A few weeks ago pictures of dead fish floating at the Rio 2016 rowing venue spread throughout the internet. Many in the sporting media used it as an opportunity to discuss (possible) issues of pollution at the games and to wonder if Rio would be prepared for the games (if you missed them, you can check them out here, here, here, or here). This story occurred only a few weeks after a BBC story revealing that organizers are “concerned about water pollution in the sailing venue.” That same BBC story linked to another BBC report where an International Olympic Committee member called the preparation for the Rio games the “worst ever.” Now, one of my colleagues is scheduled to write about the stadia at Olympics, so I do not want to steal their thunder (they signed up before I did!). What I do want to offer here is a brief opportunity for us to think about the broader implications of these fear tactics by presenting some historical context where we can begin to think about who benefits from these constant (and predictable?) claims of lack of preparation of the games. While I’ll focus primarily on games over the last few decades, fears over preparation has a long history in terms of Olympics.
Concerns about water have been central to these fears — and they are not always unfounded (and because most of my research involves swimming, that’s where most of my early examples come from). The first modern Olympic games took place in Athens, Greece and the swimming events were in the Aegean Sea, where cold and tumultuous water challenged swimmers as they raced over distances of 100m, 500m, and 1200m (Daland, 2009; Dyreson, 1998) — leading to quite possibly my favorite Olympic footnote ever in that Gardiner Williams, the lone American swimmer at the Athens games, refused to swim because he “found the Aegean Sea much too cold for springtime swimming” (Dyreson, 1998, p. 48).
The swimming at the Paris games in 1900 took place amid the “dark water” and “strong currents” of the River Seine (Daland, 2009). Conditions at the 1904 St. Louis games were possibly worse. Historians Robert and David Barney point out that the pool wasn’t really a pool as much as it was a man made lake built in very close proximity to the World’s Fair’s Agricultural Building (which housed livestock). Predictably, the man-made “pool” became “contaminated with a variety of toxins,” making it a dangerous place to swim where “[n]umerous aquatic participants became ill, both during and following the various competitions” (p. 78).
In a fascinating oral history published by AAFA where she discusses her early life traveling all over the world with her Navy father, issues faced by early women athletes, her experiences at the Olympics, along with her part in early aquacades, 2-sport (swimming & diving) and 2-time (1920 & 1924) Olympian Aileen Riggin describes the conditions at the 1920 Antwerp games, where they swam and dove in the same “canal” (p. 22).
…there was only one place to swim and dive…and the first one that dove in nearly died, it was so cold. It was so cold. My memory of Antwerp was cold…[the water] was so cold, that many swimmers had to be rescued from hypothermia. They were unconscious, and some of them were really in a bad way, and had to be dragged out…And then I had another mental block. It was about sticking in the mud at the bottom…I kept thinking, the water is black and nobody could find me if I really got stuck down there. And if I were coming down with force, I might go up to my elbows and I’d be stuck permanently, and nobody would miss me, and I’d die a horrible drowning death. Nobody ever hit bottom that I know. (p. 22-3).
So, as we see, “issues” and “challenges” of aquatic venues have been apart of the modern Olympics for some time. But, what is different about these recent alarms is the underlying work that they do for those who benefit from hosting the games.
Activist, journalist, and scholar Jules Boykoff recently published a strong critique of the economic practices of the Olympic games, Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic games, where he argues that, although the games are discussed and presented as if the event is beneficial to the whole city/state/nation, they are actually most beneficial to a relatively small group of private interests (including land developers, real estate magnates, the IOC, the media, etc). While he is not the first person to make this argument (nor does he make this claim), what makes his argument powerful is his use of Naomi Klein’s concept of disaster capitalism, “where neoliberal capitalists unabashedly capitalize on catastrophe” like the Iraq War, Hurricane Katrina, etc. because “[d]isasters create collective states of shock that can soften us up to the point where we hand over what we would otherwise ardently defend. In the wake of disaster, while the general population is reeling…corporations, along with their collaborators in government ransack the public sphere and slosh thick dollops of neoliberal policy onto the public’s plate” (p. 3).
According to Boykoff, “celebration capitalism is disaster capitalism’s affable cousin,” and the Olympics games are the “social euphoria” rather than the “collective shock” that leads to the same public ransacking (p. 3-4).
In other words, and to oversimplify Boykoff’s analysis, the same practices that distract &/or (purposefully) dis-inform populations during disaster — which are necessary for private industries and individuals to profit from war and economic collapse — are practiced when hosting the Olympic games. However, rather than being shocked (and awed) by bombs or other post-disaster necessities (such as procuring food, shelter, clothing), city leaders and inhabitants are euphoric about inviting the world to show off their home city, and critics are often marginalized as fun-haters, un-patriotic, or even unsafe.
Hosting the games is ideologically potent because the celebration of the city/state/nation that is a part of hosting the games often trumps democratic practices, being a good host is often positioned as more important to locals’ rights, and “legacy” triumphs over democracy. The expediency necessary to host the games serves as a powerful incentive to take measures to ensure the games will be ready, even if that means spending public money well above projected budgets (budgets that change a lot in the 7 years between the bid and the actual games — for example, this article from the Guardian quotes a politician celebrating that the London games were 377m under budget, a budget that more than tripled since the bid). Of course, Boykoff’s book traces how disaster is wrapped up in this celebration, and we should remember that people are displaced in order for new stadia and infrastructure to be built and/or for the host city to be “cleaned up.”
But, what’s this got to do with water and dead fish?
The recent “news” of the fish may not really be that newsworthy because, according to a quote from the already-linked-to article, “every year there are these die-offs.” These die-offs can — and probably should — be linked to issues of pollution and climate change that are a part of the exploitative practices of capitalism. While some of the articles do that, we should consider their possible underlying motivation. The articles are couched within the broader issue of Rio’s preparedness to host the Olympics. More simply, we should consider how these broader narratives might serve the interests of those who benefit from proliferation of stories about lack of preparedness.
We’ve seen media outlets raising concerns about (water) pollution before. It happens over and over and over again. While clean water and adequate sewage are issues of pressing need — and there are people making good arguments that public resources are better spent on these public services than hosting a three-week party — these stories are rarely positioned in this way. More often than not, they are used as “proof” or “evidence” that the host city is not ready, which allows for more “emergency” funding to be shuttled their direction — the bulk of which comes from by the public (Boykoff, 2013).
In fact, if we expand notions of (lack) of preparedness to terrorism fears (Barcelona 1992; Salt Lake City 2002; Athens 2004; London 2012); transportation concerns (Atlanta 1996); snow shortages (Vancouver 2010; Sochi 2014); war (Seoul 1988; Beijing 2008); how homeless people who will “ruin” the experience for Olympic spectators (Atlanta 1996; Sydney 2000; Vancouver 2010); fears of “disruptive” political protests (Sydney 2000; Beijing 2008; Sochi 2014) or unfinished stadia (pretty much every Olympics over the last 30 years) we see that media narratives care less about public good and more about creating an environment that efficiently routes public money into private pockets.
When put in historical context, the repetition is enough to recall the chorus from a Dave Clark 5 song.
Matt Hodler has a very difficult time reconciling his love of watching the athletes compete at the Olympics with its neocolonial practices.