Festival of nationalism
This year’s Olympics are even more grotesque than normal, writes Eddie Ford
Once again, the Olympic Games are upon us. And once again we have a chorus of pious voices telling us that the games, and sport in general, has nothing to do with politics. But the Olympics have always been saturated with politics - politics of the very worst sort: ie, a poisonous nationalism lubricated by big money and corporate sponsorship.
However, Rio 2016 is turning out to be especially grotesque - featuring a stream of scandals and naked political intrigue, leading to speculation that it might be the most disastrous games in modern times. The host state itself is in a state of political turmoil, with the incumbent president, Dilma Rousseff of the Workers Party, currently suspended and facing impeachment after orchestrated protests by the right against corruption and a rapidly deteriorating economy. It is worth noting that there have also been mass counter-mobilisations by the left.
The right-dominated senate issued a report on August 2 accusing Rousseff of violating the constitution by “manipulating” government accounts - it is expected to lead to the final trial phase by the beginning of September. As for former president Lula da Silva, once the darling of the right-on western left, he too is under investigation for corruption and systematic bribery. But we should not really expect anything else from a leftwing government trying to run capitalism in a country like Brazil.
With a depressing sense of déjà vu we read how thousands of families have been evicted or threatened with eviction - just like with the World Cup two years earlier.1 Additionally, and inevitably, the least affluent areas of Rio have seen property price surges of 68% or more, making them even less affordable for the displaced. For example, in Vila Autódromo - a favela2 with a long history of resisting eviction attempts - most of the 500 resident families were removed to accommodate the Olympic Park, which hosts several major facilities and the press centre. Since 2009, when the games got the go-ahead, there have been more than 2,600 police killings in Rio alone.
There is also the environmental angle. Take, for instance, Guanabara Bay, heavily impacted by urbanisation and rapid deforestation - more than 70% of the sewage from 12 million inhabitants of Rio now flows into the bay untreated and there have been three major oil spills. As part of the preparations for the 2016 games, the government promised to improve the conditions, but progress has been slow to non-existent. Thus the quality of the water that marathon swimmers, boaters, sailors, etc have to perform in is less than ideal. An Associated Press report published last week said contamination levels were “dangerously high” due to human waste, raw sewage and human remains in the water - “fishermen’s wooden boats sink into thick sludge in the Guanabara Bay”. On top of that, the main ramp at Marina da Gloria port collapsed just days before the August 5 opening ceremony and Team Australia has bitterly complained that its hotel accommodation in the athletes’ village was “uninhabitable”.
Then we have the famous Russian doping scandal, with the McLaren report commissioned by the World Anti-Doping Agency saying it was “beyond reasonable doubt” that Russia had operated a “state-dictated” system to cover up hundreds of positive tests.
On July 24 the IOC rejected WADA’s “nuclear option” of imposing a blanket ban on the Russian team; rather a decision would be made by each individual sport federation. The IOC’s president, Thomas Bach - said to have strong links with Vladimir Putin3 - argued that it would be wrong to make individual Russian athletes “collateral damage” for the wrongdoing of their government. A viewpoint shared by 84 out of 85 IOC members in Rio, with only Britain voting against.4 Putin, naturally, denounced the “blatant discrimination” of the International Association of Athletics Federations in banning Russia’s track and field team - describing it, with some cheek, as an “an attempt to bring the rules of world politics into the world of sport”. So, even at this very late stage, there is still some confusion as to who can and cannot compete.
In turn, thirteen national anti-doping organisations (including those from the US and Germany) issued a damning verdict on the IOC’s “hasty and ill-conceived” response to Russian doping.5 The IOC “issued a confusing patchwork of conflicting and insufficient instructions to international sport federations” - meaning that a “radical change is needed to ensure that such a failure never occurs again”. Dream on.
But, of course, the idea that Russia is the only team engaged in large-scale drug use or ‘cheating’ is risible. What about the US or China, or even - god forbid - Team GB? A recent re-analysis of samples provided at the London and Beijing Olympics took the total number of athletes who have failed doping tests so far to 98 - the IOC saying that 23 of the 30 positive tests taken from the Beijing samples involved medallists.6 But this can only be the tip of the iceberg, with more samples from Beijing and London (specifically aimed at medal winners) set to be tested throughout and beyond the Rio Games. In some respects though, these new tests just confirm that there are some countries that are good at getting away with doping - and some that are less good.
