‘Media Money Matters With the Olympics’

Janine Jackson interviewed Jules Boykoff about the Rio Olympics for the June 3, 2016, episode of CounterSpin. This is a lightly edited transcript.

Jules Boykoff: (photo: Brian Lee)

Jules Boykoff: “The Olympics have given an unwitting gift to the people of Rio…the opportunity to protest when the global media descends on their city.” (photo: Brian Lee)


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Janine Jackson: The World Health Organization says concerns about the Zika virus are no reason to postpone or cancel the Olympic Games scheduled to start August 5 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Others cite the country’s political and economic unrest — Brazil has had three Sports ministers in the last four months — as a reason to worry about the success of the Games. But what does the “success” of Olympic Games usually look like, such that our next guest would say that Brazil’s current political chaos actually affords Rio organizers “a tiny respite from deeper scrutiny.”

Jules Boykoff is the author of three books about the Olympics, most recently Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. He teaches political science at Pacific University in Oregon, and he spent last fall in Brazil, looking into the country’s preparation for the 2016 Games. He’s also an athlete who represented the US Olympic soccer team some years ago. He joins us now in studio. Welcome back to CounterSpin, Jules Boykoff.

Jules Boykoff: Thank you, Janine.

JJ: Well, the Rio Olympics do present some special circumstances; every city is different, really. But some of the fundamental problems don’t have to do with impeachment or mosquitoes; they’re really the same problems that we saw in London or in Beijing. I know you wrote for Extra! about Vancouver. What are some of those recurring problems, and how are they playing out in Brazil?

JB: The Olympics have become huge over the years, a massive juggernaut that rolls into the host city and affects all sorts of things—economic, political, social, environmental—and some of these issues, as you say, continue to rise up time and time again. One of them is spending, and how in the beginning, when the Olympics come to your town, they’re supposed to cost one thing, in the end they cost multiple times that. It’s like an economic Etch-a-Sketch.

On the front end, for example, London, the last Summer Olympics, was supposed to cost $3.8 billion. In the end, it cost at least $18 billion. So spending is definitely one of those things that comes up time and time again.

Another one that often comes up is displacement. For example, in Beijing, 1.5 million people were displaced to make way for the Summer Olympics that year, 1.5 million. In Rio, we’ve seen 77,000 people being displaced for Olympic structures and for Olympic venues since Rio got the games in 2009.

You also see the militarization of public space. In a sense, the Olympics create a situation where security officials can use the state like their own private ATM, getting all of the weapons that they would have never been able to get during normal political times, sometimes special rules and laws that allow them to monitor not just potential terrorists but also activists as well. In fact, in Rio, there’s actually a section in the Rio bid book called “Activism/Terrorism,” conflating the two, and we’ve seen that also in a number of Olympics prior to Rio.

JJ: It’s interesting; you list these very serious things, and the New York Times, when they’re writing about it, there is some awareness that there’s some downside, but the New York Times in its April 27 piece referred to Rio facing “the usual challenges that bedevil host cities, like delayed stadium construction and transportation concerns.” Well, we’re talking about things that are actually much deeper than that, when you’re talking about displacing over a million people or, in Rio, 77,000 people.

I wanted to draw you out on each of those, really, but let’s start with the displacement idea, because in Rio, I know that there is a particular focus on — although the mayor of Rio, Eduardo Paes, says no one’s been displaced, there’s evidence that people are being displaced, and particularly in this place, Vila Autodromo, and I know that that’s a particularly salient example. Can you tell us a little about that?

Protest graffiti about Vila Autodromo. (image: PharmaKoletivo)

Protest graffiti in Vila Autodromo. (image: PharmaKoletivo)

JB: Sure. Well, it’s just staggering that the Rio mayor, Eduardo Paes, could say that there has been no displacement because of the Olympics. The city’s own statistics say that 77,000 people have been displaced because of the Olympics.

Vila Autodromo is a particularly poignant example. It’s a fishing village that began in the 1960s that happens to be located along the edge of the Olympic Park out in Barra da Tijuca, to the western zone of Rio de Janeiro, and it had many, many families there before, hundreds of families. Now they’re down to about 20 families left, and they fought a really hard struggle to keep their homes, to keep their space, to keep their community alive.

