Resistance: the best Olympic spirit

Issue: 135
Posted: 28 June 12

Dave Zirin and Gareth Edwards

Dave Zirin is one of the most celebrated Marxists writing about sport today. He spoke to Gareth Edwards about the contradictory nature of the Olympic Games


With the Olympics rapidly approaching, what does history tell us London can expect over the coming months?

You will get displacement, you will get an incredible police crackdown and you will get one hell of a bill when the party is over—which then has to be paid for. Wherever the Olympics go they act as a neoliberal Trojan horse showing up festooned in a kind of celebratory bunting, and there is an effort to marshal the nation behind it. Some people have dubbed it “celebration capitalism” insofar as you are meant to celebrate the excess and greed. Yet when all is said and done you are in some financial trouble. The explosion of debt after the 2004 Athens Games is one of the least discussed aspects of the current crisis in Greece. These Olympics were roughly 1,000 percent over budget! The budget for the 2012 Games has already increased from £2.4 billion to £11 billion and I have no doubt that the eventual figure will be far greater.

And what is particularly interesting and frightening about the London Olympics is the level of security on show and its capacity to operate. The security costs have already doubled to more than £550 million. If it were really about terrorism you wouldn’t have missile launchers on residential buildings. Do they really expect an aerial assault from Al Qaeda? These are visual representations of state power intended more to send a message to the local population than it has to do with any kind of external threat. It is about intimidation, increasing surveillance on ordinary people’s lives, and it is about a message from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Cameron government that the enemy is internal. The Olympics are a huge stage-managed television spectacle and they have to make sure that it runs without a hitch, and we are the hitch.

Obviously there has been repression at previous Games. In particular I am thinking of Mexico City in 1968 where the state police killed hundreds of students and workers who were protesting. You could also look at the example of Atlanta in 1996 where, in crude fashion, the police filled out over 9,000 arrest citations with the wording “black male” in advance of the event. Compare that to London where you will have the latest security technology, with drones flying overhead, setting surface to air missiles on the tops of buildings, a warship in the Thames. It will be very interesting to see how people respond in the face of that kind of overt technological capacity to crush dissent.

I also think these are going to be the last Olympics in quite some time to be staged in a standard Western democracy. The IOC is looking more and more to extend its reach into the BRIC countries, like Russia and Brazil who will host the Summer Games in 2016. There is little doubt that we will see the Olympics taking place in India in the near future.

It says a lot about the Olympics that there was no mention of sport in the answer to that question!

Don’t get me wrong, I love sport. And I love Olympic sport specifically for two reasons. Firstly because it is one of the few times that you actually get a diversity of sporting events on display. In the US especially we are fed a steady diet of American football, baseball and basketball—and it is almost entirely dominated by male sports stars. And this is the second reason—that the Olympic Games are one of the few times when women athletes get to have the highest possible stage. But in the hands of the IOC the Olympics have about as much to do with sports as the war in Iraq had to do with democracy.

This is not about a celebration of sport, games or play; it is absolutely for the 1 percent. If this were really about sport and nothing else, the Olympics would be held in the same location every four years so as to avoid the massive disruption to successive host cities. And if they are to be held in various cities then at the very least tickets should be available to all people at a decent price, but that is simply not what takes place. Once you get past the 1 percent, the five-star hotels, the special access in the stadiums, it’s not that at all. As John Carlos says, “The reason they have the Olympics every four years is that it takes them that long to count all the money!” People may deny the reality of what role the Games are playing and what effect they are having on a given country when they go there—just as people can wrap themselves in the notion of democracy with the war in Iraq—but this is about profit for the corporations and the IOC.

It seems that in an effort to sell the idea of hosting the Olympics politicians have developed a narrative of $8_$_legacy$9_$. _They argue that staging the event will create jobs, prompt investment and urban regeneration, and get more children playing sport. How much truth is there in these claims?

Every Olympics has a legacy narrative. It is the only way that they can justify the vast government spending on a one-off event. People simply would not tolerate this so they are forced into dressing it up as urban regeneration and renewal. There is this big mythology about the Olympics transforming a host city into a world leader. They sell it by saying that they are turning your home into a kind of international Mecca. They say that the Olympics are good for tourism but I can point to studies that say people stay away from host cities because of the Olympics.

