International sport is ‘war minus the shooting’, according to George Orwell. When reflecting upon the brutality of the 20th century, Orwell may well have been right. Propaganda, wild national chauvinism, and sport combined to create an international spectacle that vaunted the virtues and superiorities of nations. The Cold War did little to dampen international one-upmanship and transformed the Olympics turned into a political theatre, a battleground for ideological pre-eminence. Today viral nationalisms are rare but Orwell’s key observation remains: the Olympics are an insight into world affairs. Rio de Janeiro was a microcosm of world and national issues; most notably elitism, corruption, and crony corporatism.
One can imagine the IOC’s vision of a Rio Olympics back in 2009; Christ the Redeemer the spectacular backdrop to the cycling; Copacabana the arena for the beach volleyball, providing an iconic tableaux for sporting eternity. Brazil’s world-renowned culture – from striking visual art and funk dance parties in the favelas to street dancing – would infuse the Olympics with a raw democratic energy. Brazil could afford the arenas and transportation costs; heralded as one of the BRIC’s, the South American powerhouse was destined for prosperous sunny uplands, a glorious spectacle and prestigious Olympic debut for the region. In 2016 Brazil would emphatically announce itself into the Pantheon of great world democracies by hosting the ‘Greatest Show on Earth’; the Olympics!
That was the vision, the reality was exceptionally different! Brazil is an economic, social, and political basket case. Massive expenditure/budget cuts have decimated public services, universities are on strike, police stations are without stationary and road-worthy vehicles, half-a-million state workers received their wages late, and unemployment is increasing. Healthcare spending has decreased significantly at a most inopportune time; during the height of the Zika epidemic. The Olympics will fade into insignificance when a generation of children are born with serious deformities.
To fund the Olympics, the Brazilian federal government undertook a bail-out of the city of Rio de Janiero to the tune of one billion dollars.
To exacerbate this precarious situation there has been an increased prevalence of violence from which not even Olympians were immune. The murder rate for police and citizens is at a record high.
The establishment that oversaw these catastrophes is now embroiled in unprecedented corruption scandals. Between 2002 and 2008, profits soared in Brazil’s state-owned oil company Petrobras; from $2(US) billion to $19 billion. Since then successive governments have somehow squandered billions of dollars so much so that today Petrobras debt stands at $100 billion. In the greatest political scandal in Brazilian history, politicians siphoned off $2 billion into their own coffers. Instead of distracting the general public the Olympic Games agitated public distrust and scepticism. The Rio Games exceeded its $13 billion budget long ago and the final figure is yet to be determined.
Ironically the IOC mirrors Brazil’s political degeneration; they share a culture of elitism and corruption governed by an entitled capitalist aristocracy. Norway’s 2022 Winter Olympics bid illustrated the dysfunction, decadence and hubris of the organisation. The Olympic Games contract requirements are more akin to requirements of Victorian royalty or a self-indulgent musical diva than to sporting ambassadors. They demanded:
‘to meet the king prior to the opening ceremony; afterwards, there shall be a cocktail reception, the drinks should be paid for by the royal palace or the local organising committee; separate lanes shall be created on all roads where IOC members will travel, which are not to be used by regular people or public transportation. A welcome greeting from the local Olympic boss and the hotel manager should be presented in IOC members’ rooms, along with fruit and cakes of the season.’
Asking for your own personal road, is this not the height of megalomania? Donald Trump appears humble in comparison to these self-anointed and sanctified elite.
In many ways, the Ryan Lochte robbery fiasco exemplified this attitude of privileged entitlement. Lochte and his frat house douche bag cronies; too much slang) acolytes believed they could arrive in Rio and treat it as their own. Turning up in a financially broken city, Lochte decided to cause more damage. Taking inspiration from the Simpson’s episode ‘the Simpson’s Go To Brazil’, the American swimmer spun a convoluted yarn about being robbed in a cab at gun-point by assailants dressed as police officers. The scanty attempt to cover his tracks unravelled quicker than a Taylor Swift relationship. Lochte had actually urinated all over a gas station, kicked off a toilet door, and then, like some 18th century feudal lord, flung some money at a gas attendant in a token effort to offset any inconvenience.
Corruption stained the Rio games well before the opening ceremony. The IOC was guilty of ignoring doping allegations and revelations. Its failure to eliminate Russia for state-sanctioned doping was a dismally toothless response that failed to protect clean athletes and the integrity of the Olympics. The IOC’s inaction was evidently influenced by the possible financial implications of one the largest nations not competing and consequently they abrogated their responsibility by cunningly transferring the final decision to individual sports’ federations.
Predictably, corruption reared its ugly head during the games. In the pocket of Moscow, corrupt boxing judges cost Irish boxer Michael Conlan a gold medal. Incredibly, Conlan (literally) beat his opponent Vladimir Nikitin so badly he could not compete any further in the Olympics. One would think the IOC would clamp down on such obvious sporting criminality. Instead of decisive action the IOC passed responsibility onto the boxing federation. Although sent home, the cheats remained anonymous but were neither named nor shamed. Michael Conlan put it best in a tweet, ‘Wow, this says a lot about AIBA, sending judges home who ruin dreams, what happens 2 the ppl whose dreams were ruined?’ The message is clear: Money succeeds principles. Is it any wonder that vast swathes of empty seats were embarassingly visible in so many Olympic arenas? The Olympics is not a symbol of hope but of inequality and injustice.
Rio was the truthful Olympics; the perfect Olympics of our time. The unscrupulous Brazilian politicians that destroyed Brazil emulate the IOC ambassadors that are slowly extinguishing the Olympic flame. They could be twins separated at birth, they have identical features and manners; both are elitists, embroiled in unprecedented corruption scandals that threaten their very existence. We can draw this Olympics out into a global context. The same injustices that fuel Brazilian political discontent and antipathy to the IOC are the same wrongs that charge Trumpism and Brexit. Privileged elites are above accountability grazing in the good-paddock at the public’s expense, while the rest are forgotten. Perhaps many tuned out for this reason; perhaps it was the perfect Olympics for this time in history.