How Tug-of-War Could Save the Olympics

A political primer on the world’s most expensive sports party

Aug 1, 2016
Outside Magazine

Behind the confetti, the Olympics have always been steeped in political interests and conflicts.    Photo: AFP/Getty Images

When I was in high school, my father gave me some sound, if self-serving, advice whenever he and my mother would leave town for the weekend: don’t throw house parties. As host, he said, I’d need to spend a lot of money up front to make sure the place was adequately stocked. There would be those insisting that throwing a party would be a boon to my social status, but I shouldn’t for a second be fooled into thinking that such people had my best interests in mind. In the end, I’d be the one left cleaning up the mess long after the revelers had departed.

The same sentiment is becoming increasingly prevalent in cities’ attitudes towards hosting the Olympic Games. As Outside wrote earlier this year, a number of candidates, including, most recently, Oslo, Boston, and Hamburg, are saying the Olympics are an honor they can do without. When Beijing(!) was “awarded” the 2022 Winter Olympics, its only remaining competitor was Almaty, Kazakhstan (to Almaty’s credit, it actually sees regular snow during the winter). 

On the eve of another Olympics, I spoke with professor Jules Boykoff about some of the problems that come with throwing the world’s biggest sports party. Himself a former member of the U.S. Olympic soccer team in the early 1990s, Boykoff has just published Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. The book is recommended to anyone wishing to understand how the current pushback against the Olympic machine carries on a legacy of dissent that, in a sense, was there from the very beginning.  

OUTSIDE: Your book is subtitled “A political history of the Olympics.” What makes the Olympics inherently political?
BOYKOFF: It’s long been claimed by powerful people within the Olympic movement that the Olympics and politics don’t mix. But, if you take a close look at the longer history of the Olympics, it becomes pretty clear that that idea is just a fairy tale. 

It’s hard to watch the Olympic opening ceremonies, for example, without realizing that everybody is organized by country, marching behind a flag. It’s hard to not see the recent selection processes for who will be the host of the Olympics as eminently political. Who wins and who loses (because of the Olympics) in the host city—those are political issues. Plus, political leaders get on board to support the Olympics. Look at Rio, for example. Who is the political face of the Olympics there? It’s undoubtedly Eduardo Paes, the English-speaking, beer-quaffing, mediagenic mayor of Rio. 

It just seems beyond fathomable to argue that the Olympics are not political when the people who run the Olympics are political, and where politics thrums through almost every gesture, even on the athletic pitch. 

What are two of the biggest issues with the Olympics as they exist today? To put it crudely: what are the major ways in which the Olympics are “broken”? 
For starters: the funding. Essentially, the Olympics have transformed into a hyper-corporate franchise that is, more or less, purchased with taxpayer dollars. As the Games have gotten bigger and bigger, the price tag has gotten larger and larger, and a lot of the burden of funding the Olympics has fallen on the shoulders of everyday people, who are in turn excluded from the Olympics. 

A second issue that is linked, but I think slightly different, is that when the Olympics come to a city they tend to exacerbate the social, political, and economic inequalities that already exist in the society. In Rio right now, where hospitals are being shuttered and health services are being dialed back [due to Brazil’s worst recession in recent memory], they are paying for this large Olympics—basically a two-and-a-half week sports party that you can’t even go to if you’re an everyday person in Rio. In the host city, there’s a serious disconnect between who gets to participate and who doesn’t. 

Unfortunately, it’s just what we might suspect: it’s political elites, well-connected economic elites, a privileged sliver of the global one percent who helicopter into the Olympic city to enjoy the Games, and the everyday people in the Olympic city unfortunately don’t. I think we are seeing those two dynamics in full-throttle Technicolor right now in Rio. The mayor had a good idea a little while back: he said he was going to give 1.2 million free tickets away to everyday people. That would have allowed people to get into the Olympic spirit and whatnot. But he dialed that way, way back; it’s a small tiny sliver of people now [who are being given free tickets] according to recent reports

Given that ticket sales represent only a relatively minor percentage of Olympic revenue (sponsorship deals and broadcasting rights account for 92 percent), the failure to deliver on the free ticket promise feels particularly disappointing. 
I totally agree. And it’s not like ticket sales are going through the roof right now. [This interview was conducted in July.] Tickets are available. 

