Jules Boykoff is a writer and professor at Pacific University in Oregon. His latest book, Power Games (Verso, 2016), offers an incisive analytical history of the modern Olympic Games, tracing their birth from the fevered minds of European aristocrats through the bloated made-for-TV superspectacle that it is today.
Boykoff and I met at an event honoring the legacy of Maria da Penha, an outspoken activist from Rio’s Vila Autódromo favela. Her home was one of hundreds that have been demolished to make room for parts of the new Olympic complex in Rio’s Jacarepaguá neighborhood. With just a few weeks left before the opening ceremony—and against a backdrop of an acute financial and political crisis—the speeches were alternately elegiac and defiant.
But as Boykoff shows in Power Games, Olympic crises are nothing new in the history of the Games. He offers example after example detailing cost overruns, bribery scandals, enormous public debt loads, and athlete mistreatment through the decades. Despite the International Olympic Committee’s stated apolitical stance, Boykoff reveals its much more complex—and frequently sinister—relationship to powerful political figures across the world and decades. He also details the steps various athletes and activists have taken to turn the Games—sometimes even by organizing separate, parallel Games-like events—into a powerful platform to challenge injustice and economic disparities.
Boykoff spoke with Paste by phone from his home in Oregon.
In your book, you unearth all sorts of fascinating—and shocking—anecdotes about the very messy history of the Games. How did you get the idea to pursue the Olympics as an academic subject?
I grew up in Wisconsin, where the Olympics are huge. Eventually, I got really into soccer, and had the good fortune of representing the US Olympic Soccer team in international competition. In fact, my first match was against Brazil.
The intellectual side of it happened in 2010 in the lead-up to the Vancouver Winter Olympics. I had written a couple of books about the suppression of dissent in North America, so I went up to Vancouver ahead of the Olympics to cover the machinations up there. But when I got there I realized that so much more was going on. The activism in Vancouver was so incredibly interesting and inspiring—they had street-level activists working on social justice issues for decades, they had poets and artists who played a huge role in the activism that challenged the Olympics.
Vancouver and the fascinating activism I saw there opened my eyes to the fact that the Olympics are an interesting lens for taking on a lot of the issues that matter to me, including repression, capitalism, and the relationship of indigenous peoples to capitalism and sport. Before I started writing about the Olympics, I would show up at Thanksgiving and try to talk to my right-wing uncle about repression and it would go nowhere, because it was a tough road. But I found that when I would show up at Thanksgiving and talk to my right-wing uncle about sports or the Olympics, well, actually, we could have a conversation there.
What explains the disconnect between the idea of the Olympics that gets packaged and sold by NBC—the ideas of goodwill and cooperation and sportsmanship—and the often harsh economic and political realities that undergird the Games?
The gravitational pull of Olympic lore—including goodwill and sportsmanship—is really strong. There’s no doubt about it. And there’s a reality to it. When you read the Olympic charter, there’s tons of terrific ideas in there. The trick for the Olympic movement is taking those abstract ideas and pinning them down to earth in ways that really matter to people.
And I think it gets complicated for everyday people when we look at the truly remarkable stories of the athletes. If it weren’t for that, the Olympics would be nothing. The goodwill and sportspersonship that emerges from these athletes is real.
I guess the way I’ve always approached it is that we can do both: we can appreciate the amazing athletics and goodwill that they produce and ask bigger questions about the political and economic aspects of the Olympics.
As I’ve traveled from one Olympic city to another—whether it be Vancouver, London or Rio—the thing that connects a lot of the Olympic critics is their appreciation for the athletes. And the athletes themselves have really helped along the way as well. There’s a long history of athletes who have demanded that we see complexity in the Olympics.
One of the things I was most interested to learn about in your book was the history of amateurism in the Olympics. Early on, Olympic officials used an amateurism requirement as a means to keep working-class athletes out of the Games. Could you tell us about how the economics of the Olympics affect its athletes?
In the early years of the Olympics, amateurism was a real burr in the side of the organizers. The founder of the modern Olympics, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, took on a definition of amateurism that was very narrow in scope, so much so that if you were a bricklayer or a grape picker—somebody who worked for a living—you were ineligible for the early days of the Olympics. Which of course opened the field wide to men of leisure—women were largely excluded from the early days of the Olympics. They widened that definition eventually, but it’s always been in tension.
Jesse Owens in 1936 was a really interesting example. He was running for Ohio State University and was a very successful college athlete—an amateur—and he gets to the Berlin Olympics and just explodes Adolf Hitler’s racist theories about Aryan superiority. These guys were scraping by, they were not like the Olympic athletes of today. Afterwards, this is his one chance to maybe cash in on his fame, and he was treated pretty shabbily.
One interesting anecdote: when Jesse Owens would go around afterwards and he would give speeches, one of his stock lines when they would ask him about Hitler and did he get snubbed, he would say, “you know who really snubbed me? President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He didn’t even send me a card.” It was no easy road. He had a really hard time making a living. At one point he even resorted to racing against horses for pay.
