The Fairytale of Olympic ‘Legacies’
Jules Boykoff, author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, says protest mobilizations have brought attention to the corruption and mis-spending around Rio’s ‘corporate sport party for the 1 percent’
SHARMINI PERIES, TRNN: It’s the Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries coming to you from Baltimore.
The 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro are almost half done, but the protest to call attention to the sociopolitical conditions at home that started before the Olympics continue. Brazil’s political crisis, in which President Dilma Rousseff is facing impeachment, became an embarrassing issue when massive booing broke out as interim president Michel Temer opened the games. He himself is barred from running for office by the courts. So let’s have a look.
In addition to the show of discontent during the opening of the games, protests have taken place both inside and outside of the stadium. Security guards under court authorization have removed sports fans who held up placards or wore political t-shirts.
Joining us now to discuss the intersection of politics and the Rio Olympics is Jules Boykoff. He is the author of three books on the Olympics. His most recent one is Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. He joins us from Rio. Thanks for joining us, Jules.
JULES BOYKOFF: Hey, thanks for having me.
PERIES: So, Jules, as we watch the Olympics and some of the truly amazing achievements of the athletes, protesters remind us that the political issues that surround the games are still there. So what are the key issues that they are protesting over, and how large are these protests?
BOYKOFF: Well, it’s interesting. In the leadup to these Olympics, about 100 different mobilization movements around the city got together, and they created something called Jogos da Exclusao. The exclusion games. And it’s to raise issues around spending, mis-spending, really, spending billions of dollars on a corporate sport party for a privileged [inaud.] of the 1 percent instead of on hospitals, instead of on social services, and so on.
It was also around issues of the environment. I’m talking to you right now as golf gets underway in Rio de Janeiro, the first time it’s been around in 112 years. They actually built a golf course over the edge of a nature preserve, if you can believe that. So there’s issues around that, as well. There’s issues around the way indigenous people have been excluded, largely, from the Olympic games. The word ‘indigenous’ is brought up once in the entire Olympic bid for Rio 2016, and that’s in a section on activism and terrorism, as they’re seen as threats, so incredibly problematic in that respect.
So there’s a lot of issues at play here. We’ve seen very large mobilizations. You want to know the size, about 20,000 people came together on the day of the opening ceremonies down on Copacabana Beach for a Fora Temer protest, the interim president who you alluded to in the run-up, who is incredibly unpopular here. He’s got 11 percent approval ratings. 20,000 people on the beach in a kind of festive atmosphere.
In the afternoon there was a smaller protest, I would estimate about 1,000 at a local [prasa] here, where they were focusing more on the anti-Olympics aspect on what is going on here in this city. So there are a lot of protesters that, as you say, spilled over into the Olympic venues. It’s really interesting what’s going on there, as well.
PERIES: Now, Jules, in articles you’ve written in the New York Times and Jacobin magazine, you highlighted that Rio Olympics expenses that the public treasury is bearing were sold to the public on the basis of improving city’s infrastructure, such as the sewage problems, the housing issues, and of course, public transportation. Now that the Olympic infrastructure is built and the games are underway, do you think any of these infrastructures that were built actually address the problems that the protesters are protesting over?
BOYKOFF: Well, first I should just say that this idea of Olympic legacies as Olympic honchos like to discuss it is sort of like trying to buy a stable full of unicorns with a bucket of Bitcoin. It’s essentially a fairytale. It’s an alternative universe that actually doesn’t meet up with what we’re seeing here in Rio. But other Olympic cities, as well. So I just want to highlight, you know, it’s easy to waggle a finger at Rio, and I’ve done plenty of that. But it’s really Olympic problems that we’re seeing playing out in the city.
Now, in terms of the legacies that we’re seeing, the water thing, total debacle, it’s not happening, and it’s an incredibly unfortunate travesty for the people of Rio, because that could have been a major benefit for people every day in the Olympic city, here. Transport legacy is a bit more mixed. There’s a new metro line that’s been created that connects the southern zone of the city with the western zone, where a lot of the Olympic action is happening. And that could be good for people of the largest favela, it’s called Rocinha, and there is actually a stop in the middle of Rocinha, so people will be able to have that as a transport option.
