Yesterday, Google donned its “socially conscious” hat by debuting a rainbow-themed doodle on its homepage in advance of the opening ceremonies for the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics.
Host country Russia’s 2013 anti-gay law bans the “propaganda of nontraditional sexual orientation,” a statement so broad that its potential uses are absolutely endless. Even post-Pussy Riot, which should have disillusioned a new generation of international observers to the political reality in Russia, people are understandably up in arms about the law, kicking up all kinds of dust that’s sticking to the country’s shiny post-Soviet image. Even Glenn Beck has joined the fray by openly criticizing homophobia on ABC.
The anti-gay law’s unforeseen consequence
A convenient (albeit incidental) side effect of the uproar is that identity politics are galvanizing most/all the lefty-attention around the games, obscuring tales of forced evictions, round-ups of “undesirables” and unrivaled corruption. Because it’s a lot easier to protest against something blatantly heinous that many of us in U.S. agree on—LBGTQIA rights—than to take on more insidious forms of repression that are integral parts of an event millions of people adore.
To top it all off, the Sochi Games are the most expensive in the history of the Winter Olympics—they cost as much as all previous Winter Games combined, according to a group of Russian experts. So how is a country where the gap between rich and poor should be measured in light years pulling this shit off? With inflated pricing (which accounts for much of the difference in cost, allowing officials to pocket the excess) and heaps of repression, it’s the Russian people who will—literally and figuratively—be footing the hefty bill of the Sochi Games.
And in the run-up to this summer’s World Cup, Brazilians are beginning to feel the pressure of their own billion-dollar event.
Brazil’s ‘Days of Rage’
Brazil is set to host both the 2014 World Cup, as well as the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. To say Brazilians are pissed off about the two biggest international sporting events shacking up in their country in two years would be a gross understatement.
A burgeoning social movement has emerged in the country’s major cities as a result of some of the fouls the Brazilian government has already committed in an effort to clean up the country’s image in advance of this summer’s World Cup. That includes everything from spending an undisclosed amount on 100,000 security personnel to patrol the country during the Cup to demolishing dozens of favelas—evicting some 170,000 people. (One such favela was unlucky enough to be within walking distance from the Maracanã Stadium and is slated to be converted into a parking lot.) Officials have pushed their luck even further with public trans fare hikes and a campaign to whitewash Rio’s beloved street art and pixação graffiti in tourist areas in a thinly veiled effort to make their creators—favela residents and other low-income people—invisible to foreign camera crews.
Protestors are doing their damnedest to ensure that the double billing of mega events won’t result in any positive press for the Brazilian government. From massive anti-FIFA protests that rocked Rio last year to smaller regional uprisings against FIFA inspectors, more than one million people have turned out on the streets to rally against the World Cup.
Anti-fare hikes protests turned violent in February and demonstrations against the event resulted in violence in São Paulo at the end of last month, where protestors shouted “there will be no Cup” and called for money to be allotted to public services rather than the events in 2014 and 2016.
Protestors have got a point, as the plans for the Cup show an odd symmetry with the corruption-addled Sochi production. As Fusion reports:
Many Brazilians are outraged that services like transportation, education and healthcare are ineffective and under-funded, yet spending for the World Cup could reach the $40 billion mark, which would make it more expensive than the previous 3 world cups combined, according to a Senate study.
So what’s the point?
So what is the point really of still holding enormous, international-level sporting events, even in “developed” countries—let’s not forget about the 2012 anti-Olympic organizing we saw in Chicago—and who are they for, exactly?
When it comes down to it, these kinds of events are little more than a bid for low-income countries to reinvent themselves as “emerging” Western-style democracies. The fact that they invest in an event rivaling Bollywood films in their extravagance is evidence not only of questionable priorities that put the needs of a temporary wave of tourism before those of their citizens, but of what the international community sees when it examines political situations like those in the U.S.—all show and little substance.
In an interview with VICE News, Russian activist Alexei Makarov explained of the clean up campaign that preceded Russia’s 1980 Summer Olympics:
[The] USSR wanted to present itself to the rest of the world as a country where everything is good. Therefore there are no people who protest. Because if people protest then something is wrong. Unwanted elements, such as prostitutes and bums were kicked out of the city. They are afraid of any uncontrolled activity. It is much easier for them to operate in an absolutely cleared out, empty space.
Cultivating an image of a “peaceful democracy,” as Makarov describes, is inherently violent. But to be culturally and politically palatable to wealthy countries, nations of the Global South have little choice but to participate in the charade by financing events they can’t afford with money that would be better allotted to said country’s citizens. It’s a pattern that’s been hounding the Olympics for years—a pissing contest of international proportions.
[Photo: Sochi via Wall St. Cheat Sheet]