Understanding the (Rio 2016) Olympics

August 3, 2016

With the Rio Olympics kicking off this Friday, Professor John Horne FAcSS, Professor of Sport Sociology at the University of Central Lancashire, and author of Understanding the Olympics, looks at the challenges facing the Olympic brand and discusses some of the underlying criticisms exposed by the 2016 edition.

Following the Olympic and Paralympic Games in London in 2012, the sport historian Martin Polley remarked that if ‘the motto of London 2012 was “inspire a generation,” for hundreds of authors this was easily recast as inspire a publication.’ A similar situation is arising as we approach the 2016 edition – in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

In addition to broadcast, print, and online media journalism, several trade and academic books have been published. Most academic approaches are largely critical and have even created new concepts such as ‘celebration capitalism’ or ‘festival capitalism’ to attempt to explain theoretically the allure of the Olympics. My book, co-authored with Professor Garry Whannel, Understanding the Olympics, is critical but also adopts a more cautious attempt to try to understand the underlying attraction and longevity of the Olympics. We focus on such questions as hosting the Games in a context of growing global inequalities, the role that sport might play in social development, and environmental sustainability.

The Olympic and Paralympic Games in Rio feature some innovative developments. Golf and rugby sevens have been added to the list of sports, in the case of the former after an absence of over 100 years. A group of 10 refugee athletes will compete under the Olympic flag. And of most significance for the host city, it will be the first time the Olympic sports mega-event has been staged in South America.

Yet each of these novelties has challenges. Many of the leading golf players have withdrawn from the competition, some citing the potential harm from the mosquito-borne Zika vírus. Individually for the selected refugee athletes it will be a great experience, but in the wider picture 10 people out of an estimated 20 million refugees worldwide is a small drop in the ocean. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) constantly seeks to maintain its profile as a force for good in the world; this is one of its distinguishing features compared with other international sports bodies. Yet some of the decisions taken by its executive recently, such as its response to systematic doping to enhance performance by Russian athletes, and its lack of response to many of the routine activities carried out in its name by host cities (evictions, displacement and clearances of local communities; questionable financial arrangements beneficial to corporations, especially in the construction industry; and the heightened militarised security and surveillance of local populations) have created a climate in which more socially progressive interventions are called for.

All these aspects of the Games, and more, have been researched for several decades by social scientists and investigative journalists alike. As the start of the 2016 Games approaches the world’s press is full of stories about the negative consequences of them. Mass communications scholars recognise that the Olympics are the ideal news story and the Olympics being staged in the Global South for the first time adds to their topicality and opportunity to point out chaos in the build up to them. Specifically this time Rio, in Brazil, one of the BRICS, or developing and emerging economies, that only a few years ago promised to bring a new power bloc into global political economy, is beset with political, economic, and social instability.

Whilst Rio 2016 is open to criticism in the Global North it is not without critics at home. As the Games approach, news about local impacts and resistances appear on a daily basis. Ten days before the opening ceremony the newspaper O Globo reported that the athletes’ village apartments were delivered by construction companies before final checks on water and light installations had been carried out. In one case the city mayor offered the chef de mission of the Australian team the keys to the city as a form of apology. Critics have organised a week-long series of events called ‘The Exclusion Games’, covering topics such as displaced communities, negative environmental impacts and irregularities in the completion of the construction and transportation. Many of the organisers of these events have been involved in ‘Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics’ activities during nearly a decade of mega-event hosting that has impacted on Rio. Through research, writing, and popular engagement with communities affected they have sought to show the high cost of mega-events for the city as well as demonstrate that alternative developments are and were possible.

The problems this time around have once again prompted suggestions about alternative ways of organising the entire Olympic Games in the future. For example denationalising the Games; establishing one permanent site (Greece is often mentioned but does not seem a credible location at present) or using several sites in different continents; or simply staging world championship events in locations where audiences will better appreciate the sports. Others suggest that reducing the number of competitors would help tackle the scale of the event and the potential environmental impact and waste created by inviting over 200 nations to compete. After all, only about 1/3rd of the nations involved will win a medal of any colour. Investment in elite sport in some developing nations might be seen as misguided, when social priorities lie elsewhere.

As a global social phenomenon the Olympic Games remain unique. In their modern form they have lasted since 1896. They offer a space for bringing the nations of the world together to compete in sports under commonly agreed rules and regulations. The Games can be an enormous sporting and cultural party. It is certainly one of the world’s largest television spectacles. But it takes place within fractured social structures and amidst enormous inequalities that persist and develop over time. The challenge in forthcoming years will be whether those involved with its organisation will recognise the value of the social scientific scholarship available that critically assesses the Games. This might just provide the insights required to illuminate a way forward for an organisation that currently appears unresponsive to popular sentiment.

News Focus articles are the views of the author and not necessarily those of the Campaign for Social Science.