One thing, though. Even this positive, potentially positive transport legacy, this one metro extension, is not usable for people in the Olympic city right now unless you have a special ticket to an event and a special metro card. So every day, people in Rio will not be able to enjoy this new transportation structure until the game have passed.
PERIES: Right. And Jules, of course, corruption has plagued Brazil’s political structure, and one of the main constants, I guess, in political life there. What role has corruption played in Rio Olympics in particular, as far as you can tell?
BOYKOFF: Well, it’s really interesting because both Bloomberg and Reuters are involved in some really important investigations around the contracts here for the Olympics, and how they were enfolded into the larger Lava Jato, or Car Wash, scandal. And so that remains to be seen, the specifics about that.
But pretty much [inaud.] the statement that [inaud.] may well be implicating contracts around the Olympics. In terms of how it’s [entered] the stadium is going to be interesting, the crisis. There have been people with Fora Temer signs inside of venues, flashing them, which has led to sort of a showdown with the International Olympic Committee. Your listeners and viewers may know that there’s a specific perturbation within the Olympic Charter. It’s Rule 50 that says you cannot engage in political speech inside of venues. And so these protesters who have been holding up Fora Temer signs at events, including our friend Dave Zirin–I took a picture of him the other day at a basketball game holding a Fora Temer sign, sports writer for the Nation–those people, not Dave, but other people have been kicked out of these arenas.
And ti’s set up a showdown because a Brazilian federal judge recently threw down an injunction saying that that violates free speech in Brazil. And let’s not forget, the military dictatorship is not a distant memory. It only ended in 1985. And so when people see sort of authoritarian figures like the IOC getting into their town and imposing these weird, anti-free speech standards it really sort of raises some eyebrows, and that’s going to be interesting, to see how that plays out over the coming days.
PERIES: Right. And Jules, finally, in the first question in your answer you highlighted the fact that the indigenous people of Brazil, where there are many, were feeling left out, and some of the protests were about that. Compare that to, say, the Australian Olympics, where at least in the opening ceremonies there was various attempts to acknowledge the existence of the indigenous people of Australia, as optics may have been. Give us a sense of the Rio Olympics compared to other Olympics when it comes to the way in which it is being organized, and the patterns of protest, and of course just compare it to the historical work you’ve done in terms of the Olympics.
BOYKOFF: Yeah, thanks for that. One of the big tasks that I try to take on in Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics was to look at the long-term relationship between the Olympics and indigenous communities around the world. And while there’s been a number of really terrific athletes, like Jim Thorpe, for example, who was sort of the indisputable star of the 1912 Olympics, he’s a [inaud.] and [inaud.] Native American from Oklahoma in the United States.
There’s also been some kind of ugly underbelly moments in the history of the games. 1976, Montreal, they had non-Native people dress up as if they were Natives and participate in the opening ceremonies there pretending they were First Nations people. So that was really not taken well by First Nations scholars like Janice Forsyth, activist groups across Canada.
You mentioned Sydney, where there was a little bit more involvement, and there was also Vancouver 2010, where there was something called the Four Host First Nations. So there were four First Nations that played a sort of hosting role in the Olympics. That was the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh bands that came together, these First Nations, I should say. So this time to see that there’s no inclusion of Native peoples in any kind of meaningful way, especially after Brazil just hosted the World Indigenous Games last fall, and it wouldn’t be hard to find people who could play a significant role, that’s disturbing.
And for those that watched the opening ceremony, you saw indigenous people playing a role that was kind of curious, because they were locked in the past. There was an element where indigenous peoples were part of the opening ceremony, but they were all in clothes from the old days. They made it seem as if Native peoples aren’t part of thriving cultures today, and I think that’s extremely, extremely problematic given the fact that indigenous communities are thriving around the world, have shown incredible resilience in the face of imperialism, colonialism, and that you would never get that from watching the opening ceremonies here in Rio de Janeiro.
PERIES: All right, Jules. I thank you so much for your time, and I know it’s been technically a bit difficult connecting with us, but we do appreciate everything you’ve done to make this possible.
BOYKOFF: Well, thank you. I appreciate you, too. Thanks for your flexibility here.
PERIES: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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