I remember Tony Blair being asked if he would still have bid for the Games if he had know in advance what kind of disruption they would cause, and he was shocked they even asked the question. He said, “This is London. Of course we can do this. It isn’t some Third World country.” His contempt was astounding. The problem is that there is so much history, so much evidence, which says the opposite. If you go to Montreal you can still see facilities built for the Olympics in 1976 that are abandoned. In Greece there are news reports of people sleeping in old, disused Olympic venues because of the effects of austerity. A lot of these sports facilities are so specific to the event that once the Games are over they simply have no use value.

The Olympics have their origin in the late 19th century, a creation of a French aristocrat, Pierre de Coubertin. Were these Games any different from those we see today, and how have they developed over the years?

There are a lot of points that you can look at. Certainly a lot of people put the original sin of the Games at their founding in 1896 and on Pierre de Coubertin. It is no coincidence that the Olympics start at the same time as modern empire. These things go hand in hand, this idea of the celebration of the nation-states which puts itself above sport. At that time there is a collection of various dukes and princes—people freaked out by the thought of global revolution and who celebrated the dominance of one nation over another while dividing up the world. Another point in history when you can really notice a shift is, of course, in 1936 when the Games were staged in Hitler’s Germany. Before this point the Olympics really were a kind of stripped down affair, where people would get together and play sports. But it was Hitler and his department for propaganda that took it to a whole new level. For instance, the running of the Olympics torch was the brainchild of Joseph Goebbels. The idea of having marching armies, having athletes themselves march as though they are in an army—all of these things are part of the glorification of Nazism, which you can see as nationalism on steroids. So Nazism and the Olympics went together hand in glove. What is so fascinating is that this all happens in 1936, but when the Olympics return in 1948, after Second World War, you still have all the trappings of those Nazi Games.

Another watershed moment comes in 1984 with the Los Angeles Games. The LA Olympics were the US Olympics. Ronald Reagan opened the Games and the boycott by the Soviet Union and its satellites meant that it was a gold medal glut for the host nation. The head of the LA Games organising committee was Peter Ueberroth, a man who was one step ahead of corporate America before they caught up with a vengeance. Almost out of nowhere he came up with the idea that corporations would underwrite everything, put their branding everywhere, see everything as a marketing opportunity. Not a dollar of taxpayers’ money was spent on the Olympics in that year, and it is estimated that they made in excess of $230 million—the first Games to turn a profit since 1932. This was important because it meant that staging the Olympics then appeared to be a viable and profitable venture for potential host cities, and this at a time when even some IOC members were beginning to doubt the future
of the Games.

What you have seen develop since then, in a similar fashion to areas like the banking sector, is a situation where the debt of the Games becomes collectivised and the profit becomes privatised. In 1984 corporate America hadn’t got the idea of being the sponsors of the event while at the same time having public money foot the bill, although there was a history of host cities being left crippled with mountainous debt. Montreal hosted the Olympics in 1976 and did not manage to pay off its debt until 2006. It took 30 years to pay off their Olympic debt, which I think is going to seem modest compared to Athens and possibly London as well. That model is now the dominant model and you now have official corporate partners such as Dow Chemicals, McDonald’s and BP. It’s bizarre that you should now have this private-public partnership where the corporations are only paying for 2 percent of the cost and yet making enormous profits.

You mention the importance of the Berlin Games. They are remembered primarily for the outstanding athletic feats of Jesse Owens, the African-American track and field star who won four gold medals and made a mockery of Hitler$7_$_s claims of Aryan superiority in the process. Yet very few people are aware that there was a mass campaign in the US to boycott the 1936 Games.

I have a very different view on this to a lot of sports writers, many of whom view Owens as an example of terrific heroism. It is often described in terms of Owens spitting in Hitler’s eye by winning four gold medals, and then Hitler refusing to shake his hand. This is a myth. Hitler was not even at the event, precisely because he didn’t want to be put in the position of having to congratulate a black athlete. In 1940 Owens campaigned for the Republicans, saying, “Hitler didn’t snub me: Franklin D Roosevelt snubbed me.” At this time it was not uncommon for prominent African-Americans to be Republicans, because until the civil rights movement the Democrats were still seen as the party of slavery while the Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a history that both parties like to keep silent about, though obviously for different reasons.

But when Owens comes home he is still subjected to racism, and ends his career racing horses in exhibition events. Indeed, Owens does not have a role in the US Olympic movement until the 1960s when they employ him as an elder statesman in an attempt to dissuade the younger generation of black athletes from using the Olympics as a platform from which to air their grievances. It shows that even the greatest athletes in the history of the Games were subjected to racism.

