Mike Marqusee at the Olympics: 'Individual excellence at the service of the nation-state and multinational capital'

"The Tommie Smith/John Carlos 'black power' salute of 1968 – two medal winners overturning the symbolism, refusing to let their individual excellence serve the forces that degraded them and their people." 

For more discussion of issues surrounding sport and politics, click HERE. For more on the Olympics, click HERE.

By Mike Marqusee, London

August 4, 2012 -- Mike Marqusee.com, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with permission -- I enjoyed my afternoon at the Olympics, sitting in my public lottery assigned £50 seat at the ExCel, with a fine view of the men’s boxing. And I enjoyed it not least because I was finally able to watch the sport itself without the surrounding hype, the layers of commentary. For a moment there was only that pleasure special to sport: the spontaneity of a story being fashioned in front of your own eyes, once and once only (despite digital repeats), robustly itself and not pretending to be anything else.

As a lover and student of sport for many decades, I don’t need to be reminded how compelling sport can be. But I’ve also learned what sport is not and that over-stating or mis-stating its importance does it no favours.

As one, the media are demanding, cajoling, whipping us into appropriate displays of Olympic enthusiasm, particularly in relation to British competitors and especially British victories. Breathless BBC commentators reiterate the same round of superlatives – “unbelievable”, “incredible”, “amazing,” “brilliant”, “unbelievable” – telling us again and again how unique, how special, how extraordinary these Olympics are. It feels like they’re the ones on performance enhancing drugs, not the usually sober, poised and realistic competitors.


The boosterism is relentless. We’re all being enjoined to get out and back Team GB [Great Britain], regardless of the particular event or the particular competitors, as if there were no other elements in the spectacle. No matter what the context, no matter how minor or major the sport or what role it actually plays in our lives and imaginations, and entirely disregarding the merits of the opposition, we must reproduce the same emotion, the same enthusiasm. As a fan, I’m always sad to see sports reduced to a hollow chamber for a one-dimensional national chauvinism. The human phenomenon we call sport is far more interesting than that.

Sadly, at the ExCel, after the refreshment of the boxing came the utterly formulaic torpor of a video package in which celebrities and former Olympians waxed banal on the “atmosphere” that makes the Olympics special and the “unforgettable” moment we’re part of. Sorry, but generally I prefer to decide for myself – or let time decide – if something I’ve witnessed is unforgettable. Olympic competitions, like other sports competitions, as any sports fan knows, are not an uninterrupted succession of climatic highs. The boring and the (relatively) mediocre play a necessary role.

Commentators rush to squeeze the events and results into preferred narratives and to draw an apposite moral lesson. Even Cameron seems to think it’s his job to tell us what we should learn from (successful) Olympic performances. These lessons are invariably platitudes which tell us little about either sport or the outside world. It’s as if there’s a fear of letting us draw our own meanings, exercise our own powers of interpretation.

So let me exercise mine. The Olympic podium is a symbolic package: individual excellence at the service of the nation-state under the overlordship of multinational capital. Which is why the supreme Olympic gesture remains the Tommie Smith/John Carlos "black power" salute of 1968 – two medal winners overturning the symbolism, refusing to let their individual excellence serve the forces that degraded them and their people.

Neoliberal games

The government, LOCOG [London Organising Committee] and much of the media, having failed to allay public discontent over the expenditure and the legacy, have resorted to a Victorian claim for the morale boosting effects of elite sport, as a source of inspiration and emulation, which will “save” children from poverty or crime.

The big Olympic message is that individuals can overcome their environment or disadvantages through determination and self-will. This is entirely in keeping with the neo-liberal ethic, the cult of individual success in a competitive market.

This reading of sport ignores two fundamental realities. First, the critical role of collective support for each of the performers, not one of whom could have developed their skills to Olympic levels without the immense infrastructure of social support which makes it possible to realise individual talent. And secondly, the fact that elite sports performers are by definition exceptions. For the great majority, including many with athletic abilities, environment is not transcendable, no matter how “determined” they are.

The neoliberal message will be re-echoed in the coming Paralympics, where individual triumph over circumstances will be feted – even as the government subjects the disabled to punitive discipline, denying them the support needed for independence.

