Posts Tagged ‘olympics’

Olympics, debt and repression: An interview with Andrew Zimbalist

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Andrew Zimbalist is professor of economics at Smith College and author of Circus Maximus: The Economic Gamble Behind Hosting the Olympics and the World Cup, which The Guardian newspaper has called “A remarkable study that exposes the extraordinary chicanery and dodgy dealing behind staging the Olympics and the World Cup.” Zimbalist was one of the leading voices in the successful No Boston Olympics movement.

SB: Wherever they are hosted, the legacy of the Olympics is one of private affluence, public austerity. Why do cities continue to compete so fiercely to host the Games?

AZ:  Like most investments, the Olympics reproduce class relations; in that respect they are not peculiar. As a public investment, the Olympics reflect politicians’ ties to private capital and politicians are responsive to important voices and sources of power in the community.  If you’re a Mayor and the head of the largest construction firm in the city or three execs from the largest companies come to you and say “the Olympics would be good for the city, and by the way, there are 50,000 unionized construction workers and they like the idea too, and I can bring along some executives from the insurance industry and the hospitality sector.”  Mayors will listen. Combine this with the fact that the IOC has a very well honed public relations mantra that it uses about how the Games will bring tourists into the city, put the city on the world map and excite businessmen from around the world who would want to come and invest in your city and all these other things that they say, and then they go out and they hire a private consultant firm to make some estimates about the economic impact and the private consulting firm gets paid a couple of million dollars, they use a false methodology with unrealistic assumptions and they come out with an example that you would expect. They have a very well studied program about how to get these things through.

SB:  And yet it’s now well-known that the Olympics leaves behind huge public debts.

AZ: Here’s how it works; it goes in cycles. Back when Los Angeles was awarded the 1984 Olympics in 1978, it was the only city that was willing to bid (editor’s note: this followed the 1976 Montreal Olympics which stuck Quebec taxpayers with a $1.5 billion bill).  LA was successful for a variety of unique reasons, primarily because of the city’s bargaining position with the IOC.  Because they were successful, then other cities looked at that and they said “oh, you can do this successfully,” and they wanted to do it, and then what happened was the costs of hosting started to explode.  The costs started going into tens of billions of dollars and then cities started to lose interest again. Most recently five European cities dropped out of the competition for the 2020 Winter Olympics. The IOC was smart enough to realize that they had to switch the gestalt.  They had to produce cleaner images of what the Olympics could be and so they passed a reform agenda. Agenda 2020, as its known, has all these nice resounding phrases in it about being more flexible, looking for bids where the city doesn’t waste money and putting more emphasis on sustainability.  So far, those are just words, but they’ve been relatively successful: the number of bidders for the 2024 games is up to four.

SB:  Do the protest movements that spring up around the Olympic bids and the actual Games have an impact? Take Rio as an example.

AZ:  They will have some impact, but it’s very hard to detect the direct line from the protests to who gets influenced by it or general impact.  One thing that’s going to happen— it’s already happening in Rio—is that you are going to get a lot more repression during the Games; you’re going to get a militarization of the streets.  Rio will have 85,000 security personnel trying to make sure there is no disruption and it’s going to be very regimented and very harsh. That’s the way that they are going to try to contain protests and try to stop them from spilling out onto the streets.

SB:  Do you think it’s more likely that authoritarian governments will increasingly host the Games? Places where dissent is more easily quashed without public outcry?

AZ: Yes, probably it’s more likely.  However, that’s going to be mediated by the IOC’s concern for its image.  So I think it’s hard to predict, but it makes it more likely certainly that the IOC is going to look for host cities and societies where it’s less likely that there will be dissent, protest, and disruptions.

(This interview was edited and condensed for length)

A version of this article appeared in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 3, Summer 2016.