And it’s been a back-and-forth with the mayor, who’s really flip-flopped on this issue. First he says they’re going to get to stay, then he says, nope, everybody’s got to go. And a lot of people, when they settle and they get a monetary payout, get a settlement that does not nearly match what the value of their home is. And so there’s all sorts of problems, even for people that manage to negotiate with the government and get a payout.

So it’s very sad. I went there numerous times over the course of my months in Rio this last fall, and I met incredible people. So on one hand, it’s sad. On the other hand, I mean, it’s just this incredible beacon of courage and tenacity in the face of power. And I really admire the people who stood up at Vila Autodromo, as well as their allies across Rio de Janeiro.

There’s a group called Catalytic Communities, activists who’ve stood side by side. There’s the Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas, the Popular Committee of the World Cup and the Olympics, who’ve been right there the whole time with the residents, arm and arm with the residents of Vila Autodromo.

JJ: And the thing that you were talking about, about displacement and the mayor denying it’s going on—Dave Zirin, who I know you worked with on a lot of this stuff, was saying that it shows how much we’ve got a fight for the narrative going on here.

And it’s interesting, because in some ways the fact that the Olympic emperor has no clothes, if you will, that’s kind of open knowledge, and that’s why Brazil, in advance of these Olympics, they had this thing, this “ten commandments,” that was kind of saying, we’re not going to make these same mistakes that previous host cities have made, and that we’re going to try to avoid these pitfalls. And one of those had to do with whose money was going to be spent on it, because one of the big issues is always about using public money to do things that wind up benefiting private interests. And in Rio, they said, oh, no, we’re going to do it differently this time. Have they really done it differently?

JB: Well, first of all, I think it’s interesting that the low estimate of the Rio Olympics is $11 billion, and some media outlets have reported on it, “only” $11 billion have been spent, $11 billion on the Olympics. And when that happens, you know that we’ve sort of become inured to, very used to, super high budgets for the Olympic Games.

You hear from Rio officials that there’s a huge amount of private input. That’s incredibly deceptive. On one hand, there are these massive tax breaks for corporations, corporate sponsors of the Olympics, who will reap millions and millions, hundreds of millions of dollars of tax breaks when they helicopter into Rio with their wares.

Second, they include this northern zone, the Zona Portuaria, that really has nothing to do with the Olympics. And, sure, that’s being developed by private entrepreneurs—including, I might add, Donald Trump, who is apparently going to make Brazil great again as well. He’s building five skyscrapers in the Zona Portuaria.

But the fact is, there’s no Olympic event in that area. So if you include that, you include all this private spending that’s happening and you thereby inflate the amount of private input. So it’s actually the public that is paying a large portion, an abundance, a majority of the bill for the Rio 2016 Olympics.

I think we really need to be on our toes with this Eduardo Paes. You mentioned Dave Zirin. He interviewed Paes face-to-face, and Paes said directly to him, he said the bike path that washed away had nothing to do with the Olympics. For your listeners that don’t know about that, that was a footbridge and bike bridge that was built to connect a couple communities, and it was pitched as this big Olympic legacy, and it was washed away by huge waves. Shoddy construction appears to be at the root of it, and five people went missing, two for sure have died, so a total tragedy. Paes can say with a straight face to Dave that this is not an Olympic legacy, whereas it definitely was. You look at the paperwork for all Olympic bidding and for all the recent Olympic paperwork on this issue, and it’s absolutely an Olympic legacy, until it’s not.

And same thing with the tickets. When the 2014 World Cup was happening in Brazil, Eduardo Paes was a savvy enough politician to realize that it was a disaster for people in Rio. And he said, oh, the Olympics are going to be much better than that, and what we’re going to do is, we’re going to give 1.2 million tickets to people who would otherwise not be able to afford them. Has he done that? Absolutely not.

So my point is, we really need to keep a close eye on Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, who, by the way, has aspirations to become President Paes, and a lot of people think he’s going to become president of Brazil in the not-too-distant future.

