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One year after London 2012, a call for a dissident Olympics in Rio

Mark Perryman explores the necessity of a politics that takes the Olympics seriously

July 12, 2013
8 min read

As the Olympics came to an end Jonathan Freedland, inspired by the preceding fortnight of sport, wrote in the Guardian of the themes the Games had come to represent:

‘A glimpse of another Britain. A place which succeeds brilliantly, not least by drawing equally on all its talents, black and white, male and female. A place where money and profit are not the only values. A place that reveres not achievement-free celebrity but astonishing skill, granite determination and good grace. A place where patriotism is heartfelt, but of the soft and civic rather than naked and aggressive variety.’

This is the kind of window of opportunity that London 2012 offered. Those meanings do not occur to all, would be resented by plenty and rejected by some, but for many this is precisely what London 2012 meant to them. It seems the worst kind of leftist miserablism to declare from an ideological high ground that none of this potential exists, then, or a year later as the Games approach their first anniversary. Not only does this project a sour-faced version of socialism but it also legitimises a politics of do-nothingness – a failure to re-imagine, an inability to remake. So how to share in the joy yet be prepared to shape something better?

The American cultural critic Stephen Duncombe describes the era when mega-events like the Olympics are dominant as an ‘age of fantasy’. In response he demands not the simple oppositionalism of old but instead: ‘A politics that embraces the dreams of people and fashions spectacles which give these fantasies form – a politics that understands desire and speaks to the irrational; a politics that employs symbols and associations; a politics that tells good stories. We should have learned to manufacture dissent.

This was not the kind of campaigning, of sorts, that took place in and around London 2012. For the most part this consisted of small groups of already highly-committed activists demanding ‘No Olympics’ or an alliance of NGOs and trade unions using the Games to focus on the use of sweatshop labour in the production of sportswear. The latter a vital campaign, yet hardly new, the former spectacularly ineffectual. Instead, to generate what Stephen Duncombe describes, required the projection of what a better Olympics might look like: decentralised, participative, a large element free-to-watch, built around sports that are universally accessible, and a Games that prioritises the celebration of sport rather than serving the interests of its commodification. Little or none of this kind of challenge on a popular level took place.

Fool’s Gold

The Olympic bidding process makes it almost impossible to mount any challenge to the IOC model of how they want a Games organised. But does that mean in the process of generating a dissident Olympism we shouldn’t event try? Such an attempt would at the very least expose the contradictions in the Olympic model while connecting to those who love sport, an audience the Left is traditionally pretty poor at conversing with.

Well before London 2012 even began Rio had been chosen as the next host. So much is already in place for the 2016 Games that next to no lessons of how to change the Olympic model in any significant way could be learned from London, not that the IOC would permit this in any case. And before the end of 2013 the 2020 host city will be chosen, Madrid, Tokyo or Istanbul.

The same vocabulary is used in each and every bidding cycle. Regeneration, inspiration and participation – yet there is next to no any assessment by either the IOC or future bidders if these claims have been fulfilled. Instead the IOC demands that the Games be organised in a manner that serves their interests, prestige and profile, never mind how this might suit the interests of the host city. None of this will change until bidders do what sports economists Robert Baade and Victor Matheson describe as ‘the obvious, that is they must take steps to counteract the monopoly power of the IOC. It is in the collective interest of potential host cities to devise means to change the nature of the bidding process.’ Their advice for bidders is that:

‘They must be realistic about what the Olympics offer. Thorough investigations of past experiences will not only provide a filter through which promises of booster can be run, but it might well indicate the most effective methods for integrating Olympic infrastructure needs with the present economy and a vision of its future. In the absence of careful and direct planning, cities that succeed in hosting the Olympics may well only find fool’s gold for their efforts.’

Despite all the fun many of us had last summer, in terms of that mantra of Regeneration, Inspiration and Participation there is to date no evidence London 2012 will deliver. What data already exists points in the opposite direction: no sustainable jobs increases, a continuing decline in physical activity, and precious little inspiration beyond those already involved in sport. Yet Rio, and whoever comes next, will follow the near identical model, as London did too. Reproducing in large measure how previous Games had been organised for the same result. ‘Fool’s Gold’, what kind of material is that to carve a medal-winning performance out of?

Rio’s turn

The recent protests around football’s Confederations Cup in Brazil have been presented by many observers as a foretaste of what is to come for Brazil’s World Cup in 2014, and should that occur it is most unlikely that the Rio Olympics in 2016 will remain unaffected. The collision of interests is similar in many ways to the last World Cup, in South Africa 2010. The Brazilian government will claim that hosting South America’s first Olympics is the opportunity to transform the image of their country, and continent. South African politicians made the same claim as their country became the first African nation to host football’s World Cup. In 2010 for a month Africa was no longer framed by a discourse consisting solely of AIDS, famine and civil war. Here was a nation capable of joyfully hosting the second biggest sporting show on earth. But this was a country with amongst the the most vicious divisions between the super-rich and the ultra-unwealthy. That image makeover if it glossed over, or even worse exacerbated, those divisions was hardly of much benefit to most. And there was something else – football under Apartheid had remained the sport of the black majority, yet they were largely shut out from taking part, the football belonged to FIFA and their corporate partners, taken away from the very people who had sustained the game during the Apartheid years. South Africa remains a highly politicised society, and FIFA was forced to face the kind of criticism and opposition it isn’t used to. Protests that had the capacity to connect to the mainstream with a social reach that nothing at London 2012 came close to matching. Brazil this summer has already suggested something similar could take place at World Cup 2014 and Rio 2016.

howwasitUniversity of East London academic Gavin Poynter is an expert on the Olympian claims of ‘legacy’, in the book London 2012 How Was It For Us? he writes:

‘The sporting festival serves to legitimise public investment that engineers social change but in directions that support private capital’s quest for new rounds of accumulation to be drawn from the city’s economy. In the contemporary world, harnessing major sporting events to the process of city-building is a hazardous affair; the highly commodified character of each may diminish the social value of the other.’

And looking forward to 2016, he adds this additional dimension to Rio’s legacy claim: ‘Brazil’s hosting of the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games affirms its arrival as South America’s leading nation and Rio’s status as a global city.’

Of course the politics erupt when the ambitions of this arrival become disconnected from the consequences of the diminishing of the social value of such an mission. Following the recent protests in Brazil the writer Jules Boykoff described these as a Dress Rehearsal for Dissent. And he suggests: ‘More and more, FIFA and the IOC are looking like supranational parasite states. Dissident citizens in Brazil have figured this out early and are using the bumbling leviathans to their political advantage. Many who support the protests also supported the Brazilian squad in the Confederations Cup final. The demonstrations are not anti-sport.’

Precisely, not anti-sport, but instead for a different sport, that is both possible and would be popular too, whether in Rio or GB. This is the kind of shape of political activism that can connect to sport, recognising that sport matters, because sport is politics.

Mark Perryman is the editor of London 2012: How Was It For Us, published by Lawrence & Wishart. Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, David Renton and Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. Available as a pre-publication, Mark Steel signed edition for £12.99 from here.

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