The PT’s Own Goal

Monday, August 8th, 2016

Brazil’s Workers Party (PT) government, led by former Marxist guerilla, Dilma Rouseff, is in the midst of a political crisis that it may not weather. Embroiled in a corruption scandal involving the state petroleum company, Petrobras, and a number of construction firms, the government has been rocked by massive street protests and the machinations of a ruling elite hell bent on ending 12 years of leftist rule in South America’s largest and most economically powerful country.

Acting through the judiciary, and backed by a corporate media which ignores the corruption of right-wing politicos, the opposition appears to be plotting a coup, pushing for the impeachment of President Rouseff and the imprisonment of her beloved predecessor, the former lath operator and trade union leader, Lula da Silva.

The PT has endured political crises before. Brazil has seen waves of anti-government protest over the last three years. But now the government faces a confluence of factors that has shaken the foundation of Brazilian society, including the spread of the Zika virus, an economic downturn, and a rush to prepare for the 2016 Olympics.

In a country in which sports—and especially soccer—and politics are deeply intertwined, it was the PT’s insistence on hosting the World Cup and the Olympics back-to-back (in 2014 and 2016) that seems to have weakened support amongst the party’s poor and working-class base. Although the government’s partial break with neoliberalism and strong economic growth has lifted close to 40 million Brazilians out of poverty, in a country in which so many still lack access to the basic necessities of life, the millions spent on sporting spectacles has led many supporters to question the PT’s priorities.

Such is the religious devotion to soccer that the PT’s sins might have been forgiven had Brazil won the World Cup. Instead, it crashed out of the competition in spectacular fashion in the semi-finals against Germany. The unraveling of the national team seemed to mirror the unraveling of the political compact that has kept the PT in power.

Problems on the pitch

On that infamous day in July 2014, the game started badly. With only 10 minutes passed, Thomas Muller—Germany’s most prolific strike—stood unmarked at the back post and easily converted a corner kick. Ten minutes later, Germany scored again and added another within two minutes. And then, with the home crowd in a state of shock, a fourth German goal a mere twenty seconds after the restart. By halftime, it was 5-0.

After the break, the Canarinho—as the national team is nicknamed—returned to the field looking like they would much rather have been somewhere else. The thousands of Brazilians who had packed the Estadio Minerao sat in stunned silence; the atmosphere eerie for a match of such grand importance.

The game ended 7-1, the biggest defeat suffered by the national team in its 100-year existence. The team of footballing legends such as Zico, Socrates, Girancha, and Pele, had been dismantled, humbled, and humiliated in front of a television audience of close to one billion people.

Brazil’s manager, Luiz Felipe Scolari called it the “worst day of my life.” In a post-match interview, tears streaming down his face, the Canarinho’s captain, David Luiz, said, “I just wanted to bring happiness to these people, my people have suffered so much with other things.”

As the Guardian’s South America correspondent, Alex Bellos, wrote on the eve of the World Cup, the PT was banking on national team success to “help soothe unrest.” “Nothing less than glory,” Bellos noted, “is good enough for the host nation.”

Two years on and with Brazil’s right-wing forces and upper middle class on the march, the PT needs its poor and working class base more than ever. But as Dave Zirin has observed, the “party is not drawing millions of defenders into the streets, partly because there is a mass dissatisfaction with the status quote, and partly because the World Cup and the Olympics have exacerbated the hard times and symbolized a government woefully out of touch.”

On entering office, President Lula had a soccer pitch installed on the presidential lawn. Rumour has it that during kickarounds, the former President liked to play right midfield, emulating his hero Zizinho by dribbling around the finance minister or a trade union leader. It should have been his and the PT’s first and last attempt at capturing sporting glory.

 

A version of this article was published in Canadian Dimension magazine, volume 50 number 2, Spring 2016.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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White Snow, White People, White Lies

Wednesday, November 25th, 2009

NOTE:  Last week the Vancouver Sun reported on the B.C. government’s Assistance To Shelter Act,  which housing and anti-poverty activists called “a ‘Kidnap the Homeless Act’ and nothing more than a ploy to beautify the Downtown Eastside for the Winter 2010 Olympics”. In light of this news and the downgrading of Vancouver’s credit rating (due to huge Olympic cost overruns), I thought I’d republish this 2007 piece I wrote for Canadian Dimenson magazine. Prescient? 

