Everyone loves the Olympics. They allow people all over the world to set aside their political and religious differences and enjoy a few weeks of healthy competition between a few thousand people who have spent years honing their skills.
At least, this is what we tell ourselves.
In fact, not everyone loves the Olympics. Often, the poorest sectors of society within the host countries experience displacement and other forms of oppression as authorities work hard to impress visiting athletes and spectators. In Brazil, the first South American country to serve as the international showcase, this was certainly true; more than 20,000 families were displaced to make way for Olympics-related infrastructure. In fact, the state of Rio de Janeiro, where the games are being held, is in such desperate financial circumstances that state workers are not being paid and health care centers cannot even afford to take on the Zika virus crisis. Rio declared bankruptcy ahead of the games, and the state’s governor declared a “state of calamity.”
But the mayor of Rio de Janeiro was quick to assure the world that the economic disaster “in no way delays the delivery of Olympic projects and the promises assumed by the city of Rio.” Apparently, delivering basic services to the city’s residents is a lower priority than accommodating the Olympics.
In a recent Dallas News opinion column, Andrew Zimbalist, an expert on the social and financial cost of hosting the Olympics, said, “The net outcome of the Rio Games is that they will have spent $20 billion, they will receive $4.5 billion in revenue, and they will end up with a $15 billion deficit.”
While the fireworks and glittering stadiums overshadow the social and financial problems of this year’s host nation, the facade is crumbling. Rio’s famous favelas are in full view of many venues, and concerns about sewage-infested waters are so serious that athletes competing in water sports have been advised not to splash in, or accidentally drink, the virus- and bacteria-ridden water.
Brazil is hardly an exception in the long line of host countries paying far too dearly for the privilege of hosting the games. The billions spent on building the required infrastructure rarely translate into direct, long-term benefits for the citizens of host countries. Instead, ordinary people pay dearly for the fleeting enjoyment of spectators around the world, while corporations prosper from building contracts and lucrative sponsorship agreements and governments earn little more than bragging rights. This series of photos of abandoned and decaying Olympics venues from host cities around the world is a disturbing testament to the ugly and often invisible legacy of the games.
In addition to poverty, displacement and poor public health and infrastructure, Brazil is in the midst of its worst political crisis in decades, as widely discredited impeachment proceedings against democratically elected President Dilma Rousseff play out in the capital, Brasilia. Interim President Michel Temer has painted a rosy hue on the games and worked hard to silence political dissent. Security forces have deployed stun grenades and tear gas on demonstrators. But protesters among the crowds of spectators are speaking out, using the international spotlight to get their message across. Ahead of the games, activists launched a creative and concerted effort to extinguish the Olympic torch as it was carried through Rio’s streets in order to express their opposition to the effort to oust Rousseff. One of the torch-bearers, an Afro-Brazilian athlete, took a personal risk and exposed the words Fora Temer (Out with Temer) emblazoned on his behind, as this video report shows.
As for the notion that the Olympics help us set aside our political and religious divides for a few weeks, even that is a lie. If anything, the games become nationalistic rituals that amplify existing divides and are simply an excuse to drape oneself with a flag and beat one’s favorite enemy nation in the arena of sports. Certainly this is better than actual war—but rarely, if ever, is it a substitute for war.
On the flip side, the Olympic Games offer yet another platform to display all the societal ills we struggle with on a daily basis, such as sexism and racism. Even the debut of the “refugee team” at this year’s games may do little to humanize the toll of wars (but what about Brazil’s own internally displaced refugees that the Olympics have generated?). Pentagon officials who draw up war plans are hardly going to be moved by the humanity of Yusra Mardini, a Syrian refugee swimmer, and stop bombing her fellow Syrian civilians. It may cause some individuals in Western nations to think twice about their bigoted attitudes toward incoming refugees (or it may amplify existing stereotypes, such as those elicited by a hijab-wearing Egyptian volleyball player). But basic and fair media coverage of the issues refugees face when wars displace them could achieve the same end without the high price of the Olympics.