That points us even to today when you look at Olympic athletes. There’s a huge difference between NBA superstar Carmelo Anthony and somebody in an obscure sport that very few people know about, like the luge events in the Winter Olympics.
In the book, you write about Peter O’Connor, an Irish track athlete who staged a protest against British imperialism in 1906. Tell us a little more about him.
For me, learning about O’Connor was one of the best parts of writing the book. I had found these little nuggets about him in the margins of history, and I managed to track down his family who lives outside Dublin, and they let me look at his papers—he had clipped and organized all the articles about him and his track experiences and he pasted them into this scrapbook.
He positioned his actions as anti-colonial. At the time, Westminster was ruling Ireland, and because Ireland did not have a National Olympic Committee, he was forced to compete for Great Britain, which was incredibly aggravating for him. It wasn’t just him shimmying up the flagpole and placing an “Ireland Forever” flag in the place of the Union Jack—his friend stood at the bottom of the flagpole in solidarity to wave off the police and prolong that act of dissent. It really shows that athletes in a lot of ways could both reflect the movements from home but also in a way kind of be a vanguard for those movements.
Another moment that’s vital to the political history of the Olympics has to be at the 1968 Games in Mexico City. Just after the massacre of activists in Tlatelolco Plaza, where hundreds of people who were challenging the Olympics were gunned down, you had John Carlos and Tommie Smith on the medal stand thrust their fists into the Mexico City sky while, importantly, Peter Norman stood next to them in solidarity, wearing an Olympic Project for Human Rights button. That’s not just a powerful moment of Olympic history, that’s an iconic moment of world history.
At the time, those guys really suffered, and not just immediately afterward—they were basically marginalized when they got home, they had a hard time finding jobs, they really paid a personal price for what they did. Now, of course, they’re seen as heroes. So that illuminates this important dynamic where at least in the United States we tend to appreciate our activists the further and further back they get into the rearview mirror of history.
Just a couple of days ago, Carmelo Anthony spoke out about the need of athletes to stand up around issues of racism. And there’s the incredibly important and vibrant Black Lives Matter movement in the United States that is carving out and demanding space for these really important questions around racial discrimination in the United States and also around the world. I think it’s going to be really interesting to see what happens when we get to Rio 2016. I very much hope he considers using this platform as a way of speaking out and raising these issues for a global audience.
Some Black Lives Matters organizers are coming to Brazil this week.
I saw that. It’s definitely super interesting—that’s one thing that activism against the Olympics has lacked, a sort of sustained transnational component to it. It’s like Olympic activism is sort of a game of whack-a-mole. The Olympics crop up in your city, boom, they’re so huge they roll over the toes of activists, and activists come up to challenge them, and then the Olympics leave, and they pop up in another city…it’s very difficult to create those trans-national ligatures. So I think the fact that Black Lives Matter activists are in a concerted effort going to Brazil and trying to create those ligatures is really compelling.
In Power Games, you take a hard look at the vast benefits companies like Coca-Cola, Visa and NBC—along with local real estate speculators—are set to reap from the Olympics. What role do cities play in facilitating those benefits?
The Olympics help us see in a really clear way that capitalism is a nimble shape-shifter. Sometimes it takes the form of neoliberal capitalism with privatization and deregulation, and sometimes it takes the form of what I’m calling in the book “celebration capitalism,” these public-private partnerships that are incredibly lopsided whereby the public shoulders the burden and the cost, and the private entities lurk about and are there to scoop up any rewards that may come about.
Let’s talk about this imbalance between public spending—and debt—and private reward. In the book you write extensively about the 1984 LA Olympics, which was the first time corporations really began to cash in on the Games.
In order to talk about LA we have to take a step back to 1976, when Montreal hosted the Summer Olympics. When Mayor Jean Drapeau of Montreal first took on the Olympics he said it would only cost $125 million. He also said that the Olympics could no sooner run a deficit than a man could have a baby. And boy, was he wrong. First of all, the Olympics price-tag skyrocketed from $125 million to $1.5 billion. Montreal didn’t pay off that debt until 2006, some thirty years later. And, sort of as an historical side-note, I’m talking to you from Oregon, where in July, 2008, a transgender man named Thomas Beatie actually had a healthy baby girl. So basically Jean Drapeau was 100 percent wrong across the board.
Montreal had started to really open the Olympics up to corporate sponsors, but Los Angeles changed the game: They decided to bring on a smaller number of corporate sponsors who would pay a larger sum of money, which worked really well in terms of raising funds. Eventually the International Olympic Committee (IOC) realized this was the path forward. By the end of the 1980s, the IOC had started a full-throttle corporate sponsorship program which is now called the Worldwide Olympic Partners Program.