Renaissance thinker Michel de Montaigne once remarked, ‘Mistrust a man who takes games too seriously; it means he doesn’t take life seriously enough.’ Thankfully those brave protestors who disrupted a ceremony marking the three-year countdown to the Vancouver Winter Olympics haven’t read Montaigne. They realize that the Games in question should be taken very seriously as they stand to impact life in Vancouver for a long time to come.

I’ve never been a fan of the Winter Olympics. For a radical like me, the Winter Games is quite obviously the preserve of the rich: rich countries and rich people. And given the global apartheid that is the world economy, it’s not only the snow that is white every four years, it’s the athletes and spectators as well. Most countries have neither the weather nor the resources to train athletes for competition in what more appropriately should be called the Games of the Global North. And whereas the poor can run, play soccer, or box with the best of them, they’re not likely to have access to the ski hills of Whistler or the bobsled runs of Western Europe.

But Vancouver’s Games look to be particularly exclusive, not only for the nature of the events themselves, but for the impact this spectacle will have on the city. As critics of Vancouver 2010 have said, the Winter Olympics stands to put a massive burden on the public purse; a burden that will be paid with cutbacks to social services and further dismantling of an already fragile provincial welfare state. This will happen despite the ‘social’ rhetoric which accompanied the organizing committee’s sales pitch to the B.C. public. They promised benefits for the broader community, poor and rich alike; business for some, housing and jobs for others. But Vancouver 2010 is shaping up to be the Games of white snow, white people, and white lies.

For the business elite and their friends in provincial government, the Games is about selling Vancouver as a competitive city, a good home for capital and investors in the Asian Pacific Rim. As they see it, in 2010 Vancouver will prove to be a city of arts and culture, good infrastructure, a decent quality of life, and a business-friendly city hall. This is the mantra of cities in a globalized economy with urban regions battling for investment, jobs and a stable tax base.

But a new highway and a bit of commodified arts and culture is not enough. The blight of homelessness and the Downtown East Side must also be erased to improve the competitive image of Vancouver and maintain the legitimacy of the Olympic project. A city can go about this type of image makeover in a number of ways. The revanchivist regime of Rudy Giuliani’s New York dealt with the ‘dangerous classes’ through a combination of intense gentrification, fuelled by a deregulated real estate market, and a law-and-order policing agenda intent on sweeping the streets clean of human debris.

Despite the best efforts of Gordon Campbell’s Liberals, many British Columbians and Vancouverites have resisted this type of social cleansing. The ‘social road’ was to be the one taken in Vancouver as the province and the city promised to address homelessness and protect the right of inner-city residents to affordable housing. However, as the Vancouver Sun reports, the Vancouver Olympics’ housing round table has found the province and city to be well off their funding targets. Vancouver requires up to $1 billion worth of support and housing in time for 2010 if the two levels of government are to meet the demands of their so-called ‘social agenda’.

Who will cough up the cash? The Financial Times reports that due to the construction boom in western Canada, the cost of preparations for the Games has steadily risen. As a result, organizers have requested a 23 per cent boost in financial support from the provincial and federal governments. For its part, the Campbell government established a $139m contingency fund for cost overruns. Yet the government claims it will only dip into this fund if it’s spending is matched by the feds. According to progressive economist Marc Lee, Campbell is sitting on a $3 billion budget surplus for 2007 and the next few fiscal years. But nothing in the B.C. Liberals record shows them to be willing to partner social justice and economic prosperity. Maybe the city will pick up the fiscal slack. This scenario makes sense for a provincial elite intent on disciplining Vancouverite’s penchant for electing left-wing councils. The public cost of the games will impose fiscal austerity on Vancouver City Hall for years to come, burying the future prospects of municipal socialism under the avalanche of a winter debt.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 41 (3) May/June 2007