The Olympic games are here again and while it’s sold to us a demonstration of peace and solidarity and the finest humans have to offer, it is often anything but that. In fact, in many ways, it is a reflection of the very worst of society under capitalism.
The modern Olympics were established with the highest ideals, and a desire to foster peace. Instead they have become little more than a display of nationalistic pride and flag waving by nations who co-opt the efforts of the athletes to further their own schemes. From the very first games this has been demonstrated when the 1896 games in Athens led to a surge in Greek nationalism, and an eventual war with Turkey in 1897.
The rich countries of the West also get the chance to reinforce their perceived superiority over the rest as the Games are heavily weighted in their favour. From the very beginning the Games were set up by European elites and built on western sports. Many non-western countries have long histories of indigenous sports and games that were ignored and continue to be. In response to this, Brazil saw the hosting of the first World Indigenous Games in 2015 where over 2,000 participating indigenous athletes from 30 countries, including 43 Māori athletes, competed in a variety of sporting events. These ranged from a few Western-style competitions (football, athletics) to many indigenous traditional games, such as xikunahity, a football-style game in which the ball is controlled only with the head.
Added to the disadvantage for the poorer nations is that most athletes, if they are to be successful on the global stage, require a fair amount of social and financial support for training, facilities and travel. This means that better off countries usually do better. For the Olympic games to be genuinely open and fair there would need to be vast improvements in health care and education for participants from low-income nations.
Not only is the Olympics an excuse for chest-thumping, but it also represents the worst kind of gross commercialisation and exploitation. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) collects massive wealth from its product but, like all such multi-national corporate institutions, the workers, in this case the athletes, get very little of the wealth they generate, while the executives at the top reap huge rewards.
The IOC stands to earn more than ever from this year’s Olympics as they take their share of the revenues, which are expected to be upwards of a record US$ 9billion. Although the IOC states that they plough ninety per cent of revenues back into supporting athletes, many say the crumbs that eventually fall from the top table are not enough. A recent study showed that just 6 per cent of the money generated by the Olympics goes back to athletes as salaries. The reality for the average US athlete is a salary of $16,533 according to figures collected by The Washington Post. Those from many other countries receive less. In 2014 Canada found that the country’s elite athletes spent $13,900 per year more than they earn, while in New Zealand, there are probably just five New Zealand athletes who could make enough money from the sport to class themselves as professionals, according to Athletics NZ Sport Manager Brett Addison, while other athletes don’t receive nearly enough to live on.
The reality is that while the billions flooding in may make Rio 2016 the richest Olympics ever, away from the elite athletes, who admittedly do well as they reap their rewards in endorsements from companies desperate to be linked with their celebrity status, most of the athletes will see almost none of the wealth they generate. At the top of the IOC chain it is a different matter. The “volunteer” president, Thomas Bach, gets an annual “allowance” of $251,000 and lives rent-free in a five-star hotel and spa in Switzerland, which recently priced its cheapest suite at $1,068 per night. Other IOC members, a distinguished group that includes various members of Europe’s royal houses, also enjoy generous perks. When on IOC business, members fly first-class, stay in luxury hotels, and also get cash for expenses at the rate of $450 per day for regular IOC members, and $900 per day for the IOC’s executive committee. These rates also apply to the Games themselves, which means in Rio some IOC members will get paid more to watch the Olympics than many athletes will get paid to compete in the Olympics.
In addition to the athletes being exploited the poor of Rio de Janeiro have also been bearing the brunt of the games. Since Rio was chosen to host the Olympics at least 22,059 families, a total of 77,206 people, have been displaced due to the infrastructure projects required for the Olympic games. These evictions have affected mostly Rio’s per such as those living in Vila Autódromo, a favela that had been home to some 900 families, and was almost entirely demolished to make room for Barra Olympic Park, a cluster of nine sporting arenas where much of the action is taking place.
In return for their money given to the Olympic movement, the official sponsors get to exclusively bombard the spectators with messages and images about their products. Of course we won’t see images from official sponsors of those who make their products and profits, like the highly exploited workers toiling in poor conditions at low pay to make sports gear. Nor will Coca Cola and McDonalds sponsorship be questioned by those taking their money, despite their products being of dubious nutritional value and a contributor to the obesity epidemic affecting much of the world – the very antithesis of what the Olympics is supposed to be about.
In fact the IOC’s official charter forbids the expression of anti-Olympic dissent, stating in Rule 51, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” Yet the whole charade is based around the promotion and reinforcement of values that suit capitalism. While we sit there consuming sports such as the Olympics we are also taking in the assumptions that life is a competition, that most of the rewards go to the winners, and that losers have only themselves to blame in that they weren’t good enough, or never worked hard enough.
So what’s an anarchist to do during the Olympic spectacle? We could just ignore them, which can actually cause some consternation among those who suddenly discover an appetite for athletics and other sports once every four years; better still we could actively oppose the Games, by writing articles like this one, circulating leaflets, holding protests, and boycotting sponsors among other things.
Or, to show that we are not killjoys, maybe an even better option would be to support the previously mentioned World Indigenous Games; or even promote our own alternative games, and there is a precedent for this. In the 1920s and 1930s, there were a number “workers’ games” which avoided much of the nationalism of the Olympics. These included Workers’ Olympics in Frankfurt (1925), in Vienna (1931) and Antwerp (1937). There were also four alternative Women’s Olympics held in Paris (1922), Gothenburg (1926), Prague (1930), and London (1934). A People’s Olympiad was also planned for Barcelona in 1936 after the decision by the Spanish republic to boycott the Berlin games as they correctly sensed they would be a platform to the glorification of Nazism. Unfortunately these never went ahead as the country was plunged into civil war shortly before they were due to start.
So here’s to the Anarchist Olympic games to be held in 2020. I’m not sure what events there would be (that’s another discussion) but they would be a games that will surely highlight mutual aid over competition, solidarity over nationalism, and equality over crass commercialisation.