The Olympics has not always been the commercialised economic juggernaut of modern times, awash with corporate sponsorship, undemocratic and riding roughshod over host communities. But historically it has been dominated by a clandestine, elite-driven organisation, regressive policies, a huge price tag and ever-strengthening ties to capitalism. The St Louis games of 1904 were even bedevilled by so-called “anthropology days” with events rigged to test racist hypothesis and show that “savages” were inferior. Women’s participation in track and field events shamefully lagged behind the introduction of female suffrage.
Fortunately its chequered history has been accompanied by a catalogue of progressive radical protest. Pre-empting Tommy Smith and Don Carlos’ “black power” salute at their medal ceremony in Mexico 1968, Irish athlete and staunch nationalist Peter O’Connor, who had been selected to represent Britain, climbed the flag pole to rip down the union flag and fly his Irish alternative after winning silver in the Athens 1906 long jump. Suffragettes targeted the golf tournament at London’s 1908 games.
In developing his theory of “celebration capitalism”, which gives the mainstream media something to cheer about every 4 years, Boykoff firmly places the five ringed circus as a central cog in a destructive neoliberal machine and finds much to admire in the alternative, yet short-lived, International Workers Olympiads.
The Olympics are an incredible but fundamentally unsustainable sporting event, an over-budget corporate franchise purchased with public money, directly transferring wealth to private hands. UK taxpayers footed 88% of London 2012’s costs but received few positive long-term benefits. When even The Economist claims that hosting the Olympics is bad for a city’s health something is clearly wrong!
“Power Games” is an enjoyable, interesting and informative read made all the more relevant in the build up to this year’s first ever South American Olympics.
Originally published in a slightly edited form by The Morning Star.