Ahead of the start of the Winter Olympics, prompted in part by the astronomical amount of money spent on the Games at Sochi (a staggering amount said to be close to 50 – yes, F I F T Y – billion US dollars), in part by the doubts I have harboured since my later teenage years over sport as a spectacle (especially planetary sporting events like the Olympic Games and the World Cup) and in part by the half-realisation/half-reminder (after having come across a reference to Ultra-Sieste, an ‘oppositional’ event held during the Ultra-trail du Mont-Blanc to discuss the politics behind such races as well as sport in general) that my own running and taking part in races was as much shaped by the same forces that are at work in such mega events as the Olympic Games and the football World Cup, I went to the library of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) here in Lausanne and I borrowed the following books:
With titles such as Celebration capitalism and the Olympic Games, Le sport barbare : critique d’un fléau mondial (published in English as Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague), Sport in capitalist society, a short history), it is no surprise that these books offer highly critical views on contemporary sport in general and on the Olympics in particular.
As I have read in full only the title in French (even if I have perused through the other two titles), rather than discuss only Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague, I thought it would be fairer to cite excerpts from the book descriptions displayed on the covers:
- Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Marc Perelman, transl. by John Howe, London: Verso, June 2012): [the Olympics] have provided a smokescreen for the forcible removal of ‘undesirables’; aided governments in the pursuit of racist agendas; affirmed the hypocrisy of drug-testing in an industry where doping is more an imperative than an aberration; and developed the pornographic hybrid that Perelman dubs ‘sporn’, a further twist in our corrupt obsession with the body. Drawing examples from the modern history of the international sporting event, Perelman argues that today’s colosseums, upheld as examples of ‘health’, have become the steamroller for a decadent age fixated on competition, fame and elitism. […]
- Celebration capitalism and the Olympic Games (Jules Boykoff, London: Routledge, July 2013): […] In this provocative critical study of the contemporary Olympics, Jules Boykoff argues that the Games have become a massive planned economy designed to shield the rich from risk while providing them with a spectacle to treasure. Placing political economy at the centre of the analysis, and drawing on interdisciplinary research in sociology, politics, geography, history and economics, Boykoff develops an innovative theory of ‘celebration capitalism’, the manipulation of state actors as partners that drives us towards public–private partnerships in which the public pays and the private profits. He argues that the Athens Games in 2004 marked the full emergence of celebration capitalism, with London 2012 representing its quintessential expression, characterised by a state of exception, unfettered commercialism, repression of dissent, questionable sustainability claims and the complicity of the mainstream media. […]
- Sport in capitalist society, a short history (Tony Collins, London: Routledge, April 2013): […] – Why are the Olympic Games the driving force behind a clampdown on civil liberties? – What makes sport an unwavering ally of nationalism and militarism? – Is sport the new opiate of the masses? […] Tracing the history of modern sport from its origins in the burgeoning capitalist economy of mid-eighteenth century England to the globalised corporate sport of today, the book argues that, far from the purity of sport being ‘corrupted’ by capitalism, modern sport is as much a product of capitalism as the factory, the stock exchange and the unemployment line. [The book] highlights the symbiotic relationship between the media and sport, from the simultaneous emergence of print capitalism and modern sport in Georgian England to the rise of Murdoch’s global satellite television empire in the twenty-first century, and for the first time it explores the alternative, revolutionary models of sport in the early twentieth century. […]
Given the billions that are spent on facilities that tend to become white elephants once such sporting events are over, given the lives that are lost during the building of such facilities (the World Cup in Qatar being a good example, with some 400 lives already lost according to some reports), given the risks to athletes’ health participation in the Winter Olympics often entails (not only because of the strenuous training regimes and the doping, but because of factors relating to nationalism – listen to Samantha Retrosi’s account of her accident at Torino 2006, 22 minutes into the interview), given the environmental costs of such events, etc, etc, etc, calls for a radical review of the Olympic Games/World Cup in their present format seem totally justified.
[Postscript: 23 February 2014]: I have managed to read all three books before the end of the Winter Olympic Games, hurrah. So which title deserves the gold medal (and which the silver and the bronze)? This is a tough one because not only does each book address a different topic, but one could argue that they all belong to different academic sub-genres. Sport in capitalist society, a short history is the more historical work of the three as it provides an overview of how modern sport emerged in England in the 18th century and then conquered the rest of the world in tandem with the capitalistic and imperialistic forces that were first at work in that country and then in its empire. Leaving aside the book’s Marxist slant (which can be a little irritating at times – for instance, the author’s claim that racism did not exist as we know it before capitalism, p. 70), my main criticism is that the book has only 129 pages and that, therefore, it sometimes only barely scratches the surface of some themes as, for instance, when ‘it explores the alternative, revolutionary models of sport in the early twentieth century’ [this quote is from the book’s cover, see above] on page 99. Celebration capitalism and the Olympic Games is the book to read to understand why the Olympic Games have become the autocratic and militarised juggernaut they are today as well as why they are so expensive. The book gives ample references to studies similar to the articles cited below. As such, it is a good starting point to find out what is wrong with the Olympics in their present form. Although Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague is more of a diatribe against sport that falls within the categories of ‘politics’, ‘sociology’, ‘cultural studies’ than anything else, the book offers many interesting insights into contemporary sport (including the Olympic Games) as it was able to draw upon several decades of work on the subject by its author, Marc Perelman. To cut a long story short and to stay within the Olympic system of rewards, I think I would give each book a silver medal.
Links to ‘oppositional’ articles/interviews on the Olympic Games
- ‘Why the Olympics are a lot like ‘‘The Hunger Games’’’, Samantha Retrosi, The Nation_22 January 2014 [account written by former luge Olympian – Torino 2006]
- ‘The hidden environmental and human costs of the Sochi Olympics’, Alec Luhn, The Nation, 22 January 2014
- ‘‘‘An Olympic Snowden’’: US athlete on being turned into a ‘‘spokesperson for Verizon’’ at 2006 Games’, Democracy Now!, 5 February 2014 [Samantha Retrosi interview, 30 min]
- ‘‘‘Celebration capitalism & the Olympics’’: global protests mark approach of Sochi Games’, Democracy Now!, 5 February 2014 [interview with Dave Zirin, Jules Boykoff, Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, Samantha Retrosi, 30 min]
- ‘Has the Olympics Games become too big and too expensive?’, David Bond, BBC, 5 February 2014
- ‘Sochi Games held up as a symbol of Olympic extravagance and waste’, Owen Gibson, The Guardian, 5 February 2014
- ‘3 reasons why hosting the Olympics is a loser’s game’, Andrew Zimbalist, The Atlantic, 23 July 2012
- ‘The Games are a great party, but not a great investment’, Ari Shapiro and Joanna Kakissis, NPR, 3 February 2014
- ‘Olympics venues do not pay off in long run’, S.E. Smith, Care2.com, 6 February 2014
- ‘London Olympics on track to be ‘‘most costly Games ever’’’, Oxford University press release, 25 June 2012 [article on cost overruns as being a fixture of the Games]
- ‘Olympics urged to adopt ‘‘too big to fail’’ concept’, Renat Kuenzi, Swissinfo.ch, 14 January 2014