A drawing of the Olympic rings with the word "CANCEL" written above it. A magnifying glass is positioned in front of the rings.
Numerous groups have called for cancellation of the 2020 Olympic Games (image by Henry Wong, South China Morning Post)

Does holding a sporting mega-event like the Tokyo Olympic Games amidst a pandemic and the continuing environmental crisis of global warming exemplify the “death drive” of 21st century capitalism? By “death drive,” I am referring to recent work by the Swiss-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who argues that the capitalist system’s “compulsion of accumulation and growth” is driving global society towards environmental and human catastrophe. Han extends from the work of Sigmund Freud, who believed that the “cruel aggressiveness” of humans could be attributed to our propensity for self-destruction and our “drive to return to the inanimate condition” of death. Han uses Freud’s notion of the death drive to explain the destructive tendencies of capitalism. It is the human’s “unconscious fear of death,” he writes, that feeds the capitalist order: people pursue and accumulate capital as a way of escaping the grips of death, believing that more growth, more power, and more capital “means less death.” The result is a “frenzy of production and growth” as capitalism prioritizes unrestrained entrepreneurialism and the accumulation of capital over the global ecosystem and the well-being of life on Earth.

Han argues that the death drive of capitalism is also pushing society to mental collapse, as the capitalist logic of accumulation and growth is increasingly imposed on human life itself and leading to widespread neuronal illnesses and pathologies (depression, hyperactivity, anxiety disorders). Human society has become a “burnout society,” with the capitalist emphasis on growth, efficiency, and productivity driving people to compulsively find ways to optimize their performance and maximize their productivity in all areas of their lives. It is a society of “fitness studios, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetics laboratories,” transforming people into human “projects” who look to constantly refashion and optimize themselves through the consumption of self-help books, motivational seminars, exercise and yoga classes, fitness tracking devices, and mindfulness apps. Even one’s non-work time is increasingly seen through this capitalist logic of optimization: people seek to “get the most” out of their leisure pursuits through things like world travel, all-inclusive cruises and resorts, and extreme, adrenaline-based activities like skydiving and bungee jumping. Han is critical of this drive to optimize human performance because it advances hyperactivity, exhaustion, and burnout, while devaluing contemplation, rest, and pleasurable idleness.

Han’s notion of the death drive highlights the unsustainability of mega events like the Olympic Games in this age of pandemics and environmental degradation. First, the idea of holding the Games inherently privileges capital over human well-being. Over 70% of the population of Japan does not support holding the Games, as many remain unvaccinated and unhappy with the Japanese government’s handling of the pandemic.  Despite the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) efforts to manage the pandemic by banning fans and creating a self-contained “bubble” to protect athletes and workers, clusters of infections emerged at the Olympic site, including the hotels where athletes are staying. Even as COVID cases sharply rose in Japan, IOC President Thomas Bach remained resolute in holding the Games, promising that they will be “safe and secure” and claiming there is “zero” risk that Olympic participants will infect Tokyo residents. This illustrates the death drive’s prioritizing of capital over life, as the IOC is trying to offset the billions of dollars spent preparing for the event and benefit from the billions of dollars in potential revenue.

Then there is the environmental destructiveness of the Olympic mega event. We knew before 2020 that Olympic events are not environmentally sustainable. The IOC’s claims of environmental responsibility are largely a marketing tactic called “greenwashing”: gestures of environmental responsibility designed to protect the Olympic brand that do not translate into real policy or change. Though the IOC claimed that the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro would be a “Green Games for a Blue Planet,” in fact the Games “spurred investment in new, largely wealthy neighborhoods around the Olympic site, rather than focusing on creating a more compact, sustainable city” and failed to meet its promise of mitigating Rio’s water and air pollution problems. Not surprisingly, the IOC is now promoting the Tokyo Games as an eco-friendly event, showcasing superficial changes like podiums made of recycled plastic and medals made of used electronics. Like previous Olympic events, however, the Tokyo Games will have an immense carbon footprint when factoring in things like travel and transportation, waste, the construction of billions of dollars of new facilities and stadiums, and the consumption of energy resources. Exemplifying the death drive of capitalism, the IOC plans for their Games to be “climate positive” by the year 2030 not by rethinking or reducing the size of the Games, but by accelerating purportedly eco-friendly initiatives like the creation of an “Olympic Forest.”

Han’s notion of capitalism’s death drive also forces us to consider the possibility that the unsustainability of the Olympic Games lies in its approach to human activity as much as its environmental impact. The arrival of COVID-19, fueled by the destruction of wildlife habitats as a result of global agribusiness and human development, underscores that there are negative ramifications to unrestrained human pursuits. This suggests that perhaps the pathway to a more ecological and sustainable future requires difficult things like slowing development, restricting human activity in particular ways, and placing a greater emphasis on the pleasurable and valuable aspects of contemplation and inactivity. The problems of the “burnout society” and the Anthropocene are intertwined, leading to increasing calls by scholars and thinkers for people to “do nothing”, treatises on how an ecological society requires “prosperity without growth” and “post-growth living”, and recognition that notions of “rest” is an “integral but often neglected aspect” of movements for social justice. More and more people are recognizing that any adequate resolution to the environmental crisis and the burnout society will require a mode of living based on the virtues of pleasurable inactivity, contemplation, and what Han terms the “idle life.”

If we view the Olympics through the lens of the death drive, we can see a commercial sporting mega-event based on the unsustainable capitalist logic of efficient, maximum performance. The Olympics glorify competition and elite performance, and Olympic athletes are regularly presented as the “universally recognized standard of excellence” to fans and consumers. More than this, the Olympic spectacle is a fully commodified spectacle designed to generate massive amounts of capital from the glorification of athletic performance. This is destructive to both the human performers and the environment. Elite athletes are supposed to be obsessed with winning at the highest level and are supposed to be constantly seeking ways to improve their performance. A human being, however, is not a machine with unlimited performance potential, and recent research shows that high-performance sports place athletes at a much higher risk of injury and “long-term health consequences.” Elite athletes also acutely suffer from neuronal pathologies: rates of anxiety and depression among Olympic and elite athletes are reportedly as high, if not higher, than 45%, along with high rates of eating disorders and other mental health issues. When Olympic athletes are successful or popular, they often become entrepreneurs of themselves, appearing on corporate advertising campaigns and social media platforms as exemplars of maximum achievement. Han’s notion of the capitalist death drive suggests that not only is the Olympic spectacle environmentally destructive, but also destructive for the human participants.

Activists and protestors have pushed for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics, and there are renewed calls to “abolish the Olympics” since it is a “financial boondoggle that ruins lives and enriches the corporate class.” Byung-Chul Han’s notion of the capitalist death drive, however, suggests that we may need to question more than the Olympic spectacle if we are to build a more ecological and humane sporting culture. In this era of environmental degradation and human burnout, we may need to question the sustainability of the very idea of the sporting mega-event.

Samuel M. Clevenger teaches sport management at Towson University. His current research focuses on the role of physical culture in the history of modern town planning and the importance of idleness in the history of sport and physical activity. He recently published research in The International Journal of the History of Sport. He can be found on Twitter.