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Rio, capital of disaster capitalism


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The 2016 Summer Olympics begin this Friday in Rio, after months of stories about unfinished infrastructure, inadequate security, and unsafe sports facilities. The games are taking place against the backdrop of larger social crises for Brazil, such as political turmoil, a sluggish economy, and the outbreak of the Zika virus. Writing in Public Books, Tom Winterbottom suggests that the Olympics, with its history of cost overruns and accelerated gentrification, is the last thing that Brazil needs right now. The Olympics were supposed to mark Brazil’s arrival onto the world stage, but as Winterbottom argues, the games are really designed to benefit the secretive and elitist International Olympic Committee (IOC), not the host city. Here’s an excerpt:

The Olympics’ unique destructiveness, however, derives from the push to present the city to the world in a certain way, para inglês ver—for foreign eyes. In the process, riches have been doled out to the already wealthy and powerful, Barbassa observes, and the poor have been pushed to the side. The spectacle of the Games, served up for global consumption, has already undermined the local population. As fictionalized by J. P. Cuenca: “Under the pretext of revitalization, a word that in pre-Olympics times could justify all kinds of atrocities, removals and arbitrary displacements, tens of thousands of people were ejected from their homes to create unlimited space for the new absolute owners of those areas: developers and their armed political allies.” The immense cost of the Olympics was channeled not into projects of lasting value but rather into shortsighted, glitzy works fueled by corruption and mismanagement, all under the watch of the notoriously corrupt International Olympic Committee (IOC).

The IOC sets the standards for the event; it is to them that the host city reports. In Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, Jules Boykoff debunks any remaining myths associated with the “spirit” and “goodwill” of the Olympic “movement” by attending closely to the machinations of this monopolistic, non-sovereign, and largely unaccountable organization and its beneficiaries.

The IOC is a multinational, “non-profit,” nongovernmental organization based in Switzerland, founded by aristocrats in a purposefully exclusive and unaccountable way; there have been only nine presidents in its 122-year history. They are the guardians of these emotionally, economically, and aesthetically rich events that are standard-bearers for what it means to be “of the world.” They also guard immensely valuable contracts and TV rights. Today, they enjoy tighter marketing and branding than ever before and consistently beat back any significant competition to their monopolistic dominance. The Women’s Games, the Workers’ Olympiads, and various other regional games have all either failed or been quashed by the five-ring machine.

More than anything, the IOC is a ruthless operator that asks a lot of the host city. It is up to the city to manage the Games while satisfying the IOC’s demands. In Boykoff’s handling, the IOC’s persistent rhetoric of peaceful competition and international bonhomie appears as an elaborate ruse to cover up the brass tacks of the Olympics.

These days, he argues, they represent little more than “celebration capitalism,” a ploy to exploit a global spectacle through huge media coverage, elaborate branding, stringent marketing, and embedded corporatization. He likens Olympic capitalism to what Naomi Klein calls “disaster capitalism,” and indeed both exploit a “state of exception.” If in Klein’s version the exception is a wholly depressing one, for Boykoff it marches under the banner of festivity, togetherness, and humanity. In both cases, the exception permits a temporary halt to regular conditions and permits out-of-the-ordinary decision-making. In the majority of Olympic host cities, the results are undoubtedly disastrous: an unaccountable, short-term, politically driven, and insensitive surge of development justified by the spectacle of the Games. This is what we are seeing in Rio.

Image: Barra Olympic Park, Rio de Janeiro, May 15, 2016. Via Public Books.