The Olympic Games: An International Perspective
Jules Boykoff gave the following speech at an event as part of the Popular Committee for the World Cup and the Rio de Janeiro Olympics, called “Mega-events and the Violation of Human Rights in Rio de Janeiro,” on December 8th in Rio.
He is the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, on sale May 2016.
“The Olympic Games: an International Perspective”
Thank you for this opportunity. It is an honor to be with you today.
I have researched the politics of the Olympics for many years. I engaged in activism during the Olympic Games in Vancouver in 2010. I was in London in 2012. I have lived in Rio de Janeiro since August.
My research examines the social, economic and political problems resulting from Rio’s hosting of the Olympic Games. There are three main trends: 1) High costs (increasing over time); 2) Militarization; and 3) Expulsion of People.
All the Olympic Games since 1960 suffered from unforeseen increases in costs. For example, the London Summer Games in 2012 initially cost less than US $4 billion, but costs escalated to $18 billion.
Here in Rio, this is especially familiar. The costs of the Pan American Games in 2007 were initially predicted to cost $250 million, but the costs of the event climbed to $2 billion. The Rio bid for the Olympics was originally $10 billion yet a reputable sports economist estimates that the cost will be closer to $20 billion.
But the huge increase in costs is not the whole story. The Olympic Games typically bring big profits to the city’s elites.
Here in Rio, Carlos Carvalho, a wealthy property developer, will convert the Olympic Village into a “Pure Island,” with “noble housing, not housing for the poor.”
It is strikingly clear that the funds spent on the Olympics in Rio could have been more usefully spent on education, health programs, and basic infrastructure.
The police use mega sports events to increase its arms supplies.
In London, the Ministry of Defense put missiles in various locations, including on the roofs of apartment buildings. Even the Olympic mascots appeared to be surveillance cameras with legs! Rio will have 85,000 security personnel in the Olympics, more than double the number in London.
Police also use the Olympics to justify a security structure designed to prevent terrorism. But this same structure can also be used for repression of political dissent. In fact, terrorism and political protest are often confused, with the latter twisted into “threats” or “risks” for the Olympic Games. The Rio bid for the Games, for example, made these arguments. The same applies to the recent “anti- terrorism” law passed in Brazil.
The Olympics cause forced displacement of people and increased gentrification.
For the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008, 1.5 million people were removed from their homes. Here in Rio, at least 22,000 families have been removed by the Games.
Because the Olympics are so huge, they affect many issues with which political activists are concerned. In recent years the Olympics have generated intense political dissent.
Vancouver activists were very active and militant during the Olympics. There was a symbolic “Olympic Tent Village” and activists took control of the property of a local businessman that was being rented to the Olympics for a parking lot. Indigenous elders lit a symbolic fire. There was music and seminars, and activists occupied the space until the local government agreed to find housing for local people displaced by the Games. They won over eighty apartments for these displaced people.
There were also militant marches in the street such as the “Heart Attack March” which was led by local anarchists. The idea was to “clog the arteries of capitalism.” The activists broke windows in corporation office buildings, provoking intense discussions about tactics and strategies.
In Vancouver, activists agreed on a “diversity of tactics.” Activists with different styles and methods made a pact to support each other during the Olympic moment. Activists agreed not to denigrate each other’s tactics in public. It was a very important form of solidarity. In Vancouver, anarchists worked with lawyers and artists worked with journalists.
Activists also created an alternative news network during the Olympic Games called the Vancouver Media Coop. It published a newspaper and put videos on the Internet to challenge the Olympic machine.
London has its own Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio de Janeiro. His name is Boris Johnson. Before the Olympics, the mayor of London wrote of critics, “Cut the whining...We will host the greatest show on Earth.”
In London, activists did much to challenge this superficial idea, using humor to disarm their critics. For example, just before the start of the Olympics, a group “Youth Fight For Jobs” created an alternative Olympics in a local park called “The Austerity Games.” Their goal was to have fun and exercise, and also raise serious political criticism. They included various funny events (e.g. “Toss a Tory shot put”). Between these events the organizers offered humorous comments, political theater with a bit of sport.
The Olympics gives huge tax breaks to corporate sponsors. This fact has given rise to a successful Internet campaign led by a group called 38 Degrees. The group organized a campaign designed to convince these companies to admit their tax benefits. After thousands of people signed an online petition, fourteen Olympic sponsors agreed to waive their tax-exempt status. That means about $1 million.
Finally, there was the Greenwash Gold Campaign, an attempt to draw attention to the environmental crimes of Olympic sponsors such as British Petroleum, Dow, and Rio Tinto. Activists created three short animated videos on these corporations. They asked people to vote on who deserved the gold medal for greenwashing. In a public ceremony in Trafalgar Square, activists presented the gold, silver and bronze medals awarded for greenwashing.
The Olympic Games create a unique opportunity for political protest, a moment for movements, an opportunity to talk to people with whom we do not generally have the chance to collaborate with.
Rio de Janeiro’s Olympic bid offered numerous promises related to the social legacy of the Games, such as the cleaning of the environment. The promises are ambitious but they are not true.
They promised cleaner water, but instead we have a golf course. They promised to plant 24 million trees. Instead, we have the “Pure Island.” These lies and injustices demand a public response.
Jules Boykoff is the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, on sale May 2016.