JJ: Along with the amounts of money that are being spent and the source of them, what a lot of folks are concerned about is essentially the priorities that they reflect. In other words, why are we spending, why is anyplace spending, all this money on this spectacle, essentially, when, as we understand it, hospitals are being closed, people are protesting and sitting in in schools because of cuts to the education budget? And so there’s also that. It’s also about priorities, right?

JB: Absolutely. I mean, it’s gobsmacking that hospitals are being shut down, social services are being dialed way back, while they’re spending billions on the Olympics. One example that really jumps out to me about priorities that you’re talking about, Janine, is the construction of the Olympic Village. Typically Olympic Villages say a lot about the organizers in the host city. I really view the plans for the Olympic Village as ethical documents. And a lot of times in previous Olympics, the hosts have said, oh, we’re going to turn these villages into places where we’ll have mixed housing, it’ll be a chance for lower-income people to move into these units, and so on. Now, they have not always come through on that promise, that’s for sure, but that’s a separate story.

Ilha Pura access gate

Promotional material for Ilha Pura stresses the access gate.

In Rio, they’re not even going along with that narrative at all. In fact, from the beginning the plan was to convert the Olympic Village into luxury condominiums. And the place is called Ilha Pura, which is Pure Island. And the fact of the matter is Ilha Pura isn’t even an island, geophysically speaking. It’s definitely a social island, but it’s not even a geophysical island.

And the Guardian interviewed Carlos Carvalho. He is the head of Carvalho Hosken, who’s building the Olympic Village and will flip them over into condominiums, and he made it very clear what the priorities were for him and his fellow 1 Percenters. He said the space afterward, Ilha Pura, will be a space for elites, it will not be a place for poors. I mean, it’s like Montgomery Burns times nine or something.

And that absolutely gives us a clue to what the priorities are for organizers of the Olympics, and it also raises an important point. For all the debt that occurs for cities, there are certain swaths of elites who absolutely benefit from the Olympics, and we need to keep our eye on that as well. Certain elites do tend to reconstitute class power through the Olympic Games.

JJ: I was going to say, to say that it’s a fiasco or whatever wouldn’t mean that it wasn’t very lucrative for some. A failure for some would not be a failure for all.

And also on that point, the New York Times writing about how Rio has promised these transit projects and they might not get them together in time, for example, and there’s some concern about whether everything’s going to fall into place. But this New York Times article said, well, these projects might not materialize, but then they say, “To the vast majority of people watching the games on television, however, such infrastructure may not matter.” And that seemed to me to be almost pointing to the fact that it could succeed in a Potemkin village kind of way; it almost said it matters more what it looks like on TV than what happens on the ground.

JB: Well, it definitely points up the fact that money matters with the Olympics, media money matters with the Olympics. NBC has forked over $4.4 billion for four Olympic Games that include Rio, and they’re not going to take any chances here. That’s why you’re not going to see the Games moved unless some incredible catastrophe happens before Rio. Not even Zika’s going to get the thing moved. There’s too much money at stake, too many power brokers who are going to make some money off of this deal, and media are absolutely at the center of it.

And, you’re right, it’s a little frustrating when the people of a city are sort of brushed aside in their actual interests. The extension of the metro line, Linea Quattro as it’s known in Rio, that actually could be a benefit for everyday people in Rio. This could be one of the very few positive legacies of the Rio Olympics. And they’re pushing up, right up to the very end, as to whether they’re even going to get it done. They’re saying they might open it four days, now, before the Olympics start.

I’ve also read in the Brazilian press that they might make it a direct line straight from Ipanema and Copacabana, which is to say the richer part of Rio de Janeiro, along the South Zone, straight as a pipeline into Barra da Tijuca, where the Olympics are going to be. In other words, skipping straight through, just ramming straight through the communities, and not even stopping off there. And that would be a total travesty, and it would incredibly symbolic about how everyday people are left to the side in the name of spectacle, in the name of speculation.

Aedes aegypti mosquito (photo: James Gathany/CDC)

Aedes aegypti, the primary mosquito that transmits the Zika viurs. (photo: James Gathany/CDC)

JJ: When you look at the story of the Rio Olympics, Zika, the Zika virus, really is at the center of it, right at the moment. The World Health Organization has responded to this letter from lots of health officials who said they thought it was a bad idea for people to go. What’s your take on that angle of things?

