Rio's Olympics: A sports extravaganza for the few

Rio's Olympics: A sports extravaganza for the few
Comment: The Rio 2016 Olympic Games are a prime example of mass disenfranchisement for the benefit of a select few, write Andrew Leber and Nicholas Morley
6 min read
The egalitarian celebration of humanity’s myriad physical feats should benefit all people [Getty]

Whether the result of an accelerating news cycle, a run of celebrity deaths and much-publicised attacks, historical myopia or a coming cataclysm, a sense of gloom hovers over the year 2016.

Yet 2016 is also an Olympic year, a time for the spectacle of international competition to cut through the drudgery of crippled economies, ongoing war, divisive political campaigns, and simmering ethnic tensions.

Golf in the time of Zika

The games promise to be superb tourism PR for Brazil: Pristine aerial shots of Rio's Christ the Redeemer statue, crowds partying on gleaming beaches, stadiums of fans cheering on hurdlers, discus throwers, wrestlers, soccer players, lean and beautiful.

Not to mention the golfers. For the first time since 1904, Olympians will tee off in competition, driving down the fairway of a brand new Brazilian golf course. Yet the splendor of the sport's return hides a microcosm of all that is troubling about this year's Olympics, and indeed many of the Olympics and World Cups of years past.

The new course is unnecessary. Existing clubs have hosted the European Tour and the LPGA, hardly lightweight tournaments, and its development - helped along by a willing Mayor and a billionaire land developer - hacked through a lakeside nature preserve. The sport is only popular among the Brazilian elite, and, to top things off, many golf professionals will be absent, opting to skip the Games over the risks posed by the Zika virus.

The WHO and the IOC: Strange bedfellows

While some may snicker that golf stars are off to seek greater prizes elsewhere, the mosquito-borne virus cannot be shooed away. Despite government mosquito-killing programmes, reported cases of dengue fever in early 2016 rose 320% compared to the same period in 2015.

The Zika virus can also be transmitted sexually, and given the legendary prowess of Olympic athletes as well as the ordinary activities of thousands of tourists, the international sporting event poses a clear risk of contagion.

Asking the IOC that the Olympics be cancelled or at least postponed, the Rio Olympics Later (ROL) organisation noted that the failure to do so was "unethical… [and] has a greater risk of accelerating the spread of the Brazilian viral strain" internationally.

The WHO, should they stand to benefit financially or professionally from the Games, could be playing Russian roulette with global public health

In a letter to the WHO and the IOC signed by over 188 medical experts, ROL pointed out that the Brazilian strain of the Zika virus is the most likely to cause microcephaly in newborns and nerve damage in adults, that over 120,000 suspected cases of Zika have been reported in Brazil alone, and that Rio de Janeiro state has the second-highest number of those suspected cases in the country.

The WHO quickly responded in the negative, declaring that "based on the current assessment of Zika virus circulating in almost 60 countries globally and 39 countries in the Americas, there is no public health justification for postponing or cancelling the games." Rio Olympics Later in turn criticised the WHO's reluctance to re-evaluate in the face of the failures of mosquito control and the virulence of the Brazilian strain.

Why such reluctance? In their initial letter, ROL claims this is due to a conflict of interest: The WHO is engaged in a decades-long official partnership with the IOC, regularly reaffirmed, the exact terms of which remain secret.

Having business partners evaluate each other is like having a parent as a professional reference - there's no way to obtain an unbiased review. The WHO, should they stand to benefit financially or professionally from the Games, could be playing Russian roulette with global public health. The hubris of this stance beggars the imagination.

Development dreams dashed

If the Rio games dodge the Zika bullet, who benefits from these Olympics? Even a generous estimate of $4-5 billion in direct revenues is barely equal to Brazil's reported $4.1 billion public contribution to the Games before the IOC takes its cut. And this doesn't take into account cost overruns, fluctuating currency values due to a weakening economy, or significant infrastructure investments.

As researchers have noted, hopes that the Games herald economic revitalisation are ill-founded. Unlike the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona - where hosting the Games was incorporated into a pre-existing revitalisation programme - Brazil and the Rio municipal government have largely put city planning at the service of the Games and the country's economic elite.

Beyond the Olympic Golf course, there is the new subway line that connects mostly tourist hangouts and Olympic venues, bypassing poorer areas in desperate need of mass transit systems. The municipal and federal governments have shouldered ever-greater fiscal responsibility for such upgrades, lining the pockets of contractors while leaving Brazilian citizens on the hook for costs.

A recent poll shows just 32% of Brazilians as expecting the Games to have a positive impact on the country

At the same time, "pacification" programmes aimed at securing Rio's more dangerous favelas have faltered in the face of the country's economic recession, with public funding scarce as numerous Olympic investments, destined for the scrap heap in a few weeks, continue apace.

While a bus rapid transit project offers hope of greater transportation options for Rio's middle and working classes, nearly every aspect of the Games is under federal investigation following a massive corruption scandal at state-run oil company Petrobras, involved in the Games through bribes, kickbacks and contracts.

Little wonder, then, that a recent poll shows just 32% of Brazilians as expecting the Games to have a positive impact on the country, while some 60% anticipate them doing more harm than good.  

The Games of tomorrow

Though the 2016 Olympic Games are set to happen regardless of the consequences, potential host countries and participating nations alike should consider truly independent evaluations of the risks of future Olympic Games. Perhaps an audit of the host cities' finances should be required as part of the IOC's selection process, using the bankruptcies of Greece and Montreal as cautionary examples.

Perhaps an audit of the host cities' finances should be required as part of the IOC's selection process

Likewise, the steady decline in the number of cities seeking to host should bring pressure on the IOC to reign in its host selection bidding wars. A truly international Olympics would find ways to support hosts that struggle to shoulder the financial burden of sports infrastructure that will see little use after the Games themselves.

As part of this process, and with the spread of disease an inherent risk of an ever-more-globalised world, better safeguards are needed to avoid conflicts of interest between the organising few and the participating many. At stake is not only the biannual media circus of the Olympics, but the spirit of the Games themselves.

The egalitarian celebration of humanity's myriad physical feats should benefit all people, and at the very least should not threaten global health or the economic future of hosting citizens. Instead, the Games threaten to become like a luxury golf club, built on public land but only of use to its wealthy patrons.

Andrew Leber is a PhD student at Harvard's School of Government, and Nicholas Morley a researcher and graduate of Brown University. 

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.