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Thursday, June 17, 2021

Cartoon tune-up to Tokyo Olympics

Sport's greatest extravaganza has always tickled the satirical instincts of cartoonists. The Indian Express looks at the compendium of Olympic-themed cartoons put together by Michael Payne.

Written by Mihir Vasavda | Mumbai |
Updated: June 6, 2021 8:03:29 am
Michael Payne, former International Olympic Committee marketing director, put together the coffee table book. (Toon In!/

The majestic Christ the Redeemer stands tall over the city of Rio de Janeiro with two Olympic rings on each of its outstretched arms and one around the neck. Alongside it is a pithy caption: “Staging the Olympics is always a difficult juggling act.”

Harm Bengen, a German cartoonist, captured Brazil’s turbulent build-up to the 2016 Olympics through this simple, yet provocative, illustration. His piece, however, could have been true for any host city. Especially Tokyo, as the megacity dares to do something that no one has in the past: to conduct an Olympics in the middle of a pandemic.

Five years after it was first published, Bengen’s cartoon was brought back to life last Thursday. His is one of the 1,200 Olympic-themed cartoons reproduced in a 500-page coffee table book, titled ‘Toon In!’.

Michael Payne, the book’s author, calls it an unofficial history of the Olympics. But it is much more than that. The book, a visual delight, is a social commentary through satire on some of the generation-defining issues, seen through the lens of 400 cartoonists and the prism of the Olympics.

And Payne, the former International Olympic Committee (IOC) marketing director, takes the readers behind the scenes with a 100,000-word commentary. It sheds perspective on some of the most controversial topics in Olympics history in a manner that will induce a chuckle.

Like when he writes about the ‘weird’ ancient forms of doping, which included bingeing on sheep’s testicles, seen as a primary source for testosterone, or a bread bake with opium. Or while looking inwards at the IOC’s host-city selection processes (“when Lillehammer was elected host for 1994, such was the shock that (then IOC president Juan Antonio) Samaranch wondered whether he had opened the wrong envelope). Or how, by dropping wrestling from the 2020 Olympics programme, the IOC achieved something unimaginable: “Uniting the US and Iran in common cause. Even Israel sympathised with Iran.”

The 63-year-old writes from a position of authority. Credited widely with transforming the brand Olympics, Payne has seen the Olympics navigate through a wave of crisis.

When he joined the IOC in the early 1980s, the Games were facing an ‘existential challenge’ because of the cold war. “President (Jimmy) Carter called for the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics in a remarkably uninformed manner. It was really scary how the US administration came to the decision with a total lack of facts,” Payne tells The Indian Express from Lausanne. “They originally said, ‘we must call the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) to cancel the Games’. But there was nothing to do with the USOC. They didn’t even know who the IOC was!”

Four decades have passed since and although the Olympics continue to grapple with challenges of all kinds – from geo-political to security to doping to the financial burden on the host nation and now, the pandemic.

Lockdown project

Incidentally, it was during the pandemic-forced lockdown last year that Payne’s project took shape.

“I used to collect Olympic cartoons. I admired the great skill of the cartoonists who, with a drawing, could convey very complicated messages with no words. They were fun and a great commentary on the society,” he says.

A cartoon by USA’s Jim Thompson portrays the Olympic rings with a mask. Athletes competing at the Games have been instructed to wear masks most of the time. (ToonIn!/

So, when Payne decided to put on record the history of Olympics, cartoons seemed a natural medium to narrate it. During the lockdown, he embarked on a research programme. “I started out with probably 100 cartoons and after three months, I was up to 3,000 or more,” he says. “It was not easy because most cartoons were digitised only from the year 2000 onwards. Prior to that, I had to find my way into physical archives,” he says.

Selecting the cartoons was the easy bit. Tracking down the cartoonists – some of whom did not even have an email id – to seek their permission to reprint and get a high-resolution image was tougher than he imagined. But once the cartoons were all lined up, Payne wove a narrative around them; to find Olympic stories that were never told and also share his own first-hand experiences. “Hopefully it will cause people to sort of smile or laugh. And after more than a year of lockdown, we need the laughs,” Payne says.

One gets a feeling that a lot of stories have been told from the perspective of the Western world and Russia ends up becoming the butt of many jokes, especially on the issue of dope cheats. Payne says he tried to get ‘as much balance as possible’ by including the works of cartoonists from more than 50 nationalities. “(But) Cartooning does have a strong Anglo-Saxon heritage,” he says.

He adds: “Yes, there’s some very aggressive cartooning and commentary against Russia, and the whole doping scandal. There’s no question it was one of the worst sporting crimes. But then, you have the Russian saying, ‘just a second, not sure we’re the only ones (doping)’. And then, you look at the Russian cartoons. But it wasn’t easy to ensure a cultural balance because cartooning in China doesn’t have a strong history and heritage. Where possible, though, I tried to dig up some good cartoons so it puts some balance on the narrative.”

‘Stages of support’

Payne launched his book last Thursday at the Olympic museum to mark the 50-day countdown for the Tokyo Olympics. Although the Covid-19 infection rate has been reducing in the Japanese capital, the public support for the Games is at an all-time low, with some of the surveys held in May suggesting that up to 83 percent of the population against holding it in July and August.

Some of Japan’s medical experts, big corporates, newspapers and politicians, too, have warned against conducting the Olympics. But the negative opinion does not concern Payne a lot. It’s in line, he says, with the ‘five stages of public support, based on the five rings’ every Olympics go through.

“Initially, there’s great euphoria that they’ve won the right to host the games. And then it goes, ‘what earth we got done’, ‘this is a disaster’, ‘I’m not going to watch anything’ and the final ring is, ‘this was the best party of our life’.”
Nearly all Olympics have followed this cycle, including Rio, where Payne says, ‘the organization was such a problem, that at times, the IOC didn’t know if they would make it through the next day.’ “In Tokyo, the Organising Committee is probably by far the best prepared of any Games recently,” he says.

A cartoon by Japanese-American artist Roger Dahl encapsulating the Olympic tribulations of Japan PM Yoshihide Suga. (Toon In!/

Yet, it is safe to assume there won’t be a party-like atmosphere in Tokyo before, during or after the Olympics. At best, there’ll be a collective sigh of relief if these Games get done without a major incident.

The staggering complexities and Covid-19 restrictions are portrayed in a striking fashion in the book, with images that show socially-distanced Olympic rings, and another where the rings are covered in a disposable mask.

Then, there’s one by Japanese-American cartoonist Roger Dahl, which encapsulates the Olympic tribulations of Japan Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga — sprinting and stumbling over hurdles, while getting entangled in a few. Alongside, a caption: “Keep calm and hurdle on.”

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