That Russia’s participation could only be threatened by doping transgressions ignores what might be the least politically appealing Games in a generation
It’s hard work for a country to get turfed out of the Olympics. You must seriously dedicate yourself to the task. It’s not enough to have a brutal, devious autocracy that flagrantly intimidates its domestic critics and is author of miseries all over the world. It’s not even enough to dope your athletes until they virtually glow in the dark.
You really need to get caught in the act so egregiously that the professional Pontius Pilates of Olympism can’t continue ignoring it – and even then, there is no certainty of their acting. After all, the movement has truckled to tyrants since its inception, with the justification that it sits at an Olympian remove from politics. The opening ceremony is a giant parade in which highly-trained, uniformed, national representatives march behind their country’s flags – nope, nothing political going on here, no respectability being conferred, no prestige on offer, all just citius, altus, fortius.
But then, perhaps the Olympics in this respect reflects our own prejudices, our ambivalence about sport’s political quotient, of which we’re queasily half-aware, while preserving a touching naivety about.
In the recent eulogies for Muhammad Ali, one encountered a note of profound nostalgia. Here was a proud, outspoken, racially defiant, politically engagé Caesar. When, some wondered, comes such another?
It’s certainly possible to argue never, not least because for many of the convictions Ali held he would now be anathematised. Conversion to Islam? Conscientious objection? Sympathy for enemy combatants (“No Viet Cong ever called me nigger”)? In the 1960s Ali had at least a counterculture in his corner. The social media shitstorms round an Ali figure today would leave us needing a new internet.
Ali was the harbinger of decades in which sport and politics seemed unavoidably, sometimes unapologetically, entwined. Sport was a forum for the dramatisation of Cold War rivalry and for the damnation of apartheid. Cricket could draw the Caribbean together, and ping-pong symbolised the thaw between the US and China. Football could pitch Honduras and El Salvador into war, and England into European disgrace.
Yet at some point there began a tilt back towards the ancient pretence, which flourished before Ali, that sport was most desirably a world unto itself – a tilt now so pronounced that an Adam Goodes or a David Pocock reminding us of the world beyond sport in even the most glancing fashion is received as the shrillest of campaigners.
So what happened? The simplest explanation for the seeming divergence of sport and politics is the interposition of business, with its preference for stable properties on which to project corporate messages and its partiality to the values of the entertainment industry. When the end of Cold War apparently ushered in a post-ideological age, only “causes” seemed to stand between sport and money, and these could usually be co-opted.
The emblematic athlete of the ensuing decade became Michael Jordan, reported to have recoiled when asked to endorse a black Democrat with the words: “Republicans buy sneakers too.” Sport’s “rebels” became those with colourful private lives, not those whose beliefs were at odds with the regnant culture.
Under the surface, sport was actually barely less political: its stealth neo-liberalism was merely less outwardly recognisable, more supple and pervasive. And on it everyone was unselfconsciously in: governments advancing electorally-appealing nationalisms, athletes burnishing shiny brands, corporates laundering mucky reputations, fans assuaging underlying anxieties, media enjoying and profiting from the spectacle. Sport was menaced more clearly by issues – doping, gambling, corruption, violence – than by state actors. These could, it was believed, be counterweighted by an expanded managerialism.
It’s this, I suspect, that has worsened sport’s susceptibilities in the face of the slow-motion collapse of the pre-9/11 order, during which countries have raced one another to moral bottoms and routinely abrogated international human rights protections while falling behind super-rich oligarchs. For these, sport is an avenue to global legitimacy, a salve for wounded national prides. No wonder marquee events have been pursued so covetously by regimes among the world’s murkiest – Russia, China, the states of the Gulf, the republics of Eastern Europe.
Far from resisting this embrace, sport has returned it, one of managerialism’s characteristics being that it always thinks it can do a deal. “Less democracy is sometimes better for organising a World Cup,” said Fifa’s erstwhile secretary-general Jerome Valcke not so long ago, in the spirit of Formula One’s Bernie Ecclestone praising Hitler being “able to get things done”.
And so impends an Olympic Games that is probably the most politically unappealing in more than a generation, in a tormented country wrung out just two years ago by the cost of a World Cup – yet there’s a strange reluctance to ponder the event’s deeper implications.
Our interest in Rio has been confined to speculating about the completion of facilities, indifferent to the favelas flattened, the public land gouged and the exchequer plundered in the process.
Our interest in Brazil has been restricted to the minimal threat of the Zika virus to participants, rather than to the poverty, inadequate sanitation, uncontrolled land use and pauperised public health systems that have helped spread it among Brazilians.
The Brazil of the XXXI Olympiad is a shadow of the nation that signed up for it, impoverished by a plunging oil price and the depredations of a kleptocratic elite. Yet the International Olympic Committee has no stake in affordability: its interests are selfish and transient. The people of Montreal spent 30 years paying off their Games. What burden awaits Rio’s disillusioned citizenry? Our party; their hangover.
So while the belated meting out of justice to Russia might offer a brief pang of righteousness, satisfaction should be short-lived. It is a truism that sports reflects the societies that play them. At the moment that has some worrying entailments.
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