The interesting and little-known fact is that there was a boycott movement in the US, even though there was very little knowledge as to who the Nazis were, what their plans were, what their agenda was. You didn’t have to be Leon Trotsky to know the threat that Hitler represented, although it helped. People had an idea: if you politically understood their class composition and where they were coming from, there were things you could foresee. It’s not as though you had an international human rights campaign around the regime in the 1930s, but you did have a lot of concern. The Amateur Athletic Union, which included all of the athletes in the US, collected over half a million signatures in favour of a boycott, and a majority of their members wanted to boycott. And you had the head of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Walter White, openly calling for a boycott, saying that the Nazis were white supremacists and asking why anyone would want to legitimise what they are doing.

It is at this point that Avery Brundage steps onto the scene of history. He was the head of the US Olympics Committee, a former Olympian himself, having competed in the 1912 Games, and the future head of the IOC. He was also a Nazi sympathiser, an anti-Semite and a white supremacist. This was somebody who was kicked out of the America First Committee—an anti-Semitic, right wing, anti-war organisation—for being too anti-Semitic. In the run-up to the 1936 Games he meets with Hitler and other Olympic officials for the press, before giving a glowing report about the preparations in Berlin. Brundage claimed to have also met with Jewish sportspeople and leaders—although there is no proof that he actually did—and goes on to imply that criticism of the Nazi regime is nothing more than communist propaganda.

People have compared Brundage to J Edgar Hoover. These were two men who were absolutely despised but somehow proved incredibly durable, especially skilled in the art of keeping power. Brundage, like Hoover, knew everybody’s weak points, what scandals they were involved in, and was never shy about pushing buttons if it meant keeping his own grip on power. His assurances about the participation of Jewish athletes in Germany certainly played a part in ensuring the vote in favour of boycotting the games was (very narrowly) defeated.

Not only was there a mass campaign to boycott the 1936 Games but an alternative Workers$7_$ _Olympics was scheduled to take place in Barcelona. The 1920s and 1930s saw many such events organised by the Workers$7_$ _Sport movement. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

Barcelona had lost the vote to host the 1936 Olympics four years previously. Worker athletes arranged a Workers’ Olympics in protest at the Games in Berlin but they were halted before they began by Franco’s fascist uprising. The fact that the Barcelona Games were explicitly anti-fascist is important because it pulls away the fiction that nobody knew what Hitler was about at that time, and that Avery Brundage cannot really be blamed for delivering the Olympics to Nazi Germany. The symbolic value of those Games not going ahead and the Olympics taking place in Germany was huge. The credibility of the Olympics and the credibility of fascism were in question and eventually the two walked very comfortably hand in hand.

More broadly there is a history—when the left has been more powerful—of doing things like the Barcelona Games or the Chicago Counter-Olympics in 1932. Unlike the Olympics these were integrated games. Since 1982 you’ve had the Gay Games—they weren’t allowed to use the word “Olympic” and were threatened with lawsuits by the IOC. If you think of some of the AIDS hysteria in the 1980s then you can see how radical the Gay Games were. They had HIV-positive athletes competing at a time when idiot scientists were saying that you could catch AIDS from
handshakes and toilet seats. It was hugely powerful. In these examples you can see the potential for sports to operate in a very different way, because I do believe that they can bring people together. Sports are like fire: you can use fire to make a meal or fire can burn down your house. When you realise what the IOC have been doing all these years then you realise that they are real arsonists, city after city after city.

There is a wonderful line in Christopher A Shaw$7_$_s book, Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, where he lists the people who have run the IOC: $8_$_Of nine actual or acting presidents, the IOC has put three barons, two counts, two businessmen, an overt fascist and a fascist sympathiser in its top job.$9_$ _Is that a fair reflection of the IOC?

The starting point is to understand that the IOC, who a lot of people won’t know are a non-voting representative in the United Nations, are a stateless actor, with a huge amount of power. This is an unaccountable and decidedly shady organisation who are sitting on untold amounts of money and don’t seem to pay tax anywhere on the planet. They ensure that they—or any of the corporate sponsors of the Olympics—are not liable for any cost overruns associated with staging the Games.

