The bribes have been spent. The pimps paid off. The "escorts" shuttled home. Now it’s sweat-time for local fat cats, anxiously tapping their uncalloused fingers, as they wait to see if "their" city will be chosen Wednesday as host for the 2012 Summer Olympics. The motley Montgomery Burns’s of New York, Moscow, London, and Paris already have the champagne on ice, in expectation of feeding at the trough of Olympic slop. The people of these cities, however, should be praying that they become Olympics bridesmaids, because there is no worse fate than being an Olympic bride.
In fact, only someone who wants to see their city bankrupted, militarized, and stomped flat should pine for the Olympic games. As Sports Illustrated’s Michael Fish, a writer who otherwise blows the Olympic bugle, wrote, "You stage a two-week athletic carnival and, if things go well, pray the local municipality isn’t sent into financial ruin."
The evidence is overwhelming. People may remember the 1976 Olympics in Montreal where "Nadia Comaneci stole our hearts." It was more than hearts that were stolen. The people of Montreal are still paying for the Majesty of the Summer Games three decades later, even though at the time one official said "Olympics cause deficits as often as men have babies."
But for those with shorter memories, one need only look to the 2004 Summer Games in Athens, which gutted the Greek economy. In 1997 when Athens "won" the games, city leaders and the International Olympic Committee estimated a cost of $1.3 billion. When the actual detailed planning was done, the price jumped to $5.3 billion. By the time the Games were over, Greece had spent some $14.2 billion, pushing the country’s budget deficit to record levels.
The graft and corruption may reach Enronian levels, but far worse is the fact that the Olympics carry the promise of repression for a city’s most vulnerable residents. It’s a familiar script, replayed every four years, with only the accents changing. Political leaders start by saying that a city must be made "presentable for an International audience." Then the police and security forces take their green light and round up "undesirables" with extreme prejudice.
In Mexico City in 1968, this expressed itself most brutally when hundreds of Mexican students occupying the National University were slaughtered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas in Tlatelolco. To this day the Mexican Government has only admitted to 30 killings, but Amnesty International put the number at 500.
In 1984, Los Angeles Police Chief Daryl Gates oversaw the jailing of thousands of young Black men in the infamous "Olympic Gang Sweeps". As Mike Davis has written, it took the reinstatement of the 1916 Anti-Syndicalism act, a law aimed at the revolutionary union, the Industrial Workers of the World, to make these Stalin-esque jailings a reality. The 1916 bill forbid hand signals and modes of dress that implied IWW membership. The LA politicos of the 80s modernized the bill to include high-fives, and bandanas making the case that Blood and Crip Joe Hills were overrunning the city. It was in the Gates sweeps that the seeds for the LA Rebellion of 1992, as well as the debut music video by a group called NWA were formed.
The Atlanta games in 1996 were no different. These games were supposed to demonstrate what President Clinton called "The New South," but the New South ended up looking a lot like the old one, as African-American occupied Public Housing was razed to the ground to make way for Olympic facilities.
Repression followed the Olympic Rings to Greece in 2004. As Democracy Now reported, city authorities "round[ed] up homeless people, drug addicts, and the mentally ill, requiring that psychiatric hospitals lock them up. Also affected by Athens Olympic clean-up are refugees and asylum seekers, some of whom are being targeted for detention and deportation in the days leading up to the games."
In a place like New York, defined both by savage inequalities and a police force ready to enforce them, the prospects of this are chilling. More than 20% of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. More than 50% of African-American youth in Harlem are unemployed. Losing the Olympics will literally save thousands of residents from being caught in the web of the criminal justice system.
But if New York City does win the games, people from their jail cells and cordoned off neighborhoods, can thank Senator Hillary Clinton, who has been ruthlessly exploiting 9/11 to make the case for Olympic Manna. She said, "We’re standing here a little less than four years from the time when we were attacked and we’re telling you that New York City is the place to bring the 2012 Olympics because people of New York are resilient. They’re extraordinary in their capacity to pull together and plan for the future."
Perhaps the most dispiriting sight has been the great Muhammad Ali, shilling for the New York bid. New York City’s Mayor, billionaire Michael Bloomberg, calls Ali the bid campaign’s "secret weapon" as he leads the largely incapacitated Ali from photo-op to photo-op. To see this is to see tragedy beget tragedy, bypassing farce altogether.
Now would be a more than appropriate time to remember the Ali of 1960. This Ali, then known as 18 year old Cassius Clay, won Olympic boxing Gold in Greece only to be turned away from a white-only restaurant in his hometown of Louisville, despite a medal swinging from his proud neck. The young Clay then took his medallion of gold and flung it into the Ohio River.
We should take his lead and jettison the Olympics into the nearest fetid swamp, complete with cement shoes.
DAVE ZIRIN’s new book "What’s My Name Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States" will be in stores in June 2005. Check out his revamped website edgeofsports.com. You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Contact him at email@example.com.