Paradox of sport

The paradox is that at the core of this micro-managed spectacle, this superstructure of manipulative messages, of corporate and national branding, is a phenomenon whose essence is its unpredictability, its uncontrollability, its sublime indifference to all extraneous narratives. Sport, even encased in the Olympic armour, retains an autonomy; each competition operates under impersonal self-contained laws. Unlike art, or the opening ceremony, sport cannot be orchestrated. Indeed, that’s a condition of its legitimacy. It does not unfold according to a pre-conceived scenario, or illustrate a pre-conceived “lesson”. Once the gun is fired or the clock starts, competitors are subject only to the egalitarian law of the level playing field, something otherwise conspicuously absent in our world. This is why we celebrate a Jesse Owens, an Abebe Bikila, a Cathy Freeman – because they used the level playing field to overturn (for a moment) historical hierarchies.

This unpredictable, uncontrollable, objective core of competitive sport, the source of its drama, is at odds with today’s Olympic package, which is increasingly an exercise in micro-management – from physical security to intellectual and cultural property to the formation of subjective interpretations.

It’s worth remembering that the Olympic league tables ranking nations by their medal tallies have no official status and are not formally recognised by the IOC. They are a media invention that rose to prominence during the Cold War, when the comparative medal haul acquired political significance for both sides. Nonetheless, this unofficial league table has become, in effect, a determinant of state policy, in the UK as elsewhere. Funding is dished out in accordance with medal targets. So to justify the expenditure on sport, Team GB must reach its London 2012 targets. But investment in sport – as even billionaire football club owners learn – is never secure or straightforward. It is always subject to sport’s inherent unpredictability (especially in a one-off event like the Olympics, where a single error can nullify years of preparation), to countless contingencies, not least the great unknown of the opposition.

These days our boxers, swimmers, gymnasts etc. are every bit as state subsidised as the Cubans and East Germans of old, who were reviled for their spurious amateurism. Today, the advanced capitalist societies rally under the standard of elite ultra-professionalism, a state and corporate sponsored professionalism presented as the epitome of individualistic dedication, single-mindedness, self-will. Egocentric qualities from which, somehow, it’s asserted, the community automatically benefits. There is a case for state support of elite sports performers, but in relation to the overall objectives of ‘sport for all’, i.e. public health, it’s as dubious a strategy as trickle-down economics.

The Olympic hype has helped me understand an observation made by the philosopher Slavoj Zizek. Under the old regime, he says, the command was “Thou shalt not” whereas under the new it’s “Thou shalt” – a ceaseless injunction to enjoy, consume, spend, celebrate, cheer, smile. Or as Olympic sponsor Nike says, “Just do it”. All of which is in its own way as oppressive and self-distorting as the old prohibitions.

Critical thought

I’ve been an Olympic follower since the Tokyo games of 1964 but I perfectly understand that many people do not share my interest, and there is no civic requirement for them to do so. It’s not only non-sports fans who resent the way these Games are being imposed on our attention at every turn, or the exaggeration of the significance of particular results. The Olympic boosterism treats competitive sport as something it is not and never should be – mandatory. To be itself, sport needs to be a freedom exercised, an option not an obligation.

The injunction to “stop moaning” or “whingeing”, projected across the media, should be roundly rejected, not least by genuine sports fans. The issues raised in and around the Olympics are not trivial: security in the context of the war on terror and the erosion of civil liberties; outsourcing and privatisation with their attendant unaccountability and exploitation of casual labour; the global ethics of giant corporations; the colonisation of the commons through the super-enforcement of intellectual property rights; the subordination of local needs to the imperatives of global capital. These are not peripheral questions that can or should be wished away – and the success or failure of British competitors, or even of “London 2012” as a one-off event, will have no bearing on any of them.

Sport does offer a kind of escape, an alternative, exterior focus (like Shakespeare, a Twilight movie, or a game show). But it is not a vacation from critical thought. I find no difficulty thoroughly enjoying the best of the competition without compromising for a moment a necessarily critical perspective on what the Olympic enterprise has become.

Martin O'Beirne: Olympics opening ceremony -- Worshipping at the capitalist sacrificial alter

i>Scene from the opening ceremony of London 2012 Olympic Games.