It is interesting to chart the development of the IOC. They started as a collection of royalists and monarchs, then they became a den of fascist organisers, and they have since morphed, over the past 25 years or so, into being a group of staunch corporatists. The corruption scandals—not just the pay-offs and bribes but also the use of prostitutes and the trafficking of women—are something that has been a feature of so many bids to secure the Olympics. The amount of impropriety is simply staggering. I would recommend people read either Five Ring Circus or the book Lords of the Rings by Andrew Jennings and Vyv Simson, because the story of the IOC is simply unbelievable.

They have an enormous amount of leverage over people who hold state power. This is a very ugly group of people who, judging by their history, represent the worst of the worst. It is remarkable how selective we are. Politicians in America, like Strom Thurmond or Jesse Helms, who were involved with racist organisations in the 1950s, are still stained by it years later but with the IOC it all gets forgotten. Not only was there Avery Brundage but also there was Juan Antonio Samaranch who was a youth fighter for Franco. There were times in the history of the IOC when you would have had to go back to outtakes of the Nuremberg trials to find so many fascists in one location.

Given the history of the Olympics and the IOC, how would you explain the continued popularity of the Games?

The whole concept of the medal count should be anathema to the spirit of the Olympics yet I’ve heard a lot of people say that they don’t find the Olympics as fascinating since the end of Cold War. You need to have a proper enemy! So obviously nationalism plays a large part. But there is also a mystique about the Olympics. To achieve at the Olympics is to achieve under the brightest possible spotlight, with the widest possible audience. There is recognition that in sports, at least sports under capitalism, this really counts for something.

Anyone who has played or watched sport knows that your body reacts differently when you are under pressure. People want to see it because of the stakes, and that only adds to the tension. It’s about achievement at the highest possible level. There is a paradox of the Olympics. Women’s participation at the Olympics acts as a challenge to male authority. It’s about their strength, it’s about their endurance and it’s about their not positioning themselves to be pleasing to men. Because the IOC are so retrograde on every imaginable front it’s hardly surprising that they are an organisation rife with sexism. Women and men—or at least men who aren’t in a cage of sexism—want to see women athletes perform, and this is one of the few places available.

Going all the way back to the start of the modern Olympics, when Pierre de Coubertin dismissed women playing sport as $8_$_impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic and incorrect$9_$, _the IOC have treated female athletes disgracefully.

The IOC only allowed women to be members of their club in 1981. Women were not allowed to run a marathon until 1984, and as recently as the 1950s they were debating the elimination of all the women’s track and field events so that the audience would be, as they put it, “spared the spectacle of watching women trying to look and act like men”. There were debates in the 1950s about not allowing black women from any nation to participate in track and field events because, as one member of the IOC said, they were hermaphrodites. You still hear the echoes of that kind of sexism and racism today. Just look at the case of Caster Semenya, who won the women’s 800 metres title at the World Athletics Championship in 2009. Here is a phenomenal athlete who has had to endure all manner of allegations and innuendo simply because she does not fit the stereotypical body shape of a female runner.

This idea of binary gender norms is something that the
Olympics—indeed the whole sports world—are going to have to address whether they like it or not. There will be more and more transgender athletes and this arbitrary dichotomy is going to be challenged. The idea that boys play in one place and girls in another is not something inherent to human nature; it is something that has had to be enforced and codified. Of course there will be different divisions of athletes, but why base this on gender? Why not on strength or speed or body mass? It is arbitrary and yet at the same time not arbitrary—it becomes yet another way to divide us and make us feel different from each other.

The IOC constantly state that the Olympics are a politically neutral event. How would you assess that claim?

The neutrality claim has worked in very interesting ways. People say that you are bringing politics into the Olympics if you try to keep settler Rhodesia and apartheid South Africa out of the Games, as though it is not political to welcome them into this “community of nations”. One person’s “keep politics out of sport” is another person’s “political decision”. If you listen to Brundadge’s speech after the Israeli athletes were killed at the Munich Olympics in 1972, he equates their death with keeping Rhodesia and South Africa out of the Games. Essentially he is saying that this is what happens when the Olympics become politicised. He doesn’t call for a day off from the Games; it was simply: “The Games must go on.” A shameless decision.