JB: Well, first, Janine, I’m a political scientist, not a medical scientist, so I should say that straight up front. I think when I read about Zika in the US press, I’ve seen a tendency where the media frame it as a real danger to First World tourists, who might become ill should they travel. In other words, kind of focusing on a privileged sliver of the global 1 Percent who might travel to Rio, and really worrying about that small swath of elites who might make the trip. What that narrative leaves out, of course, is the everyday people of Rio, who don’t have the choice to move, and who will be there no matter what.

There are important considerations that we should take into consideration with Zika, and one of them is the fact that they have already between 5 and 8 million tourists per year. They just had millions come in for Carnivale, and we didn’t hear about this. And Carnivale, by the way, was during a high mosquito season. The Olympics will be happening in August, which up here in North America is of course summer, but in South America it’s winter. For the mosquitos, that means they won’t be breeding quite as quickly, so it should be a low time.

So there are some mitigating factors with Zika, but I’m really on my guard when I hear people talking about Zika if they’re not also talking about everyday people. If Zika, in discussing it in the press, can be a way of putting pressure on the Brazilian government to offer more support to combat poverty, which really is at the root of the Zika issue, then I’m all for it. But if the people from Rio themselves get swept aside, I think we have a real problem.

JJ: One of the things that your work has brought out is the role that dissent and activism have always played in the Olympics. We have an image of athletes as kind of Captain America types who don’t criticize powerful institutions, and it’s just not true. And the Olympics, of course, is a time where the world is watching. And I understand, finally, that that is why you hope that Rio won’t be cancelled, and that it could in fact be used as a spotlight on political and popular dissent.

Peter Norman, John Carlos and Tommie Smith at the 1968 Olympics

African-American athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos gave the black power salute at the 1968 Olympics, supported by New Zealand’s Peter Norman.

JB: That’s right. The Olympics have given an unwitting gift to the people of Rio, and that is the opportunity to protest when the global media descends on their city, and get some attention for these key and important issues that plague the city from an international press.

You’re right that the history of the Olympics is full of interesting examples of athlete activism. From the 1906 Olympics, when Peter O’Connor, an Irish athlete, was forced to participate under the Union Jack, because at the time Ireland was being governed by Westminster. And when he won a medal, he climbed over to the pole and he shimmied up it and he held the Union Jack to the side and waved an Ireland Forever flag instead, while his buddies from Ireland watched from the ground.

The Carlos Smith/Peter Norman episode you were referencing, and, even more recently, Damien Hooper at the 2012 London Olympics, an Aboriginal boxer from Australia, who wore a shirt into the ring that had the Aboriginal flag on it. So it can absolutely be a pedestal for courageous athletes.

One athlete I’m really keeping an eye on this year is a guy named Laurence Halsted. He’s a fencer from Team GB, Team Great Britain, who’s already qualified for Rio, so he’s going to be there. And he wrote an essay in the Guardian that I urge your listeners to take a look at, where he says that athletes, if they don’t speak up, can be considered complicit in the problem, and that he hopes that a sort of critical mass of athletes will come together and speak up on the issues that are plaguing Rio while the Olympics are in town. So we need to keep an eye on that. I think we need to show solidarity for courageous athletes like Laurence Halsted.

You also have movements that sort of piggyjack the event, if you will, piggyback off of the Olympics and hijack it for their own political purposes. It is a real rare chance for activists who’ve been working on issues forever to get the attention of the world on them. And I mentioned some of the activist groups before. I had the good fortune of meeting many people who are activists across Rio.

Interesting fact is that over the last year, there have been more protesters that have hit the streets across Brazil than have hit the streets in the rest of the world combined. Now, of course, that includes right-wing protesters protesting Dilma Rousseff, but it also includes a lot of left-of-center protesters.

So you have seasoned activists with a list of grievances, and these international band of elites come into their town. It seems like a perfect recipe for banding together and asking big questions about what matters for your city.

JJ: We’ve been speaking with Jules Boykoff. The new book is Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. Jules Boykoff, thank you very much for joining us this week on CounterSpin.

JB: Thank you.



This piece was reprinted by RINF Alternative News with permission from FAIR.