Sport’s dance with the devil

Chaotic public transport, communities uprooted, public sector workers without rights – a policy of confrontation
Jane Shallice reviews Brazil’s dance with the devil : The World Cup, the Olympics and the fight for democracy by Dave Zirin Haymarket Books $17.95

The Olympics!  Who still harbours any illusions?  Both the World Cup in Rio in 2014 and the summer Olympics in 2016 starkly revealed the priorities of these “carnivals of inspiration”. As in every case the sell of the spectacle takes precedence over everything else: people’s lives, their homes, their spaces.  The exposure has shown such evident corruption, such clear manipulation, money being handed over to others within “the elite”, top officials making money from illegal ticket sales, no transparency, no such thing as democratic control, with FIFA being clearly the corrupt enterprise and the International Olympic Committee a privately run outfit, whose leaders are a constant handing over of power from one neofascist/extreme rightist to another.

Why therefore read a book which confirms all that we know? The answer is that it is written by Dave Zirin, a fine American sports  journalist whose heart and brain comes from the left. A man who has consistently analysed the way that sports have become the epitome of all that is contrary to what it could and should be. He has poked and prodded, named names, and unremittingly exposed those who are making money out of sports, within the recognition that “sports” could and should be different. His fine political lens demands a forensic analysis of the ways that self-interest and corruption bludgeon or wheedle their way into the whole sporting world. He also demands hope and the belief that things could be otherwise. He covers in his journalism and in this book ways that people fight back, writing of the organising, the actions and demonstrations to fight against the rapacious landlords and the city and state ” representatives” who have opened the door to the developers, the speculators  and the money men.

He is more than aware that capital in its existential search for profits is now delving into all activities and spaces which can deliver more ways of accumulating ( Marx indicated the essence for capital in his phrase,  “Accumulate, accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets”) with spectacle becoming yet another way that capital shows its capacity for investments and exploitation. Spectacle has a rapidity of demand with the bubble growing and then bursting.  There is all the clearing of land – accumulation through dispossession – in Rio key favelas have got been erased so for the two weeks car parks built for those attending the Olympics. This new absorption of the surplus capital is essential for capital to continue to circulate and the needs of the favelas dwellers are irrelevant against it.

The book was written a couple of years ago but then revised this year. It looks at the recent history of Brazil and developments in the PT. He writes of the way that spectacle has become a must for politicians of all complexions.


One chapter “Killing Santa” traces the history of the Olympics. “Nationalism plus sports metastasised quickly into Barnumesque spectacle – and host countries became the devil’s workshop”. Initially the Olympics was an an amateur event, ensuring only the sufficiently wealthy could participate. However it was the Berlin Olympics in 1936 which revealed the games as a nationalist feast. Avery Brundage, head of the IOC was full of praise for Hitler, considering that any criticisms came from the “Jewish – Communist conspiracy”.  Berlin had been cleansed of Roma and any political dissidents and all antisemitic manifestations, posters and notices were removed. It was under Brundage that mass evictions and police crackdowns became the norm. Still in charge in 1964 he said not a word when thousands were displaced in Tokyo and was silent when the police and army killed hundreds or students and workers in Mexico in 1968.  Followed by a Spanish fascist, the grandee Don Juan Antonio Samaranch, money entered the Olympics in a big way as financial endorsements were permitted and the participation of professionals.

For both the IOC and FIFA their events meant “building infrastructure and enforcing displacement, security, corporate branding on anything that stands still and of course billions and billions of dollars in state spending “. It is no surprise that since 2001 security means virtual standing armies in control. But also it has meant burgeoning debts for the host cities.  Athens, originally allocated the games in 1997, had estimated a budget of $1.3B, yet when it was over in 2004 the cost was $14.2B – a record Greek budget deficit. And we wonder about some of the origins of the Greek financial crisis. Winter Olympics too face crises. Vancouver’s initial estimate was $660M but ended up with $6B and climbing. “These budget overruns coincided with drastic cuts to city services”.  He considers each of the games since 2004; there are similar promises and similar outcomes – debt being a major one. He suggests there could be international meetings without the hype and the sell, “But the Olympics aren’t about sports any more than the Iraq war was about democracy”.

Fighting for Favelas

The chapter “Target Favelas” covers what you would think could be well trodden ground but he worked with Catalytic Communities, a Rio based NGO determined to support the developments required by those living and fighting for the favelas. In those areas which were deemed to be essential for the servicing of the Rio games evictions and the destruction of the favelas operated through every form of coercion. In Villa Autodromo a favela he had previously visited, he found that the trees which provided shade, breeze and beauty had been uprooted. Streetlights had been switched off at night and rubbish collections reduced. The city could not evict from this particular area but they had offered large financial inducements to people to leave – conditional on them getting two other households to leave.

“There is something very precious about the favelas that is being endangered by the worship of “speculation and real estate”, not to mention the mega events that fuel speculation and real estate beyond  Odebrecht’s[1] wildest dreams. One should never minimise the very real poverty, lack of services and other challenges faced by the favelas. But those concerns should not blind us to the community, care and vibrant culture that emerge from the narrow streets and makeshift cafes”. As part of delivering the games Rio was subjected to the ferocious forms of policing, a la SWAT teams, ensuring that the favelas were penned down and intimidated. In the last year there had been a 135% increase in police killings, accounting for at least 1 in every 5 killings.

Zirin argues that the net effect of the Olympics has been “debt, displacement and dispersal”.  The debts are huge and the costs of the Olympics are estimated at between $12- $20B, in a country where there have been dramatic economic downturns with cuts and attacks on the living standards of the vast majority of the population.

Taking his line from Eduardo Galeano, Zirin writes of the contradictions which is embedded in the ideas and practice of sports themselves: “If we love Brazil, if we love it’s culture, play, dance and energy, then we have to reckon with how everything we love about it was created by the very “nobodies ” who, in the eyes of FIFA and the IOC, “are not worth the bullet that kills them”.  If we love soccer and all sports – the creative mayhem amidst structure, the improvisation amid order, the ability of the players to discover new boundaries and a higher sense of confidence within themselves – then we have to celebrate every nobody who we have ever played pickup ball with, every nobody who has created the beauty of the “beautiful game”, whatever we may feel that beautiful game to be. We also have to realise that the death from public space, the death of leisure time, and the fostering of fear means the death of sports as well”.

[1] A huge Brazilian construction company

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