I do think the mayor should follow through with his words and have political integrity, but that also opened up a real possibility for the International Olympic Committee to lend a hand. This would have been a real positive place for them to step in and help the mayor, if he lacks the funds or political will, by maybe donating. I mean, look, the IOC is a non-profit, but it sure is profitable. They have, according to their own records, a billion dollars in reserves. So this would have been a minor thing for them money-wise, but a major thing for some everyday people in the city.

In your book you mention that the Olympics as they exist today are reflective of something you call “celebration capitalism.” Can you explain that in further detail?
To understand celebration capitalism, it’s worth taking a small detour to look at Naomi Klein’s idea of disaster capitalism. She argues that when there’s a disaster, whether it’s a hurricane or a sharp economic downturn, business entities swoop in and recommend a whole series of measures of privatization and deregulation—to basically follow the idea of “let the market decide.” 

The idea with celebration capitalism is that you have a similar state of exception, but rather than a state of exception involving danger or peril, you have one involving social celebration. Let’s not forget: the Olympics are incredibly popular around the world, so it’s seen as a sort of global celebration. Instead of privatization and deregulation and letting the market decide, as we see with disaster capitalism, with celebration capitalism you see public-private partnerships—extremely lopsided ones where the public tends to shoulder the burden and the private entities linger around to accrue the rewards.

So how do we see that phenomenon manifesting itself right now in Rio?
In Rio you see large amounts of public spending going into the roads that will be necessary to connect the Zona Sol (South Zone) of the city, where [the affluent neighborhoods of] Copacabana and Ipanema are found, to the western part of the city known as Barra da Tijuca [the venue for the Olympic Village and one of the most developed areas in the country]. So it’s using public funds to basically create a conveyor belt out to the Barra da Tijuca zone, where you have very well connected political elites who are pitching in money and are ready to totally capitalize. 

Just look at the Olympic Village as a good example of these dynamics. You’ve got Carlos Carvalho, who is a political economic elite from the city. His company, Carvalho Hosken, is building the Olympic Village. From the beginning the plan has been to convert the Olympic Village [post Games] into luxury housing. He went as far as to tell Jonathan Watts of the Guardian that this is not going to be a place for poor people. This is going to be a noble place for elites only. And this place would barely be on the map were it not for the huge amounts of public money thrown in to create the transportation networks to get to a place where the Olympic Village will be. It will eventually be called Ilha Pura [“Pure Island”]. 

Can you suggest one specific way that the Olympics could do a better job of leaving a positive legacy in a host city?
The place to start has to be controlling costs and figuring out how to spread the benefits in a more equitable way to the people of the city. I’ve made the argument that Olympic Villages should be converted into housing that has a positive social function after the Olympics. Why not have a building from the Olympic Village be converted into, for example, a place for young single mothers who need a place to live and a support network at their ready? That sort of thing demands that you look at each Olympic city and really understand what a city needs. We’re just not seeing that right now. The Olympics are still too much of a “one-size-fits-all” behemoth. 

In your book, you suggest that one way to cut costs is to reevaluate which sports we include in the Olympics. 
I think we totally need to reinvent the slate of events in a way that allows more people to participate. Some sports, dressage for example, are incredibly expensive. Tens of thousands of dollars to train a horse to eventually engage in horse ballet. Who can afford that? Well, certain classes of people can afford that, but in some countries it’s just never going to happen. 

Whereas, you could bring in events like trail running, for example. People from around the world can run and you don’t need tons of equipment like, say, dressage. What about the tug-of-war? That’s a sport that I’ve suggested we should bring back. You basically just need a rope and some muscly people. If you look back at the history of the Olympics, it was a super popular sport in the early nineteen hundreds; if you look at the official report of the Stockholm Olympics of 1912, the tug-of-war was raved about as the big event that everybody was getting really excited about.  

So a real positive thing the Olympics can do is to try to bring in more sports that more people can play—in other words, democratize sports. And that’s absolutely political, right? When you decide to have dressage, it’s essentially limited to people from rich countries, or really rich people from less developed countries. That’s eminently political. 

Filed To: Books, Olympics, Sport, Politics

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