Expert Opinion

The Road to Rio: Some Thoughts on Olympic Politics

In this blog post, Professor Stephen Wagg in the School of Sport at Leeds Beckett, offers his thoughts on the politics of the Olympics ahead of the Games in Rio this summer.

For many people the Olympics are a bit like Wimbledon. They provoke temporary enthusiasm. Just as, for the first fortnight in July, many of us become tennis fans, every four years in August we develop an equally transient (and very nationalistic) interest in rowing, equestrianism and clay pigeon shooting.

The Olympics are a festival of sport. But is that all there is to it? Of course not. As the Rio Games approach, the usual euphoria must be tempered by sober examination of the politics which surround the Olympic Games. In this regard, two things are currently on my mind. First, the Games are ruinously expensive to stage and have proved so since 1976: the Olympics held in Montreal that year bankrupted the city, saddling it with debts that took thirty years to pay off. Since then Olympic organisers have faced accusations of land grab, the curtailment of civil and commercial liberties, ‘White Elephant’ stadia (as at Athens 2004) and massive raids on the public purse: the British government spent the best part of a billion pounds on London 2012, most of it going to building and security firms.

In response to their growing army of critics the International Olympic Committee have begun to promise that each host country will enjoy a ‘legacy’ from the Games. But this legacy has invariably failed to materialise. The often-promised boost in physical activity has never happened – indeed, after London 2012, the Coalition government cut funding for school sport. Moreover, residents of the East End of London received none of the promised benefits of 2012. The Olympic site is now largely a private estate occupied by IT companies and luxury housing. The Olympic Village was bought by the Qatari royal family. Ordinary East Enders, many of whom lost their homes and leisure spaces in the preparation for 2012, haven’t benefitted – unless they can afford to shop in the new Westfield shopping mall or buy a ticket at West Ham United, who now occupy the Olympic Stadium.

Protest against all this was never on a wide scale and what dissent there was kept well under the radar by the British mainstream media. Not so in Brazil, where angry protests against excessive spending on sports events (Brazil was awarded the football World Cup of 2014 in addition to the coming Olympics) have been going on for several years. They want, as millions of people around the world want, public money to be spent on hospitals, schools and housing. Nearly a quarter of Rio’s population live in shanty towns or ‘favelas’.

Second, at the time of writing, there is a move to expel Russian athletes from the coming Olympics. I think this is disturbing in ways that might not be immediately apparent. A recent report claims that Russian athletes across a range of disciplines have been doping and that the Russian government colluded in this. There’s little reason to doubt that much of this is true. Testing consistently reveals the use of banned substances by athletes in a range of countries, including Britain and the United States. These athletes are, understandably, branded as ‘cheats’. But this may disguise a wider truth which is that all elite athletes today are essentially patients, surrounded by scientists who work to maximise their body’s performance.

Athletes have become, in the words of the American writer John Hoberman, ‘mortal engines’. The days of typists, lorry drivers and bank clerks stepping out of ordinary life to perform at an Olympic Games are long gone. Whether we like it or not this is the age of ‘performance enhancement’. It is telling that the director of Moscow’s anti-doping laboratory, Grigory Rodchenkov, who has claimed to have been at the heart of doping conspiracy, has now defected to the United States and disappeared. He is rumoured to have been given a new laboratory in Los Angeles. I’m wondering, therefore, are we seeing a genuine anti-doping initiative in the Olympic movement or the opening salvo in some new sports Cold War with Russia?

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