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Dazzling Olympic performances mask hyper-consumerism of the games

In a year, the 2014 Winter Olympics will commence in Sochi, Russia, the resort town nestled along the Black Sea. As an Olympic sports enthusiast, I’ll be tuning in to root for my favorite athletes from around the globe.

But as someone who believes in fairness, equality and democracy I will also be tracking what have now become commonplace sidecars to the Games: cronyism, displacement and hyper-commercialism. These trends threaten to mar the Olympics we’ve come to love.

The Olympics have a grizzled underbelly that goes all the way back to its founding. The Games are the brainchild of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, a French aristocrat who viewed British athletics as the magic formula for its imperial dominance. He proclaimed, “I shall burnish a flabby and cramped youth, its body and its character, by sport, its risks and even its excesses.” For him, sport was the key to vigor and redemption.

The Baron had many talents, but writing feminist theory was not among them. Coubertin once claimed a “woman’s glory rightfully came through the number and quality of children she produced, and that where sports were concerned, her greatest accomplishment was to encourage her sons to excel rather than to seek records for herself.”

When it came to the Olympics, he contended, a woman’s role should be “above all to crown the victors, as was the case in the ancient tournaments.”

When it came to the issue of race, Coubertin wasn’t exactly NAACP material. In 1923 he argued for the inclusion of African countries in the Olympics, but because sports could channel Africans’ “untapped forces — individual laziness and a sort of collective need for action — a thousand resentments, and a thousand jealousies of the white man.”

This, he argued in racist, paternalist fashion, was “what is troubling the African soul” and their participation in the Olympics might begin the ameliorate it.

Coubertin created the International Olympic Committee (IOC) by assembling a hodgepodge of princes, counts and fellow barons. The IOC inner circle eventually broadened its social horizons to include wealthy business leaders and former Olympians. In 1981 it finally began co-opting women into its ranks. Today is retains its aristocratic flavor, with members like Princess Nora of Liechtenstein and Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz of Saudi Arabia.

The IOC is fundamentally anti-democratic. Former IOC President Avery Brundage, who ran the group from 1952 through 1972, admitted as much.

“The International Olympic Committee maybe undemocratic,” he remarked in 1968, “but its structure, with all its members free and independent, and pledged to the Olympic Movement first rather than to their country or to their sport, has enabled it to organize the Games with progressively greater and greater success.”

Brundage was correct on one count: the Olympics have become a hugely successful event, followed by millions around the world.

But the Games are not without their problems. Today the Olympics are a political-economic monster. They’re routinely funded by lopsided public-private partnerships whereby the taxpaying public pays and private groups profit.

“Worldwide Olympic Partners” — like Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, and Dow — pay $100 million to secure pole positions at the Olympic trough. This corporate bonanza forces host cities to create special laws to protect the brands and to convert themselves into de facto tax havens where official sponsors enjoy tax-free profits.

The Olympics often bring social displacement. To make way for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games, some 1.5 million people were dislodged from their homes. Meanwhile, to defend against terrorism, host cities militarize the public sphere. Security officials often treat the Games like their own private ATM, stocking their storerooms with high-tech weaponry.

These trends are evident in Sochi, where Russian officials are firing up the Olympic machine. The Games will cost an unprecedented $50 billion, much of it publicly funded.

Since the IOC awarded the Olympics to Sochi, the Russian Duma has passed a raft of legislation inhibiting free speech and the right to protest. Human Rights Watch recently reported that numerous families have had their property expropriated to make way for Olympic venues.

To be clear, I’m neither anti-sports nor anti-Olympics. Some 20 years ago, in fact, I had the good fortune of representing the U.S. Olympic Soccer Team in international competition.

But the dazzling athleticism on the slopes, rinks and half-pipes need not blind us from critical thinking. Today the Games can correctly be described as trickle-up economics meeting Sporty Spice on the hyper-commercialized conveyor belt of corporate capitalism. We should expect more.

Jules Boykoff is an associate professor and chair of the Political Science Department at Pacific University. He writes on activism, climate change and the politics of sports. 



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