond the Games. “It’s not just a statistic, because we know that every opportunity we provide for women in the Olympic Games has a flow-on impact for the promotion of gender equality and the opportunities that are given to female athletes around the world,” he says. “It influences increased quotas for women in other sporting events and leads to further investment in women’s sport at a national level. Equally the mixed events underline our approach by showcasing male and female athletes at the same level, in the same type of events, and competing as equals.”
In addition to paving the way for gender equality and providing a taste of what future Olympic sports programmes may look like, the YOG also offers a chance for fans to get a first glimpse of the next generation of sporting talent.
“We have already seen the importance of the YOG as a pathway to the Olympic Games,” says Carraro. “At Rio 2016, for example, we had over 500 athletes who had previously competed in the YOG, across a wide range of sports and NOCs.”
There were 4,000 more young athletes aiming to begin a similar journey to the Olympic Games in Buenos Aires this October, but what will the Games of the future look like when they make it there? According to John Coates, chair of the Executive Steering Committee for the “New Norm” and of the Coordination Commission for the Games of the XXXII Olympiad Tokyo 2020, among the most significant changes will be an increased flexibility for host cities, greater assistance from the IOC and the wider Olympic Movement, and an overall reduction in the costs and complexities of delivering the Games.
“From an organiser’s standpoint, the Games of the future will definitely be easier to organise,” he explains. “There will be strong collaboration with the Olympic Movement – from National Olympic Committees, the International Federations, the IOC – and there will be less pressure in the first three years of organisation.”
These goals will be achieved through the implementation of the “New Norm” – a set of 118 reforms, announced in February this year, that reimagine how the Games are delivered.
“This is the practical implementation of Olympic Agenda 2020 and how it relates to the Games,” explains Coates. “The 118 measures each point to savings that can be made in organising the Games and cover everything from reducing venue sizes and rethinking transport options to optimising existing infrastructure and reusing venues for various sports. If you deliver these solutions, it means reducing the complexity for organisers, reducing financial pressures and reducing the cost of Games organisation.”
But despite all these cost-saving measures, athletes can be sure that the Games of the future will still remain at the pinnacle of sport. “We have to contain the costs of organising the Games but, at the same time, constantly adapt, evolve and widen the scope,” reveals Coates. “You wouldn’t expect the Games to be anything other than at the very top in every single area, so you have to be excellent from a governance standpoint, you have to be perfect from an environmental standpoint, you have to have sport at its best, you have to have the entertainment factor at the top, hospitality has to be great. You cannot have any glitches when it comes to technology. This is the pressure we are operating under; the expectation on the organisers and us is perfection and excellence, nothing else. We have to constantly impress.”
From an organiser’s standpoint, the Games of the future will definitely be easier to organise. There will be strong collaboration with the Olympic Movement.John Coates Chair of IOC Coordination Commission for Tokyo 2020
So just how will the Games continue to impress fans around the world in the future?
“When it comes to the events themselves, one aspect that will continue to evolve is the venues,” says Coates. “They will become more than just sporting venues and offer a much wider experience for spectators by integrating more and more services and more and more sophistication in terms of hospitality and technology. So the venue of the future will offer a much more immersive experience. “This is important as we have to constantly strive to make the experience of the Olympic Games unique for everybody. It is a once-in-a-lifetime experience for many people. So the sports presentation will also evolve to become even more spectacular as well. There will be more digital integration, so not only will you be able to watch what happens live, but you will also have access to all the analytics through developments such as augmented reality. A lot will evolve in the near future and, if it evolves for the Games, it will evolve for sport in general.”
With augmented reality in the stands and more urban, youthful sports on the field of play, the Games of the future may look very different to those revived by Coubertin at the end of the 19th century. But, according to Coates, at their core they will always retain the fundamental principles that Coubertin held dear, acting as a platform to promote the values of sport, the values of Olympism, and the goals of the Olympic Movement.
“The Olympic Games are unique and they will remain unique,” says Coates. “They are greater than the event itself because they carry all these values, and the power of that original vision still means a lot to the athletes and everyone involved in the Olympic Movement. Everything else evolves to embrace new trends because we need to maintain relevance and adapt to society in general, but we are still inspiring young people around the world to excel through the performances of the athletes. And it is a marvellous future that we have because the intention is for it to remain this way.”