In this day and age, the phrase "Welcome to Hell" can be aptly deployed in a variety of situations. But in recent weeks, it's become the particular mantra of police and other first responders in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil who have taken to greeting visitors arriving at the airport with this message as a result of pay cuts and budget deficits they feel make it impossible to secure the area in the run up to the Olympics, which start on August 5th. For Olympic organizers, perhaps the saving grace could be that the message does indirectly invoke the motto of the Rio Games: "A New World."
"The starting point is not Rio. The starting point is the debt displacement and militarization that accompanies every Olympics."
Regrettably for the International Olympic Committee and Brazilian officials, the protestors may have perfectly encapsulated the setting of the Rio Games. Several issues plague Brazil's largest city (in one case, the word "plague" can be used literally) but a short list as of this writing includes: an antibiotic resistant "superbug" that has been discovered in the water at two of Brazil's most popular beaches that border the sailing events, body parts that have washed upon on other beaches (which NBC apparently un-ironically described as the "latest Rio headache"), and an elevated bike path that collapsed into the sea, killing two. It's no wonder that the governor of Rio has declared a state of "public calamity," although he was referring to a separate issue involving the potential insolvency of the local government.As Dave Zirin forcefully argues in the 2016 edition of his book Brazil's Dance with the Devil, if the New York Times is right and "Brazil's Olympic Catastrophe" does occur, the blame should be spread to a number of different parties, including but hardly limited to: the garishly avaricious IOC, the rapacious oligarchs that dominate Brazil's infrastructure industries, and the dumbfounding but entirely unsurprising ineptitude of the Brazilian system (though we're not much better off here in the United States in that regard).
Zirin, the sports editor of The Nation, the host of the Edge of Sports podcast, and the author/co-author of eight books on the sports world that decidedly do not "stick to sports," pulls no punches in criticizing those who transformed the Olympics into an event predicated on exploitation of the most vulnerable, disregard for the rule of law (particularly with regard to property ownership), indifference to the health of the environment, and the surrender of local governments to the whims of the IOC.
In the following interview, lightly edited for length and clarity, Zirina frequent Varsity Letters guestrecounts the systematic destruction of the Rio favela Vila Autodromo, explains the inherent tension between NBC's profit motives and its journalistic integrity when covering the Games, and wonders whether the Olympics in its current form should even exist at all.
Gelf Magazine: There's a section in the book where you run down the issues plaguing all of the recent Olympics, from Beijing (pollution, displacement) to Sochi (corruption, hate crimes against those who identify as LGBTQ) to London (cost overruns and excessive militarization). Will the Rio Games be worse?
Dave Zirin: I don't know if they're going to be worse, but I am glad you asked that question. One of the disturbing things I'm catching in the news is that every single story about the Olympics seems to be about Rio's dysfunction and by extension, the Brazilian government's dysfunction: the way things are underfunded, the government's inability to fight Zika, and the stories of body parts washing along the shore. Yes, there are a lot of crazy, pulpy stories that leave an imprint. That said, the focus on this gives the International Olympic Committee (IOC) a pass. The starting point is not Rio. The starting point is the debt displacement and militarization that accompanies every Olympics. This is just the Brazilian form of it.
Gelf Magazine: Speaking of that, in Boston a planned referendum scuttled a bid for the 2024 Games (though Los Angeles immediately stepped in), and I wonder if you think that will become a trend. That is, will countries that operate with reasonably democratic forms of government no longer want the Olympics?
Dave Zirin: Well, Tokyo did rush to do it [in 2020]. I'll always remember what John Carlos, 1968 Olympian, said: "Why do you think it takes them four years to put on the Olympics Games? Because it takes them that long to count the money." So, it's still attractive to countries and will be precisely because there is still money to be made. It's more of a question of who sees the money. Who are the victims and beneficiaries of Olympism? It's a conflict that has burst into the open in the last few years, and it's a conflict that can be expressed more in a country that is not Russia or China, like Brazil or Krakow, Poland [which rejected the Olympics in a 2014 referendum].
Gelf Magazine: How many of Brazil's problems can be attributed to being awarded the Olympics and how many are completely independent?
