The dissidents' guide to the Olympics: `War minus the shooting'
As the world corporate media goes Olympics mad, Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal has assembled a range of alternative viewpoints on what the modern Olympic Games really represent. While -- when it suits their interests -- establishment media commentators and capitalist governments loudly proclaim that ``sport and politics don't mix'', it soon becomes apparent that the Olympics spectacle is drenched in politics and the promotion of the worst aspects of dog-eat-dog capitalism. But sometimes it is also a site of struggle, as this selection of articles, drawn from the Links and Green Left Weekly archives, as well as other progressive sources, reveals.
Hypocrisy, human rights and the Beijing games
Sport, like religion, is a reflection of broader society. In a capitalist world, with its individualism, corporate competition, alienation and competing nationalisms, sport has become a commodified spectacle in which the majority does not participate. No sporting event reflects global capitalism better than the Olympics: elitist, commercialised and corrupt. A platform for politicians and dictators, but officially “non-political” — meaning in practice that athletes and spectators are forbidden from voicing opinions.
What the Olympics really represent
George Orwell once described “serious sport” -- for its promotion of violence, national hatred and jealousy -- as “war minus the shooting”.
The Olympics are really about serious politics. Whilst pushing the world's best athletes “higher, faster, stronger”, the IOC also pushes the political agenda of the world's richest countries and companies. The Olympics form part of the war machine of the corporate sector.
Dave Zirin: China's Olympic trials
This is the Olympics the West wanted: games where the grandest prize is not a gold medal but a glittering entree to China's seemingly endless army of potential consumers. This is the reason that George W. Bush will attend the opening ceremonies, the first US president to do so on foreign soil, and that in March, mere days before the crackdown in Tibet, Condoleezza Rice, laughably, took China off the State Department's list of nations that abuse human rights.
Dave Zirin is also blogging daily during the Olympics at http://www.thenation.com/blogs/notion/_by-davez
Chinese workers and peasants the main victims: the bitter truth about the Olympics By Phil Hearse
So the Beijing games are nearly upon us. There is no public event, other than perhaps the soccer World Cup, that is so universally approved of as the Olympic Games. An orgy of TV time and newspaper columns will whip up passions about what are, after all, minority sports. How many of the two billion or so people who will watch on TV could – before the event – name the world pole vault champion, the world archery champion or the Tai Kondo champion? About 0.0001 per cent.
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Tibet and the `Olympic tradition'
Ironically, the Olympic torch tradition was, in fact, invented for precisely that purpose — by Hitler’s propagandists for the 1936 Berlin Olympics. The Beijing Olympics are not an aberration. Neither were the Berlin games. Since their inception at the beginning of the 20th century, the Olympics have been controlled by a committee drawn from the world’s elites and accountable to neither athletes nor the public. The antithesis of participatory sport, this mass spectator event is most of all about corporate sponsorship and marketing.
Dave Zirin: China's brutal Olympic echo
China’s brutal crackdown against Tibetan protesters ahead of the Summer Olympics in Beijing carries with it a terrible echo from the past... Yet the concern expressed by world leaders has seemed less for the people of Tibet than the fate of the Summer Games, with Olympic cash deemed more precious than Tibetan blood. The Olympics were supposed to be China's multibillion-dollar, super sweet sixteen. Britain's Minister for Africa, Asia and the United Nations, Mark Malloch-Brown told the BBC, "This is China's coming-out party, and they should take great care to do nothing that will wreck that."
The Olympics, sportswear and super-exploitation
As the clock ticks down to the Beijing Olympics, workers producing for the international sportswear companies that spend millions on Olympic and athletic sponsorship deals are still working excessive hours and paid poverty wages, according to a damning new report, Clearing the hurdles: Steps to improving working conditions in the global sportswear industry, from Play Fair 2008.
Heroes of Beijing: the triumph of the West
Nation states will compete to move up the medal table and the flag of the People’s Republic of China will likely be hoisted more than most, accompanied on countless occasions by the playing of the Chinese national anthem. The ultimate winners, however, will never stand on a podium although their logos will be on view throughout the course of the event. Transnational corporations will reign supreme in Beijing just as they have been doing for at least the past thirty years and Western capitalist values will have taken another step closer to the winning line.
