The Olympics and the politics of the spectacle

What won't the cameras be showing us?

The Olympics are more than just a game. I don’t mean that in the sense that they are a serious competition for national pride for which the word “game” does not do justice. Rather, considering the billions of dollars in corporate sponsorships, the equally substantial sums of public money pumped into the host city, and the occasional political sideshow, the quadrennial athletic exhibition is about far more than points scored and records broken. But I wish the Olympics were merely a matter of national pride. I’m an American so losing at curling is the least of my indignities.

Never the less, I am left wondering what these spectacles mean in the twenty-first century. If anything, the impending World Cup and Winter Olympics serve as an intriguing allegory for global capitalism itself. Writing for, Andrew Wallace remarked on what the Olympics mean for Vancouver activists:

“…the real legacy of the Games won’t be the revamped Sea-to-Sky Highway or new sports infrastructure in Richmond. And it certainly won’t be the 250 units of social housing the city has promised from the freshly constructed athletes village. The real legacy will be debt. Crippling public debt. According to 2010 Watch’s Christopher Shaw, the Olympics are quickly shaping up to be Vancouver’s very own ‘Big Owe.’

“And that debt could put more pressure on existing grassroots groups, especially when funds are cut and the world’s eyes aren’t on Vancouver. Sport can be a powerful platform for awareness—but it also comes with a short attention span. It’ll be difficult for the organizations that have been so vocal in the run up to the Games to maintain the force of their voice once the Olympic spotlight has moved on,”

Looking past the social, environmental, and indigenous issues specific to British Columbia, we can see an interesting juxtaposition. For all the talk of the Olympic Games and events like them representing the best of humanity — the coming together of all peoples for something we can all appreciate — there is an ironic display of disunity and disparity.

We can see it in the impoverished neighborhoods of Vancouver which are being spruced up for the onslaught of Olympic revelers. The same activists who criticized their city’s spending on the festivities will sooner or later be protesting the inevitable budget cuts which will result.

We could see it in Beijing in 2008 when sporadic protests pierced the closely orchestrated proceeding to point out the irony of having tens of thousands of foreign journalists in a city with a tightly controlled press.

We saw it in Atlanta in 1996 somewhere between the domestic terrorist attack and the police distributing one-way bus tickets out of town to the homeless.

We will see it again in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro and the shantytowns of South Africa as they set to host global sporting events of their own amid their growing divide between their fantastically wealthy and their hopelessly impoverished.

However much we talk about the world coming together over the games we all love which can be watched live on television by more people than ever before, we can clearly see that the winners and losers of these brand-name showcases are already decided. Now we just wait for the athletes to do their thing.

Image by Flickr user alepouda.

Author: Andrew Oxford

Andrew Oxford is a journalist living in San Antonio, Texas and Boston. His work has been featured in Le Monde Diplomatique and The San Antonio Express-News.

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