By Martin O'Beirne, Green Left (London)

“Capitalism has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, that it is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells”. -- Karl Marx

July 27, 2012 -- The Ecosocialist, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- In the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto the Mayan kingdom is faced with its decline and the rulers insist the key to prosperity is to build more temples and offer up human sacrifices. Academics criticised the film stating that the sacrificial subjects would more likely be royalty and elites as opposed common forest dwellers.

Today the whole of humanity and countless other species are faced with the prospect of their demise. Some agencies are no longer counting in decades or even years before such time that we reach climatic tipping points but rather in the number of months.

The Mayans, to their credit, had a plan. They recognised the elites carry greater weight for sacrifice to their deity than the general population. Our deity is the prevailing socioeconomic system and our elites are the <1%, the purveyors of the corporate-political-military complex. Our temples are the oil fields, pipelines, chimneys, airports, cars and manifold commodities, often needless that create exchange value but have little or no use value. The Olympic Games opening ceremony was a temple where vested interests of the global elite had converged, and worship to the deity capital was ritualistically performed.

In the huge London arena (the site of the world’s newest corporate tax haven, courtesy of the British taxpayer) a potted history of capitalism from feudalism to the industrial revolution to the present day was bought to life -- the audience watched on and waved enthusiastically while huge mock coal chimneys were erected, and miners with soot-stained faces and their well-dressed capitalist masters mimed, gyrated and danced; gesturing like crazed primevil peoples as the chimneys arose from the ground, penetrating the previously commons managed grasslands.


Scene from the opening ceremony of London 2012 Olympic Games. 

The structures of the polluting fossil fuel economy, the means of production and in this case instruments of eco-catastrophe were there at the centre, at the altar. The sacrificial subjects behaved appropriately in honour of their deity and elites, who occupied a large proportion of available seats. 

A quarter of all tickets – rising to perhaps two-thirds for top events -- have been given to Olympic bodies and corporate sponsors. These sponsors  represent a veritable feast of exploitation, pollution and corruption. To name just two - McDonald's, the London 2012 official Olympic restaurant, brings obesity, diabetes, deforestation and methane and BP, the official sustainability partner, brings the finest lobbyists, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, huge quantities of carbon emissions and a reliance on profit and access from illegal wars.

This spectre of vested interests and cognitive dissonance did however have some surprise moments. A big nod to the National Health Service (which may soon be a service consigned to history as its slow-motion privatisation continues) in the music montage, dancers formed a CND sign, the anarchist, anti-monarchist Sex Pistols were featured and of great surprise was the inclusion albeit briefly of the song 'Uprising' by Muse. In an interview frontman Matt Belamy comments:

This song is influenced by glam rock, 1980s synths, riots and the more eccentric protesters at the recent G2O protests. It expresses a general mistrust of bankers, global corporations and politicians.


the whole song is about having a massive mistrust for people in power, whether it be government, or bankers. We're living in a society where we're being told to keep quiet, to just accept things as they are.

It was also amusing that the most prominent song in the montage was Dizzy Rascal’s "Bonkers" – could Danny Boyle, who directed the ceremony, have been trying to tell us something?

Then on to a speech by Seb Coe, who claimed the olympics celebrates "the best of mankind" followed by the athletes procession. The first two teams, from countries hit hard by exploitation and imperialism and the inherent deficiencies of the socioeconomic order were Greece and Afghanistan. Some time later I had to wonder what the handful of athletes from the little island of Tuvalu made of the occasion. Perhaps, of all the teams, these athletes have the most acute awareness of climate change; it is a daily concern for them. Their home, a tiny island, is slowly disappearing under the Pacific Ocean. At the 2009 United Nations climate conference in Copenhagen the island’s chief negotiator Ian Fry stated:

Tuvalu is one of the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, and our future rests on the outcome of this meeting.

When the conference failed to reach a binding, meaningful agreement he said:

It looks like we are being offered 30 pieces of silver to betray our people and our future... Our future is not for sale. I regret to inform you that Tuvalu cannot accept this document.

He closed by reiterating the point that global warming is currently "the greatest threat to humanity", and ended with an emotional plea, "the fate of my country rests in your hands”.

My message from the opening ceremony: We are all Tuvalans!