International sport is ‘war minus the shooting’, according to George Orwell. Viewed from the dark hour of the 20th century, the English author may have been right; propaganda, 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 this national one-upmanship, the Olympics turned 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 was a microcosm of larger issues relating to elitism, corruption, and crony corporatism.
One can imagine the IOC’s vision of a Rio Olympics, in 2009, Christ the Redeemer the backdrop to the cycling; the Coco Cabana the setting for beach volleyball, iconic moments 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 raw democratic energy. Brazil could afford the extravagant arenas and transportation costs; heralded as one of the BRIC’s, the South American powerhouse was destined for prosperous sunny uplands. This was not just Brazil hosting the games: 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 horror show. Huge cuts have decimated public services, universities are on strike; police stations are running out of paper and road-worthy vehicles; 500,000 state workers received their wages late; and unemployment is increasing. Healthcare spending has decreased significantly, a policy that has aggravated the Zika epidemic; from January to May, 164,241 new cases of the virus were registered. To cover Olympic expenses the Brazilian federal government bailed out Rio de Janiero to the sum of one billion dollars. Not to mention the increased prevalence of violence, the murder rate for police and citizens is at a record high. The Olympics fades into insignificance when a generation of children are being born with deformities and the living are being killed off in an orgy of violence.
The establishment that oversaw this catastrophe is embroiled in unprecedented corruption scandals. From 2002 to 2008, profits soared in Brazil’s state-owned oil company, Petrobras, from $2billion to $19 billion. Subsequently, the government squandered billions of dollars; today Petrobras debt stands at $100 billion. In the greatest political scandal in Brazilian history, politicians syphoned off $2billion into their own pockets. The Games agitated public distrust, Rio surpassed its$13 billion budget long ago, and the final figure is unknown. To a suspicious eye, Rio looks like more corruption, another example of public money disappearing into a venal system.
The IOC mirrors Brazil’s political degradation; they are equally guilty of elitism and corruption, an entitled capitalist aristocracy that matches the gross inequalities of Brazil. Norway’s 2022 Winter Olympics bid illustrated perfectly the dysfunction of this two-tier system. The host city Olympic contract made demands more akin to Victorian royalty or 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.
What height of megalomania does it take to ask the public to pay for a private road? Donald Trump appears humble in comparison to this self-anointed sanctified elect.
In many ways, the Ryan Lochte robbery fiasco highlighted this entitlement attitude. Lochte and his frat house douche bag cronies believed they could arrive in Rio and treat it as their own. Turning up in a financially broken city, Lochte decided to inflict greater 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 gunpoint by assailants dressed as police officers. This shallow attempt to cover his tracks came apart 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 for the inconvenience. Only a privileged American college meathead could behave so ludicrously and concoct such an idiotic cover story.
Corruption stained Rio from its outset. Prior to the Olympics, the IOC was found guilty of ignoring doping allegations. Its failure to eliminate Russia for state-sanctioned doping was a toothless response that failed to protect clean athletes and make an example of cheats. For the IOC the possible financial implications of one the largest nations not competing were too great, they abrogated responsibility and shifted the final decision to individual sports federations. Russia received a pass on its extravagant fraudulence.
Predictably, corruption reared its ugly head at the games. In the pocket of Moscow, boxing judges cheated Irish boxer Michael Conlan out of a gold medal. Incredibly, Conlan beat his opponent Vladimir Nikitin so badly he could not compete further in the Olympics. One would think the IOC would clamp down on this case of sporting criminality. Instead, it was a fudge similar to the Russian debacle; the IOC passed responsibility to the boxing federation. The cheats remained anonymous, sent home, but not named and 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.
Rio was the truthful Olympics; the perfect Olympics of our time. The unscrupulous Brazilian politicians that are destroying Brazil mimic the IOC ambassadors that are slowly extinguishing the Olympic flame. They could be twins separated at birth, both displaying identical features and manners; both are elitist and 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, self-interest, unaccountability, and grazing in the good paddock at the public’s expense. Perhaps many tuned out for this reason; perhaps it was the perfect Olympics for this time in history.