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 This.org, 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,”

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Beyond the praise for Paul Kagame

Rwandan Tutsi leader turned President Paul Kagame is a popular man in the West. And why not? In his ten years in office he has lead his war-ravaged nation through a period of unprecedented economic growth which has turned Rwanda into a playground for foreign investors. At the same time, he emphasizes self-reliance and efficient government while supporting populist spending programs that could make Rwanda the only African nation to meet the UN Millennium Development Goals (not that he is a fan of the UN, which he frequently criticizes for its response to the 1994 civil war). His administration in Kigali has admittedly wracked up a deficit that would ordinarily draw frowns from World Bank bureaucrats but in the case of Rwanda, the organization that usually demands drastic budget cuts is underwriting a litany of government programs. It helps that some of Kagame’s greatest admirers are Bill Clinton, Tony Blair, and Starbucks magnate Howard Schultz (1). American evangelist Rick Warren (2) considers him something of an inspiration and even Bill Gates has invested in what has been called Africa’s success story. Yes, Western liberals, reactionary evangelicals, and capitalist carpetbaggers alike tout Paul Kagame as the herald of a new, self-reliant African prosperity.

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