By Sonali Kolhatkar, published on Truthdig, Aug 11, 2016 (additional related reading further below)
Everyone loves the Olympics. They allow people all over the world to set aside their political and religious differences and enjoy a few weeks of healthy competition between a few thousand people who have spent years honing their skills.
At least, this is what we tell ourselves.
In fact, not everyone loves the Olympics. Often, the poorest sectors of society within the host countries experience displacement and other forms of oppression as authorities work hard to impress visiting athletes and spectators. In Brazil, the first South American country to serve as the international showcase, this was certainly true. More than 20,000 families were displaced to make way for Olympics-related infrastructure. In fact, the state of Rio de Janeiro, where the games are being held, is in such desperate financial circumstances that state workers are not being paid and health care centers cannot even afford to take on the Zika virus crisis. Rio declared bankruptcy ahead of the games, and the state’s governor declared a “state of calamity.”
But the mayor of Rio de Janeiro was quick to assure the world that the economic disaster “in no way delays the delivery of Olympic projects and the promises assumed by the city of Rio.” Apparently, delivering basic services to the city’s residents is a lower priority than accommodating the Olympics.
In a recent Dallas News opinion column, Andrew Zimbalist, an expert on the social and financial cost of hosting the Olympics, said, “The net outcome of the Rio Games is that they will have spent $20 billion, they will receive $4.5 billion in revenue, and they will end up with a $15 billion deficit.”
While the fireworks and glittering stadiums overshadow the social and financial problems of this year’s host nation, the facade is crumbling. Rio’s famous favelas are in full view of many venues, and concerns about sewage-infested waters are so serious that athletes competing in water sports have been advised not to splash in, or accidentally drink, the virus- and bacteria-ridden water.
Brazil is hardly an exception in the long line of host countries paying far too dearly for the privilege of hosting the games. The billions spent on building the required infrastructure rarely translate into direct, long-term benefits for the citizens of host countries. Instead, ordinary people pay dearly for the fleeting enjoyment of spectators around the world, while corporations prosper from building contracts and lucrative sponsorship agreements and governments earn little more than bragging rights. This series of photos of abandoned and decaying Olympics venues from host cities around the world is a disturbing testament to the ugly and often invisible legacy of the games.
In addition to poverty, displacement and poor public health and infrastructure, Brazil is in the midst of its worst political crisis in decades, as widely discredited impeachment proceedings against democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff play out in the capital, Brasilia. Interim President Michel Temer has painted a rosy hue on the games and worked hard to silence political dissent. Security forces have deployed stun grenades and tear gas on demonstrators. But protesters among the crowds of spectators are speaking out, using the international spotlight to get their message across. Ahead of the games, activists launched a creative and concerted effort to extinguish the Olympic torch as it was carried through Rio’s streets in order to express their opposition to the effort to oust Rousseff. One of the torch-bearers, an Afro-Brazilian athlete, took a personal risk and exposed the words Fora Temer (Out with Temer) emblazoned on his behind, as this video report shows.
As for the notion that the Olympics help us set aside our political and religious divides for a few weeks, even that is a lie. If anything, the games become nationalistic rituals that amplify existing divides and are simply an excuse to drape oneself with a flag and beat one’s favorite enemy nation in the arena of sports. Certainly this is better than actual war—but rarely, if ever, is it a substitute for war.
On the flip side, the Olympic Games offer yet another platform to display all the societal ills we struggle with on a daily basis, such as sexism and racism. Even the debut of the “refugee team” at this year’s games may do little to humanize the toll of wars (but what about Brazil’s own internally displaced refugees that the Olympics have generated?). Pentagon officials who draw up war plans are hardly going to be moved by the humanity of Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee swimmer, and stop bombing her fellow Syrian civilians. It may cause some individuals in Western nations to think twice about their bigoted attitudes toward incoming refugees (or it may amplify existing stereotypes, such as those elicited by a hijab-wearing Egyptian volleyball player). But basic and fair media coverage of the issues refugees face when wars displace them could achieve the same end without the high price of the Olympics.
But aren’t the Olympics a wonderful venue for young, talented athletes who have spent years honing their skills? As the hilariously prescient, satirical video-podcast “Ultra Spiritual Life” noted about athletes at the Rio Olympics, “I’m grateful that this 15-year-old girl had parents who were emotionally abusive enough to live through her. Nine hours of training every day since she was 3 years old equals trauma in her psyche, stress fractures in her legs, but it equals national pride for me.” Stories about young children in China being trained for the 2012 Olympics revealed a shocking level of brutality meted out for the national pride of winning a gold medal. Additionally, the financial burden of training for the Olympics, particularly in countries like the U.S., which does not provide subsidies for athletes’ families, is huge and often leads to bankruptcy.
Even heartwarming stories of underdogs winning Olympic medals are not worth the price of the games. The story of a young Afro-Brazilian girl, Rafaela Silva, who hails from the famed City of God favela and won a gold medal, provided just the “inspiration” fodder that many people, including liberals, like to tout. But Silva’s story plays right into the neoliberal myth of individual success being possible for anyone who simply works hard enough. What about the broader community from which Silva emerged? Brazil’s favelas are among the most dangerous places for children to grow up, rife with poverty, drugs and violence, and Silva’s story has no practical, positive bearing on them. In fact, the Olympics only ensure that the state will spend years paying off the debt of hosting the games rather than spending the money on the welfare of its residents.
Are the games really worth the collective and individual sacrifice that so many communities and legions of people pay? Ultimately, the Olympics, like most global sporting events (such as World Cup soccer), distract us from the real work of solving societal ills, divert far too many resources away from human needs and amplify nationalist fervor and existing divides. All in the service of athletes vying for medals and millions of spectators who wrap themselves in flags while cheering them on.
The fairytale of ‘Olympic legacies’, interview with Jules Boykoff on The Real News Network, Aug 14, 2016
Jules Boykoff is a professor in the Department of Politics and Government at Pacific University in Oregon. He is the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics as well as other books on the Olympics.
Dave Zirin: Protests by athletes and displaced Rio residents accompany opening of 2016 Olympic Games, interview on Democracy Now!, Aug 5, 2016
Dave Zirin is sports editor of The Nation. He is the author of the book Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. He writes a weekly column on Edge of Sports.
EDITOR’S NOTE: We remind our readers that publication of articles on our site does not mean that we agree with what is written. Our policy is to publish anything which we consider of interest, so as to assist our readers in forming their opinions. Sometimes we even publish articles with which we totally disagree, since we believe it is important for our readers to be informed on as wide a spectrum of views as possible.