Dave Zirin: There is no question that most of Brazil's problems exist independent of the Olympics. However, the Olympics allows for what I call a sporting version of the "shock doctrine," which is the idea that you can push through certain projects, reforms or agendas in the immediate aftermath of a war or a hurricanewhen people are traumatizedthat wouldn't otherwise see the light of day. The "shock" in this case is the aftermath of Brazil being awarded the World Cup in 2014 and the Olympics in 2016. It's very difficult to schedule a military coup or a tsunami, yet when you get the Olympics or the World Cup, you get two things working in your favor. First, you get the excitement in a country for sports, which allows the government to push otherwise difficult things through. Second, with the Olympics and World Cup being obviously fixed dates, you're able to schedule the "shock" in a way that is more rational economically. What gets me so angry is that the IOC and the corrupt governments have taken sports, which so many of us love, and instead they turn it into something else.
Gelf Magazine: I want to talk a little bit about the Vila Autodromo, a favela in Rio that you've visited and write about extensively in the book. Can you explain what has happened to this area since the Olympic Games were announced in 2009?
Dave Zirin: The Vila Autodromo started with about 700 families, although when I visited in May there were about 20 left and it legitimately looked like people were living in a war zone. I've been taking regular trips back for the past four or five years and it started as a thriving, vibrant community. At first everyone had a lot of anxiety because they knew there was a plan to displace them because of the Olympics. What they did, and this is really interesting, is that people in the neighborhood hooked up with urban planners and they designed their own Olympic plan. It showed that Vila Autodromo really didn't need to be torn down to accommodate the Olympics. Yet, over the years, there has been this unabated effort by the city of Rio to get the residents out of their homes. The city of Rio really did things that I witnessed that I think are unconscionable. They stopped doing trash collection. They're messing with the electricity. While they're employing these tactics with a stick, they're also using the carrot by offering residents payouts to go to government housing. These payouts were structured like a pyramid scheme, like Amway, where if the resident could convince their friends and neighbors to also leave, that resident would get an even sweeter deal.
One of the worst things is that there's a huge high-rise right near Olympic Park that looks down on what's left of Vila Autodromo. On the top of the high-rise is the headquarters of the international media, so you have the specter of the international media looking down on this community.
Gelf Magazine: Thanks for that perfect segue to my question about the media, and specifically the role of NBC as the sole United States rights holder. Does it have a responsibility to publicize the negative circumstances seemingly engulfing the Games?
Dave Zirin: They absolutely have a responsibility to report what's going on in Brazil. I've spoken to people at NBC and there are a lot of debates going on about how to cover these controversies. They recognize that they've become such a part of the story that NBC can't just pretend that it's not happening. That said, this is a huge financial linchpin for NBC, and they don't want viewers to feel somehow complicit in what was a political coup in Brazilthe displacement of the poor and the hyper-militarization of the countrywhile they're watching the Games. I have hopes because I've spoken to people at NBC who I consider to be of real character who care about these issues. It's hard to imagine them burying the stories.
NBC has another risk because they enforce their ownership rights pretty damn hard. So what's the international media going to do in Brazil? We saw what they did in 2012, where you had some really good coverage about what was happening outside of the arenas and the stadia, precisely because people were hanging out in Beijing with nothing to do. They'll have to report on something, and it will be easier in Rio because of the at least superficial democratic norms that exist.
Gelf Magazine: Do you think the Olympics are still worth having?
Dave Zirin: There are two questions there: do I think the Olympics are worth having or what do I think is the most ethical way to do the Olympics? They seem conjoined.
Gelf Magazine: I guess the assumption underlying the question is that IOC will not reform in any meaningful way.
Dave Zirin: In that case, no. Easily no. The cost cities pay for them far outpaces any benefits to the athletes themselves and the pleasure of the viewing audience. It's too destructive. At the same time, it hurts me to say that because I've got a lot of great Olympic memories. The Olympics are the only time where you get a diet of different sports in what is sometimes a very boring part of the sports calendar. It's also one of the few times where there is a true celebration of female athletes. These aren't things we should be cavalier about dismissing. What I'd really like to see is an Olympics divorced from the IOC that is hosted by the same city every time, so infrastructure investments aren't a waste. That way, athletes from all over the world will have a place to come show what they can do and you wouldn't have them used as a neo-liberal Trojan horse.
Gelf Magazine: But you'll be in Brazil nonetheless?
Dave Zirin: I'll be there and mostly I'll be spending time following up on the stories in the book.