Geographer and journalist Christopher Gaffney lived for years in Rio, researching, writing, and teaching about the effects of sports on the urban landscape. He returned this year for the Olympic Games and found a city that had been effectively turned over to the IOC and its corporate partners. Meanwhile, Brazil’s taxpayers foot the bill and the city’s workers make sure the party goes on, even though they can’t afford to see the events. As the Games get bigger and bigger in order to turn a profit, is it time to call a time-out for the Olympics?
Rio 2016 is drawing to a close. Behind the headlines of spoiled US athletes doing stupid things and lying about it, familiar narratives have played out in the latest installment of the IOC’s globalizing binge.
For readers of this site, and for those with a critical view of sporting mega-events, it will hopefully need no explaining that the athletic competitions of the Olympic Games are a handy narrative thread that hides a rapacious global business model. The fact that we don’t know the end result of the contests on the track and in the pool gives us some temporary excitement and allows us to marvel at astonishing physical feats, while providing cover for the real agenda of the Games: corporate profit and geopolitical posturing. The Russians were thought to have given the surprise ending away a few too many times through doping, so many of their spoilers were forced to stay home. Yet despite the Russian absence, the imperious entrance of the USA into the Maracanã erased any doubt about which nation-state was going to walk away with the most multi-colored cheese plates hung around their collective necks. The nationalist project of the Games is alive and well: a dangerous tool in perilous times.
Even though a trip to the podium can bring actual wealth for some individuals, the competition for precious Olympic metal is purely symbolic. We don’t really know if someone in the world is faster than Bolt or stronger than Djangabev. It doesn’t really matter, either. All of the record breaking is exciting, but at the end of the day, Olympism is a nationalistic pissing contest. Olympians may be spectacularly fit, but the lives of these athletes are not particularly healthy. Their young bodies and minds are wrenched into unnatural forms to compete against each other based on geographic divisions that reinforce the political and economic status quo.
Behind the curtain of the Olympics are the unseen triumphs of a coalition of commercial interests that brings the Games into being. These players are after real gold, and the Rio Games are their beachhead in a new market. This is the neocolonialist reality behind Rio 2016’s slogan, “A New World.”
Olympic accumulation happens within a number of interconnected circuits and requires innumerable exemptions, exceptions, and suites of special laws that facilitate the process. In Brazil, this has taken the form of the General Law of the World Cup and the Olympic Law, both of which offered billions in tax exemptions for IOC “stakeholders” such as Coke, Samsung, and Dow Chemical, while guaranteeing the transfer of public money to create an adequate stage for the Olympic drama. This is nothing new, but the rapaciousness of accumulation practices in a city and country mired in political, economic, environmental, and social crises has exposed the model as never before.
What I have been witnessing in Rio over the last month has been a city given over in parts to the Olympic bacchanal, with street closures, privatization of public space, and militarization of security. I have been to all of the venues. At every one, I have seen the upper-middle class of Rio enjoying themselves and the international tourist class stuffing their faces. The cariocas are there, working hard to make sure everyone has a good time in the Olympic city. People who usually work cleaning homes in Rio are now serving mini-pizzas that cost more than they make in an hour. The cheapest ticket for the track and field sessions was R$380, almost half of a month’s minimum wage. The R$40 billion public outlay for the Rio Games has consolidated elite privilege at the expense of everyone else.
So while the Games will inevitably be considered a success, this is merely a repetition of the hackneyed script handed to the corporate media by the organizing coalition. To be sure, questions of legacy and value for money are being asked as never before. The principal benefit of having a place as structurally unjust as Brazil host the parasitic, rent-seeking Olympic Games is that the conversation about the business model of sporting mega-events is more widespread than ever. However, no amount of commitment to a “new sustainability” in the Games will be able to retroactively justify what has happened in Rio over the last seven years. Agenda 2020 is the IOC’s latest attempt to negotiate itself out of a crisis of legitimacy, but there are no signatories to the document, and no guarantees that Rio will not repeat itself in Los Angeles or Paris.
Perhaps the clearest argument for stopping the Games is that we appear doomed to repeat the same questions and answers again and again and again. The media companies and their editors and journalists have no interest in questioning the model because their jobs, suite of privileges, and readership/viewership depend on it. Thus, giants like NBC are keen to neuter debate about the political economy of the event once the torch is lit. What we inevitably get from journalists are questions about cost overruns, white elephants, and preparedness – all questions that ignore the real issues at the root of the event itself. The outcomes are always the same: gentrification, militarization, privatization, useless infrastructure, elite benefit for public cost. This is no accident. It is the business of the Games.
For me, the question of continuing to reproduce the Olympics – and the World Cup – is self-evident, though I know I am in the minority. The current business model is so intertwined with global corporate interests that it can only result in extractive economies of scale that leave spatial and social tragedies in its wake.
The Olympic high priests will always to point to exceptions as the rule and will highlight their self-appointed mission as protectors of a globalized, sporting humanism. For this year’s Games, the IOC – an institution with billions of Swiss Francs at its disposal – contributed to bring ten refugees to compete in Rio. Yet the organization contributes nothing to develop sporting facilities or physical education in refugee camps. Nor will the IOC finance the Paralympic Games out of its more than four billion dollars of profit realized over the last three years, again forcing the bill onto the Brazilians, per terms of the host city contract. The IOC is an institution without political, moral, or sporting credibility (note their handling of the Russian doping scandal), whose civilizing mission has adopted all of the tropes of 19th-century colonialism, while maintaining its members on $900 per diems in Rio. The ticket scandal of Patrick Hickey, head of the European Olympic Committee, is just one example in a litany of villainous acts that have eroded the sand temple of Olympia.
A sensible step would be to pause these destructive spectacles. If the Olympics disappeared for a few years, all of the Olympic sports would continue to have their world championships and the business of professional sport would go on. But cessation of the Olympics would allow space and time for a conversation about how to restructure, reform, and reimagine the Games so that they would benefit and not destroy the places in which they are held.
Christopher Gaffney is senior research fellow in the Department of Geography at the University of Zurich. He is author of Temples of the Earthbound Gods: Stadiums in the Cultural Landscapes of Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires. Chris is on Twitter @geostadia.