CUBA: Money has `tainted' Olympics
In 2000, the head of Cuba's Olympics committee, Jose Ramon Fernandez, accused Western commercial influences of corrupting sport. Fernandez, who was also one of the country's vice-presidents, charged that rich countries are promoting a ``sports talent drain'' from the Third World, similar to the ``brain drain'' of scientists and professionals.
Bribery and big business: making the International Oylmpic Committee run
The hidden winners of the Olympics have the spotlight turned on them in a book by Andrew Jennings, a journalist who former IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch once tried to have jailed for alleging that IOC members took bribes from cities bidding to host the games.
Brother of the fist: Peter Norman
By Dave Zirin
It's 1968, and 200-metre gold medalist Tommie Smith stands next to bronze winner John Carlos, their raised black-gloved fists smashing the sky on the medal stand in Mexico City. They were Trojan Horses of Rage — bringing the Black revolution into that citadel of propriety and hypocrisy: the Olympic Games. When people see that image, their eyes are drawn like magnets toward Smith and Carlos, standing in black socks, their heads bowed in controlled concentration. Less noticed is the silver medalist. He is hardly mentioned in official retrospectives, and people assume him to be a Forrest Gump-type figure, just another of those unwitting witnesses to history who always end up in the back of famous frames. Only the perceptive notice that this seemingly anonymous individual is wearing a rather large button emblazoned with the letters O-P-H-R, standing for the Olympic Project for Human Rights.
1968: Black Power Salute
At the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games the enduring image was Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the African-American athletes raising their gloved clenched fists in support of the Black Power movement during the Star Spangled Banner, they were subsequently banned from the games for life. This film looks at what inspired them to make their protest, and what happened to them after the Games. Featuring Tommie Smith, Lee Evans, Bob Beamon and Delroy Lindo. Also read about Peter Norman, the Australian athlete who gained third place, who supported Smith's and Carlos' protest. Norman is the subject of a new documentary, Salute, which can be previewed here.
Click HERE to watch parts 2-6
The 1936 People's Olympiad
The People's Olympics (Olimpiada Popular) was planned for Barcelona, Spain as a protest event against the 1936 Summer Olympics planned for Berlin during the period of Nazi rule. The newly elected, left-wing Popular Front government in Spain decided to boycott the Berlin Olympics and host their own games.
Viewing the Olympics from Cuba
By Circles Robinson*
August 20, 2008
The last time I saw my father in 2001, we discussed the 2000 Sydney Olympics
as best we could, he from his sick bed, imprisoned by his Parkinsons
disease, and me making preparations to move to Havana.
Those were the last Olympic Games he watched on TV, before his death in
2003, but his comments have stayed with me. A patriotic man, grateful for
the opportunities he had had in the USA, he nevertheless found his love for
sports compromised by the world of advertising and the profit-oriented media
Here it was as if no other country had athletes competing, he told me.
It was obvious that the business of TV advertising was first and the
sports themselves were a far off second, he added.
I have often recalled those statements when watching first the 2004 Athens
games and now the 2008 Beijing Olympics from my apartment in Havana.
There could be nothing more diametrically opposed than Olympics sports
coverage in Cuba and the United States.
ROUND THE CLOCK COVERAGE
When Beijing 2008 kicked off on August 8th, 17 days of uninterrupted 24-hour
coverage began on Cuban television. Events are beamed in live and also
repeated so that everyone gets a chance to see what they want. Like all
Cuban TV, the Olympic coverage is commercial free, and virtually all
disciplines are shown independent of whether the island has participants.
Much of Cuba is tuned in at all hours watching the events as they happen
(despite the 12-hour time difference with Beijing). You know that because
the sounds of the TVs can be heard from open doors and windows and if its
an important match for a Cuban team or individual athlete, collective cheers
or sighs can be heard into the wee hours of the morning.
Cuba is a sports-loving country, and interest extends beyond the islands
participation, to that of athletes from other latitudes. In fact, Cuba sends
sports trainers to dozens of nations to help them improve their programs.
While many people in the US are also watching the Olympics, the broadcasts
themselves are seen as a business venture. This time around NBC Universal,
owned by the giant General Electric Corp., won the rights to broadcast by
paying the International Olympic Committee (IOC) nearly US $900 million.
In fact, Reuters reported on August 11th that NBC had already sold over a
$1 billion just in ads with plenty more to come. Coverage is focused on the
marketable big names and the big rivalries, with little attention paid
to the participation of athletes from other nations.