But it’s important to note that there were a number of public subsidies that went into those Games. So when we hear that the LA Olympics made a profit of $215 million or so, there were a lot of hidden subsidies in terms of policing, in terms of stadium use, in terms of the maintenance of stadiums before, during, and after the Games that was shouldered by the public.
Where do all those profits go?
Well, in theory, the corporate sponsorship program is plunged into the operating budget of the Olympic Games, funneled through the IOC. And, let’s face it: for a non-profit organization, the IOC sure is profitable. According to their own records they have around a billion dollars in reserves. I think it is important to point out that in the case of Rio, when the IOC honchos helicopter into Rio they will receive hefty per diems or up to $900—in addition to your hotel, rides around town, and all those nice cheese plates I’m sure they’ll enjoy. Now compare that to the monthly wage in the favela of Rocinha, where the average monthly wage was $240 before Brazil’s recession. These guys from the IOC are going to helicopter in and get at least double that, per day.
So they have plenty of money. They will tell you that they plunge it into the Olympics, but they’re also breaking ground on a new top-quality headquarters in Lausanne. The IOC should cut back on their own costs and they should pay more so the citizens of the host city don’t have to pay quite so much. The IOC should assume more responsibility. If they really truly want to make significant changes and they say they do, that’s a great way of restoring more faith in everyday people in the host city, by kicking in more to fund the Games.
It’s just sort of obscene that they’re building a new headquarters and yet they won’t do little things for the everyday people or Rio or the athletes.
Do you think it’s becoming harder for the IOC to find cities willing to host the Games?
Absolutely. Fewer and fewer cities are game for the Games, if you will. For the 2022 winter Olympics, originally there were a number of cities that were interested but in the end only two made bids: Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, neither of which are bastions of democracy. Basically anywhere that democracy popped its head up and everyday voters were given a chance to weigh in, they said, “thanks but no thanks,” whether it was in Krakow, Poland, a couple of cantons in Switzerland, Stockholm, or Oslo—they said no, and that basically meant there were only two cities in the running for 2022.
Then there’s 2024, the Summer Olympics. In general, the summer Olympics are much more popular, but right now it’s down to four cities: Los Angeles, Paris, Rome and Budapest. Most people that follow the Olympic bidding process closely don’t think that Budapest is putting forward a serious bid. The newly-elected mayor of Rome, Virginia Raggi, has been outspoken against the Olympics in Rome. She actually had an audience with the Pope where apparently they talked about the unethical nature of the Games. Then there’s Paris and Los Angeles, and with all the awful terrorist attacks that have happened in France recently, a lot of people are saying that the Paris bid has been weakened. Then, with the potential of a Trump presidency in the United States, that could also be very off-putting to voting members of the IOC—who will decide in late 2017, after the U.S. Election.
There’s been an incredible shift in the way we talk about the Olympics in the last five to ten years. It used to be where a potential politician could strut up to the podium and say “oh, the Olympics if we host them, they’re going to bring all sorts of jobs, it will float everyone’s economic boat, this is going to be brilliant.” Well, you can’t really do that anymore. There have been so many independent academic economic studies that show otherwise, and the sort of public discourse around the Olympics has caught up to the academic discourse around the economics, so much so that even Mitt Romney—who helped push the 2002 Salt Lake City effort across the finish line after the huge scandal that erupted around the bidding process there recently that the Olympics are not a money-making opportunity. And I think that shows how far we’ve come in talking about the Olympics.
Every Olympics has its quirks. What have you seen since Rio won its bid that distinguishes it from other Olympics?
Well, first, let me say that I think there’s a real danger in simply blaming it on Rio. I’ve seen a dynamic here in the United States where people are saying, “oh, look at how Rio is screwing up the Olympics, South America can’t host the Games!” I think that is just hocus-pocus. Don’t get me wrong—Rio organizers have shown seismic incompetence and astonishing arrogance—but a lot of the problems that plague Rio are Olympic problems that we see in other host cities.
What really jumps out to me in Rio is the greenwashing. When you look back at that bid from 2009, there were some amazing promises that were made about cleaning up the water. Had they been fulfilled, those promises, like the one to treat 80 percent of the water flowing into Guanabara Bay, would have benefitted Rio in a major way. That would have been a huge step forward. But now we know full-well that hasn’t happened.
One other thing that stands out is how the Rio organizers and the mayor’s office have talked about cost. They’ve made the argument that more than half of the Olympics are being paid for by private companies. That’s extremely misleading. First of all, there are incredible tax breaks going to companies that come to Rio to do business. One group of researchers estimated that it was about a billion dollars in tax breaks.
Lest we think that the inflated prices that we see in the Rio Olympics are something new, though, London was much worse than that. London was supposed to be $3.8 billion. It ultimately cost—this is a conservative estimate—$18 billion. They shot their tag through the roof. Such sharp price escalation has essentially become standard Olympic operating procedure in the twenty-first century.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.