Historically you have two kinds of boycott: boycotts from above and boycotts from below. Simply put, the former should be rejected; the latter should be embraced. So a prime example of the boycott from above would be the US refusing to go to the Moscow Olympics in 1980, or the Soviet bloc boycotting the 1984 LA Games. This was all just state posturing and Cold War rhetoric. Boycotts from below would include those campaigns to isolate apartheid South Africa where they used the claim of Olympic neutrality to their advantage. When I interviewed Dennis Brutus he told me, “Our goal was to use the Olympic Charter and hang South Africa with it.” The IOC’s Charter has all kinds of flowery, beautiful and, I would even say, admirable language—about athletics creating a global community, about rejecting any kind of prejudice—but it is all in the abstract. To quote those words and then ask why the IOC were supporting South Africa and Rhodesia was an incredibly powerful statement.

Dennis Brutus did more to leverage sports to make an impact on politics than anybody else in history. His organisational genius and his political sharpness led him to see sports as a place where ideas could find an audience. It is no doubt that this helped to enlighten masses of people as to the plight of black people in apartheid South Africa. Going strictly by the Charter of the Games, equality of opportunity is a prerequisite for being part of international sport. I would argue that the sporting world should be a part of the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. For that matter I would quite happily sign a petition saying that the US shouldn’t be allowed in the Olympics because of what they have done in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Grassroots protests have become part and parcel of the modern Olympics. Campaigns seem to have sprung up in every host city as people protest at the expense lavished on the Games and the disruption they inevitably cause. How important is it to demonstrate against the Olympics?

People have always protested against the Olympics and in some cases they have met with terrible repercussions. You can find people protesting against the Olympics all the way back in 1936 in Hitler’s Germany. That should tell us something about our own responsibility. The most famous protest was in Mexico City in 1968. Students and workers demonstrated in huge numbers over a whole range of issues—and connected that to the Olympics. And that is all the more reason why, when you are in a place like London, where people can assumedly assemble without the worst kinds of repression, that there is a responsibility that the victims of the 2012 Olympiad have a voice.

I was impressed when I was in London with the amount of campaigning groups getting active around issues to do with the Olympics. Whether we are talking about militarisation, the police crackdown on dissent, gentrification, the housing displacement issue, people certainly wanted to do something about it—not just among the people you would expect, those people who are already seasoned campaigners, but among regular working class folk. A lot of people are saying that these Games are a waste of time, a waste of money and a terrible disruption. There is real discontent; it’s about organising it. I think a big problem is that often the left in general is so dismissive of sports as an avenue of struggle that the effort isn’t made to try and articulate what these sporting events actually represent—an opportunity for corporations and governments to carry out their neoliberal agendas even more aggressively.

Perhaps most famously the Olympics became an arena of struggle at the Mexico Games in 1968, when the African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave Black Power salutes on the medal rostrum.

A lot of people remember the moment of John Carlos and Tommie Smith raising their fists, but they don’t realise that there was a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). They stood on four principles: they wanted South Africa and Rhodesia uninvited from the Olympics, they wanted Muhammad Ali’s world heavyweight boxing title to be restored, they wanted Avery Brundage to step down as president of the IOC, and they wanted more African-American assistant coaches hired.

If these demands were not met then they were going to call for a boycott of the Mexico Olympics, not just by black American athletes, but by all athletes, black and white, who supported their cause. These demands have been proven right by history and that is one of the reasons why Smith and Carlos have been embraced in recent years. People are concerned not to stand on the wrong side in retrospect. The boycott failed, partly because the IOC did withdraw their invitations to South Africa and Rhodesia, and partly because, as John Carlos says, athletes “followed the carrot”. Smith and Carlos were faced with a choice: do we stay at home or do we go and try to represent the movement? They had a plan: should they get to the medal rostrum, they would not only wear their gloves but also go barefoot to protest poverty, wear beads to protest lynchings, and wear buttons that said OPHR.

Carlos says that when they made it to the medal stand and bowed their heads he was thinking of the movement, of the struggle, of the hundreds of Mexican students and workers who had been killed before the Games—people who they had been attempting to make contact with in advance. There were other acts of defiance. The Australian Peter Norman, who finished second in the 200 metres, wore an OPHR button in solidarity. The American rowing eight—all white and Harvard schooled—came out in support of Smith and Carlos. Lee Evans, Larry James and Ron Freeman wore black berets to the 400 metres medal ceremony, but removed them during the national anthem. The Games will be remembered, however, for the action of Smith and Carlos. It is the most iconic image in the history of American protest. For this they paid a terrible price for many, many years. But they regret nothing. The people who do have regrets are the track and field athletes of 1968 who did nothing.