COMPETING AGAINST THE GIANTS
I am as glued to the TV as any of my neighbors. I particularly like to watch
the Olympic track and field events, volleyball and baseball, boxing, rowing
The fact that Cuba, a small island nation of 11.2 million people, is
competitive with the world powers in several sports adds to the excitement
here. The feat is even more significant when taking into account that Cuba
uses only Cuban-born athletes while many North American and European
countries literally purchase talent abroad.
Cubas competitiveness in the Olympic arena began in the 1970s and didnt
fall from the sky. It was the product of a major effort to spread physical
education, sports participation and training opportunities throughout the
In Cuba, anyone can become an athlete, whether they are born in Havana or
in the most remote village in Guantanamo, Angel Gutierrez, a retired
physical education teacher who taught in primary schools for over 20 years
told the IPS news service.
In fact, few of the Cuban amateur stars started their sports careers in the
capital. So far, athletes from all over the country have contributed to
Cubas first Beijing medals including Mijain Lopez (Greco-roman wrestling),
Yanelis Barrios (discus) and Idalis Ortiz (Judo) from Pinar del Rio; Yoanka
Gonzalez (cycling) from Villa Clara; Anaisy Hernandez and Yanet Bermoy
(Judo) from Cienfuegos; Eglys Cruz (shooting) from Sancti Spiritus and
Yordanis Arencibia (Judo) from Las Tunas.
The popular Dayron Robles, the 110-meter hurdles world record holder, has
qualified for the final heat. He is from the countrys easternmost province
of Guantanamo, while javelin thrower Yipsi Moreno, who just won a silver
medal, is from Camaguey.
Yes, some top Cuban athletes have decided over the years to accept lucrative
contracts abroad and abandon their national team. A defector is treated in
the foreign mainstream media as another victory for free market capitalism
and a triumph of the American dream over a government that sees athletes as
stars but does not make them tycoons.
Whats more amazing is how many Cuban athletes refuse the offers, preferring
their Cuban lifestyle which, although above the average living standard for
the country, would be considered poverty in terms of material possessions to
people from the developed world.
I'm not sure what my father would have thought of life in Havana, but I
think he would have greatly enjoyed watching the Olympics with me on Cuban
TV commercial free.
*Circles Robinsons reports and commentaries from Havana can be read at:
August 26, 2008, Something you wouldn’t see at the Olympics: teams of laughing and cheering teenagers and young adults throwing water-filled condoms at each other, catching them in towels held by one person on each corner, as rain drenches the condom covered ground.
This was one of the activities a Cuban sports instructor, working through Barrio Adentro Sport, organised for the youth at an National Institute of Youth (INJ) training camp.
No one bothered to keep score, and despite the rain, team after team (of both men and women) took the losing team’s place with excitement. If you wanted, you could have played ``spot the human values'': cooperation, comradeship, health, de-taboo-isation of condoms, enjoyment of company and of the environment, enjoyment for the sake of it.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, athletes who have been bought by rich countries from other parts of the world, then trained, scientifically sculptured and nutritioned into 100-metre sprint experts, compete during two of the most expensive weeks ever. They selfishly dedicate their lives to one small goal, one medal, one day or more of fame, under the guise of ``doing it for their country'', without actually improving any aspect of society except perhaps bringing back with them, as they pose for the gaggle of photographers at their airport, a tad of irrational nationalist pride.
And, you cannot see the glorious night sky, nor the ancient streets and bone-deep culture of Beijing for the advertising. ``Humanity'', as some people call the Olympics, is merchandised and sponsored out, with physical space in Beijing and time space on TV filled to the hilt with advertising, souvenirs, T-shirts, toys, and collectables, and everything else in life that is not creative or useful.
(This Olympics non-sponsor advertising was banned and $2.7 billion were spent on outdoor and billboard advertising. Development in preparation for the games cost China $40 billion in public money and 300,000 people their homes. I remember the Sydney Olympics, when homeless people were towed away for the period- and replaced by flowerpots to make Sydney pretty to the world.)
And there’s what most commercial channels decided to ignore- the residents who protested against their homes being demolished and were imprisoned and tortured. Some disappeared. There is the repression of dissent. During the 2000 Olympics the New South Wales Government increased the powers of the police and the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO), and for the first time the military were deployed against domestic unrest—mainly to prevent indigenous people from protesting.
