As I write this, news reports of newly discovered failed drug tests of Olympic athletes are all over the sports pages. In other sections of the paper, there are stories about the neoliberal coup in Brazil; a coup that involves some very obvious capitalist crooks overthrowing a not-as-corrupt social democrat. There are also reports on various news media about incredibly polluted waters that will be used by Olympic athletes this coming August. Ironically, a fair amount of the pollution seems to stem from new construction because of the Olympics. I mention this news as a way of introducing Jules Boykoff’s just-published history of the modern Olympic Games, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics.
There is a conventional narrative of the Olympics. It is one the television audience is fed every Olympic Games. This narrative is essentially a pack of lies created and nurtured to further the myth that the Olympic Games are one of humanity’s greatest moments; a time when politics, nationalism, racism and sexism are transcended by the pure beauty of athletic competition. In this narrative, petty pursuits like profit and power are put aside in the name of the Olympic ideal, an almost heavenly reality where humanity becomes like the greatest and purest of the gods in the heights of Olympus. Of course, this narrative is nonsense. In his book, Boykoff enumerates exactly why.
He begins the book with a history of the early modern games. In providing this history, he discusses the man who re-established the games—Baron Pierre de Coubertin—and his struggle to maintain the effort despite a relative apathy on the part of many world governments and sporting associations. Boykoff also discusses Coubertin’s insistence on keeping women out of the games while also trying to get more non-European/US participation. In narrating this history, Boykoff reveals the prevalence of colonialist and racist attitudes among the aristocracy (and a fair number of the bourgeoisie) of the late nineteenth an dearly twentieth centuries. Indeed, Baron de Coubertin was not above these prejudices; he just believed sport could transcend them all.
The truth, however, is that sport cannot manifest such a miracle. Power Games is a look at the history which proves this fact. Nor can international sport end war. Indeed, as Boykoff makes crystal clear, the Olympic Games have often been used as part of various nations’ war effort. Whether one is discussing the Nazi games of 1936 or the numerous boycotts and other machinations between nations in the US-led capitalist bloc and the Soviet-led socialist bloc, the historical facts bear this truth out.
One of the standard tropes of many sports commentators and organizers is that politics do not belong in sports. Boykoff’s text, like Dave Zirin’s work on the world of sports today, proves the fallacy of this trope. By their very existence and popularity, sports are not only affected by politics, they are often the stage where politics are played out. Nowhere is this perhaps truer than in the Olympic Games. What the reader discovers in Power Games is not that politics are not part of sports, but that they are. The effort to remove politics from sports is an effort by the ruling elites to maintain their power and deny those they think they rule a forum to make their case. As Boykoff explains, this can be seen most plainly in the response to efforts by athletes to protest racism and poverty. The most memorable such protest was the threat to boycott the Olympics unless the racist government of South Africa was banned and the 1968 medal protest by runners Jon Carlos and Tommy Smith in Mexico City. Both runners were stripped of their medals and kicked out of the Olympics. Together with the mainstream sports media, the International Olympic Committee, under the leadership of the racist Avery Brundage, wasted no time in ruining the athletic futures of both men.
One of the more innovative chapters in Power Games is titled “The Celebration Capitalist Era.” It is in this chapter that Boykoff suggests a neoliberal counterpart to Naomi Klein’s much-discussed disaster capitalism. Essentially, the concept presented by Boykoff is that mega-events like the Olympics and the World Cup not only allow, but actually hasten, the privatization and eventual profiteering from of urban areas marked for what used to be called urban renewal. Accompanying these efforts—where whole neighborhoods are razed and their residents forced out—is an intensification of the ongoing militarization of security forces. This latter phenomenon is necessary because people do not like being forced from their home. So the police and military are called in to make them leave. Boykoff’s discussion of this aspect of the Olympics looks at several of the last games—from Vancouver to Beijing and Atlanta to Sochi—and patiently explains the neoliberal strategies at work. From the nauseating sums of money tossed at public officials and corporate sponsors to the rounding up of homeless people and the temporary incarceration of dissidents, the instances he discusses are contemptible proof that celebration capital is disaster capitalism’s equally evil twin.
Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics exposes the underside of the modern Olympic Games. The text is an important read for those who will be watching this summer’s contests in Rio. Even more importantly, though, it is a necessary text for those who live in cities the International Olympic Committee is eyeing for its next overpriced neoliberal capitalist extravaganza. The people of Boston sent the IOC packing in 2015 for many of the reasons elucidated in this history. Other cities would do well to do the same. This book explains why.