Frankly, however, if sportspersons are determined to win, and if they can take something that will give them that extra half a percent advantage, then the chances are that they will - we live in a fallen world, after all. They are not going to Rio as rugged individuals out only for personal betterment and inner spiritual satisfaction, but as representatives of various countries locked into a perpetual global struggle as to who becomes top dog. Winning, and getting medals, is all that matters. These are the instructions. Just ask the British government, which took the less than noble decision to finance sport according to its gold medal potential - no more, no less.
This has led to the so-called “no compromise” system: prove you have a realistic chance of a medal in the coming games and meet a series of annual performance targets or have your funding withdrawn - as the old Queen song goes, no time for losers. In that mercenary way, hundreds of millions of pounds have been channelled into elite sports. Basketball is a particularly telling case study. Here we have a sport that is very popular in inner cities and schools, hence surely in need of increased support, yet has had its funding cut from almost £9 million to nothing within a year. Or cycling, whose competitors are drawn from a relatively small handful of nations - making it a minority sport - but has had its funding upped.
In this context, it is impossible not to mention everyone’s favourite cheat-cum-sociopath, the once idolised US cyclist, Lance Armstrong - guilty of industrial levels of doping and an “epic downfall” that “stands out in the history of professional sports”.7 Once he was finally exposed, the overall performance for all riders went down - not because they no longer had Armstrong setting the pace, obviously. Rather, that particular cocktail of performance-enhancing drugs perfected by Armstrong’s team of clever chemists was taken out of the system - and it takes a while for replacements to be developed that are more difficult to detect.
Many readers will recall the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Danny Boyle, as director, skilfully deployed a kaleidoscopic series of images invoking William Blake’s dark satanic mills, the industrial revolution, suffragette movement and today’s NHS.
This totally infuriated quite a few Tories, especially the dancing nurses (don’t we all love the NHS now?), who regarded the ceremony as a party political broadcast on behalf of the Labour Party. One distressed MP spluttered on Twitter: “The most leftie opening ceremony I have ever seen - more than Beijing, the capital of a communist state!” Labour MPs, naturally enough, were cock-a-hoop. Paul Flynn rejoiced that “wonderfully progressive socialist sentiments and ideas were smuggled into the opening romp”. In fact Boyle’s ceremony was an advert for social democracy: a rearticulation of post-World War II British national identity that was not white, imperial and royal. Distressingly for our stodgy Tory MPs, the Olympic opening ceremony had become a site for culture wars - and the wrong side had won.
What about the opening ceremony in Brazil? Will it be about the Brazil of the masses or the Brazil of the elite? If the ceremony involves lots of people of colour, it will send out a big message. The country has a population of 205 million, of which 43.13% are pardo (mixed race), 7.61% are black, 1.09% Asian and 0.43% Amerindian. But what is striking about the country’s new government is that it is entirely white and male.
Every Olympic Games has been about the promotion of nationalism. Simon Jenkins in The Guardian made the interesting suggestion that the Olympics should be “denationalised”, with “teams, flags, anthems and state identities banned” and “victory going to the best person, not the best state” (July 28). Yes, he added, “such games would attract little glamour or public money, but it would be a more honest Olympics for true lovers of sports” - meanwhile the IOC “could then hold its drug-assisted festivals of chauvinism for what are de facto government employees”.
Communists strongly sympathise with the above sentiments. Sport should be valued as an activity worthwhile in itself, a genuine means of self-expression using skills and technique that are akin to artistry. But the national one-upmanship and horse-trading of the Olympic Games is a pristine example of how sport under capitalism is turned into its virtual opposite - a celebration of corporate power and money-worship.
2. An urban slum. Census data released in December 2011 showed that about 6% of the Brazilian population lived in favelas or “subnormal agglomerations” - ie, 11.4 million people.