George Orwell described the Olympics as ‘war minus the shooting’ (although there are actually 15 shooting events these days) and since when was war ever played on a level field? Roughly the same six or so countries lead the medal tally every time- the US, China, Russia, Germany, France, and Australia. It’s boring. It reminds me of rich kids buying their way into University, or big school bullies. Three cheers for powerful countries beating the little guys. And well, India has about as many people as China, but most of them are too worried about getting work and eating to be playing sport all day.
When you take out the pretty slogans the Olympics is a nationalist, money making fest that doesn’t even attempt to serve any social function in a world that has a long way to go towards being just.
\Having said all that, sports is one of those aspects of life, like love, or dancing, or the street, or music and art, which can either be totally commercialized and eliticized or that can be beneficial to society and human development, and beautiful.
Playing and moving about, at any age, is human. But under capitalism ‘play’ is turned into heavy, serious, profitable, ‘sport’. Just as culture is turned into DVDs and souvenirs, shared music and dancing is turned into painted, digitally edited superstars, and art is tucked away in museums and sold at inaccessible prices. We go from collective participation, to 99.9% passive spectators or audience, under capitalism.
Revolution and socialism, however, are about participation, and not competition. So how far has Venezuela come in revolutionizing sport, turning it instead, into an activity that brings people together, raises collective health, and helps us appreciate our environment?
Socialized sport has its place in the Bolivarian Revolution’s general aim of improving people’s economic, social, cultural and participatory life.
And whilst a lot of ‘developed’ countries are willing to spend enormous amounts of their tax revenues on creating elite athletes, Venezuela has been spending its money on social programs both within the country and across Latin America.
Just one of its social programs is making sport accessible and beneficial to people in all corners of the country, of all ages, genders, and physical capacity.
The Venezuelan government’s policy on sports comes from the constitution which says, in summary, that everyone has a right to sport and recreation as activities that benefit the quality of life of both the individual and the collective. Sport has a fundamental role in the formation of both children and teenagers. Its teaching is obligatory in all levels of public and private education.
This policy was elaborated on under the ‘National Bolivarian System of Sport’ in 2005 in which, through sports amongst other things, “a new profile of the Venezuelan will try to be obtained, with more discipline and responsibility, that values work, perseverance, credibility, conviction, analysis, and the sporting identity…with a focus on four main programs: performance sports, sports for all, sports installations, and sports in school.”
Money was distributed, and programs set up. For example, included in the sports in school program was a project with a budget of US$1.6 million to transform the curriculum for physical education.
Under sports for all, in 2006, a number of projects were started. US$7 million were assigned to supporting 360 decentralized sporting facilities. Almost US$5 million were assigned to a project of strengthening community and municipal schools sports programs.
The Latin American University of Sports and Physical Education was inaugurated in April 2006 in the state of Cojedes. It forms professionals in planning, training, methodology, management, technology, and recreation, and currently has 14 Cuban professionals and 84 Venezuelan teachers, with 1,500 students, 136 of which are from Central and Latin America.
And using sports as a tool to unite, Latin American Integration has been a priority in Venezuelan sports policy. One current proposal is that the first ALBA (Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas) games with the participation of teams across Latin America. Included in this would be native sports.
Another proposal was the formation of Latin America represented as a block on the International Olympic Committee and similar organizations, so that the interests of the continent may be better represented.
One of the things I love most about Venezuela (and indeed Cuba) is the liveliness of the grandparents. The average capitalist country likes to see older people as surplus waste to be chucked away in under-funded ‘nursing homes.’ Such people, undervalued by society, tend to hide in their homes only to come out on compulsory voting days (in Australia) or for necessary shopping. In contrast, life in socialist countries doesn’t end when you are no longer able to work. It’s just starting.
Sports, being in many ways the direct opposite to sloth-like passive leisure such as TV, has an important social role to play, in getting people up, outside, talking and working with other people, moving around and engaging. Team sports involve a lot of communicating, cooperation, and moral support.
Carlos Ugueto has always liked sports. Now he is 84 years old and he still walks for 40 minutes a day, guaranteeing that he’ll live for many more years.
