Are the Olympics Still Games?


Why do we feel uneasy about the upcoming Olympic Games in Brazil? The Olympic are the world’s grandest sporting event. We love to play games. We love to watch games. And yet, with about 100 days left until the August 5 opening in Rio, we have doubts that these Games will be “vivid, concrete, swift and fun,” as the theologian Michael Novak described the joy of sports.

I keep thinking of an article written over thirty years ago by Pete Hamill, a well-known New York journalist and author. Hamill was assigned to cover the Super Bowl in Miami for a New York tabloid. Instead of watching the game, he walked around the downtown slums of Miami. His article portrayed the contrast between the hoopla surrounding the game and the reality of those living outside the stadium. The comparison was devastating. It may be repeated in Rio.
The Olympic Charter, first published in 1908, lays out the founding principles of the Olympic movement: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” But, in fact, the modern Olympic movement, started by the Swiss Pierre de Coubertin in 1894, has been far from “the harmonious development of man,” “promoting a peaceful society,” and “the preservation of human dignity.”
Whereas sport has surely moved from athletics to entertainment to big business – do the Swiss really want to invest billions to once again try for the Winter Games? – politics has also played a major role in the modern Olympics.
From the racism and discrimination of the Nazis in Berlin in 1936, the barring of South Africa for apartheid from 1964 to 1992, the Black Power salutes of Tommy Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City in 1968, the violence in Munich in 1972 and Atlanta in 1996, the boycotts in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984, to the confrontations over human rights in Beijing in 2008, the Summer Games have often been fraught with political concerns.
Should Brazil be any different? The awarding of the 2016 Games to a newly emerging country of the South was seen as a dramatic shift from northern domination. A political statement was made in 2009 to recognize the dynamic development of Brazil, the first Latin American country to host the Games, and to encourage the growing importance of the Southern Hemisphere.
Brazil has changed since then. The price of oil has dramatically dropped. A scandal has enveloped the petroleum giant Petrobras, a semi-public multinational corporation. The corruption implicates high government officials and includes construction companies working on the Games. Resulting from the dropping oil prices and corruption, the country is witnessing its most severe economic crisis since the 1930’s. The region around Rio has had difficulty paying its civil servants. Significant reductions have been made in the Games’ operating budget. Several sites have been reduced in size. The favelas have not disappeared.
Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of the change is that President Dilma Rousseff has been indicted and could be removed from office for at least 180 days. The president of Brazil may not be able to formally open the Games, as is the tradition. This would leave Vice-President Michel Temer, an unpopular competitor of Rousseff who may also be indicted, to announce the start of the competition, a far cry from the elegance of Queen Elizabeth’s opening the 2012 London Games.
Sports and politics can be harmoniously intertwined. Ping-pong diplomacy was symbolic of the opening between the United States and China. The recent baseball game in Havana followed this tradition of sports and diplomacy. The Rio games, on the other hand, are showing the negative impact of politics on sports.
Switzerland is a neutral country. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and several sports federations have their headquarters here. Major sports federations feel comfortable in a neutral environment.  Like Switzerland, sports are supposed to be neutral. But just as athletics has moved towards business and entertainment, politics has impinged on sports’ neutrality.
The Rio games were supposed to highlight Brazil’s success, its coming out as an important political player, a true member of the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa), as the future geopolitical heavyweights. The next 100 days will determine how well it will cope with the current crisis. No matter what happens, the audience will certainly try to concentrate on the athletic achievements during the Games. But it will be extremely difficult to ignore the surrounding political turmoil.

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