He participates in Mission Barrio Adentro Sport, an agreement between Venezuela and Cuba that was born on July 31, 2004. It is available to all people, including to pregnant women, those with disabilities, and those recovering from illness who need physical exercise as part of the program. It also sees sports as an important part of preventative medicine, and now has the majority of Venezuelans involved in physical activity. (Barrio Adentro Sport had already gone from attending 1.7 million people (7.7% of the population) in 2003 to 9 million (34.6% of the population) in 2005.)
Thousands of trained Cubans bring sport into the community, into the streets, parks, schools, and ‘grandparent residentials’ – places for older people to socialize, eat healthy meals, and receive social services. Activities include sports, physical activity, dominoes, chess, dance therapy, clubs, physical preparation for pregnant women, and special days such as the ‘Day of Walking’.
“[There is] nothing better than physical exercise to prevent cardiovascular accidents…including for mental health, for the health of the family, good blood circulation which brings oxygen to the brain, for study, to complement the educational effort that we are doing…we need to live more and better every day,“ said Chavez at the mission’s inauguration.
There have been many amazing stories, such as that of Yolanda Ramirez de Arteaga, who one year ago presented with thrombosis in her left arm and today is almost recovered. She started her rehabilitation in the “grandparents club” in her local community, managing to recover the mobility of the arm.
In another community, Zoraida Cruz de Briceno is a member of a club “Happiness.” “I’m 62 years old and I want to participate in this sporting and musical event because I like to stay energetic,” she says.
“We do gym, we paint, we sing and we also go on long hikes, which I like so much.”
Globally, under capitalism, there is still a class divide in sports, where the sports that are played easily and cheaply are played by the masses and other sports like golf, tennis, horse riding, and car sports are limited to the upper class. Such a divide still heavily applies to Venezuela, which has not yet thrown off the market chains and is affected by global trends.
The elitist idea of the professional sportsperson, of high performance, competitive and marketable sport, still dominates.
75% of the budget, according to Pedro García Avendaño, coordinator of the Unit of Research of Human Performance-Sport and Health, is still spent on 1,000 high performance sportspeople. This amounts to approximately US$230 million per year.
Venezuela sent 109 people to compete in the Olympics, a record amount and more than double the 48 sent last time to Athens. Dalia Contreras won the only (bronze) medal for Venezuela, in Tae-kwon-do.
And although in the pub on Friday night, myself and a friend couldn’t help getting a bit excited as Brazil played the US in volleyball, there hasn’t been the kind of hype here around the Olympics that I am used to in Australia.
Coverage on the government channel has been very even, complementing any country or competitor who did well and not focusing only on Venezuela. And of course without any product advertising during the breaks (just a few ads encouraging people to register to vote, a few for government projects, and one about ‘gold in revolution’ by the Ministry of Sport).
On Alo Presidente on Sunday, Alexandra Benitez, who represented Venezuela in fencing in the Olympics, speaking on behalf of the other athletes, said, “We appreciate all the support that we’ve been given…for national sports I would suggest that the leadership really know sports, for the responsibility of directing sports should be in the hands of sports people and ex-sports people.”
It was only in 1935, that the Venezuelan Olympic Association was formed (now the Venezuelan Olympic Committee-VOC). “The main reason for its formation was that our sport adapt to the international requirements,” says Avendaño. Many national and local associations had to adjust their rules and regulations to meet these new requirements and in this way foreign interests continued their domination of Venezuelan sports and in what was called the initiation of “modern sports” by some.
In the same way that the English brought cricket to many of its colonies, using it as a tool of domination, various sports arrived in South and Central America from Europe and then the US, quickly replacing traditional culture. Venezuela’s entry into ‘international’ sports further cemented this.
“We are ready to break with this imposed model of domination and organize our sports independently, with decisions that respond to the national interest,” Avendaño added.
He argues, “It’s important to think about the contribution that (sports) has in the construction of the new person.”
“We want a sports that makes and reproduces healthy people who are useful for the country.”
One positive feeling one does get from watching the Olympics is that humans are capable of amazing strength, dedication to a cause, sustained, long term effort, and of beating adversity. And since individual humans can do that, who says we can’t collectively beat the greater global challenges and organize a better, more just, sustainable and humane world; the ultimate cause and achievement.
Printed: August 28th 2008, http://www.venezuelanalysis.com/analysis/3751
License: Published under a Creative Commons license (by-nc-nd). See creativecommons.org for more information.