Most corrupt Olympics ever: Why Sochi’s “above and beyond” what we’ve seen before

Protesters against the 2014 Winter Olympics being held in Sochi, Russia (Credit: AP/Lefteris Pitarakis)

The 2014 Winter Olympics will have their official kickoff Friday, with an opening ceremony marked in part by the absence of politicians from several high-profile countries. Knocking the “ostentatious gesture” of non-attendance, International Olympic Committee head Thomas Bach declared the organization “grateful to those who respect the fact that sport can only contribute to the development of peace if it’s not used as a stage for political dissent, or for trying to score points in internal or external contexts.” But the prospect of protest – by politicians, by activistsor by Olympic athletes – looms large over the games.

To parse Olympic politics, this week Salon called up the Nation sports correspondent Dave Zirin, who wrote the book “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down,” and co-authored the memoir of John Wesley Carlos, the bronze medalist whose defiant raised fist defined the 1968 Olympics. Faced with extreme anti-gay laws in Russia, Zirin predicted, “I think that there are going to be athletes from a lot of different countries, and maybe from Russia itself, that are either going to speak out or do something.” A condensed version of our conversation follows.

You say that this appears to be the most corrupt Olympics in history. How so?

Well, you’ve never had an Olympics where there is $30 billion plus that seems to be just unaccounted for … There is corruption in every Olympics, but it seems like Sochi is just above and beyond anything that we’ve seen before. And frankly there are very tangible reasons why that’s the case … I think the level of graft is a surprise, but the actuality is not a surprise. Because from the very beginning — forget about the corruption, forget about the kleptocracy – from the very beginning, Vladimir Putin approached the international Olympic committee and said: My goal is not only the Olympics, staging the Olympics, I want to remake this entire region of Russia. And I’m going to do it by holding the Winter Olympics in a subtropical climate in the middle of what has been for the last two decades a veritable war zone.

So all of these factors together, everybody knew that this would be very expensive for the Winter Games, which are usually much less expensive than the Summer Games. But I don’t think anyone expected it to be the most expensive Olympics in history, and more expensive than every single Winter Olympics combined.

What do you hope to see at the Olympics?

I hope to see a break from the very homogenous, monochromatic sporting environment that we have currently. That’s one of the things about the Olympics, which is why it remains so attractive to so many people, is that there’s an interesting break from the usual sports that are forced down our throats. So I am excited to see things like the first women’s ski jumping competition …

I am also excited at the prospect of activism on the question of LGBT liberation. And I’m excited about it because I think it’s going to happen on a scale that’s international, and won’t look like the United States trying to stick a thumb in Putin’s eye and all the rest of that, like using LGBT rights as a diplomatic shell game. But I think that there are going to be athletes from a lot of different countries, and maybe from Russia itself, that are either going to speak out or do something.

And I think we can expect political action to take place at the Olympics, because of this movement — and because we are living in a time, Josh, of unprecedented confidence of LGBT athletes. And that being said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t still a long ways to go, but relative to where we’ve been, I mean the steps have been seismic in recent years.

What are some of the forms that activism could take?

Because of Russia’s laws, a lot of what’s being planned is under lock and key. I’ve certainly heard some rumors of what could happen … I don’t even want to repeat them, one, because I’m not entirely sure about the veracity. Two, I’m not entirely sure if I wouldn’t be exposing people to either persecution, or if there would be preemptive steps that would prevent any kind of activism …

I do know that there are people who are very committed, and very serious. And they feel they’ve laid the kind of groundwork that has put Putin in the position that if they do something, they’re not going to get arrested. Even though there are people in the Russian parliament, the Russian Duma, who believe that according to the letter of the law they should be arrested, because they would be propagating homosexuality, and that is against the law in Russia … I think enough groundwork and enough attention has been put down that if they do choose to use that platform, that they’re going to have the requisite amount of cover to make it home in one piece. And obviously I hope that they’re correct.

Given that you coauthored “The John Carlos Story,” what is the lesson of that act of protest? How does that inform how you look at this?

I would want to give all the credit in the world to Dr. John Carlos, and all the respect in the world for standing so strongly with the LGBT community on this issue. It demonstrates his commitment to universal human rights, and his active presence on every front in the fight for human liberation. He’s a tremendous person.

The second thing is the lesson that John projects — the lesson that John has said explicitly — is that athletes have minds, not only bodies. And expecting athletes to just be instruments of physical excellence, yet not have an opinion in their heads about the ways in which their physical excellence has been used politically, is to deny them their humanity.

And therefore, John doesn’t think athletes need to speak out. John doesn’t think athletes don’t need to speak out. John thinks athletes need to be free to follow their conscience. And John always says that the lesson of his life is that it’s much worse to regret not doing something than to regret doing something.

The president in his State of the Union said that “we believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation. And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” Do you agree with that framing of those questions?

No. I think a step back needs to be taken, and the first question is: Why is the president talking about symbolic LGBT resistance at the Olympics, and not actual[ly] speaking out in the State of the Union about [the Employment Non-Discrimination Act] or … taking on the fact that there are 29 states in the United States where it’s still legal to fire someone on the basis of their sexuality?

For two reasons, I have a problem with the president sending the Billie Jean King delegation with Caitlin Cahow, Brian Boitano, openly LGBT Olympians. I have a problem with it on two counts. One, I think doing that in the absence of taking on homophobia, trans-phobia in the United States is a shell game.

And the other … Barack Obama in the past has, like particularly during the Arab Spring, made mention of the fact that if the U.S. went in too aggressively to, say, topple Mubarak, for example, then that would be used as an excuse to further oppress the protesters, if they were being seen as U.S. puppets. And he said that explicitly. He understands that dynamic exists: that the U.S. is not always seen as this magnanimous force for good, and often if it comes into this internal political situation, that can be used as an excuse to crack down on dissent, and propagandize against protestors — as saying, “Wait a minute, there are foreign agents” or what have you.

And I think we have to be extremely mindful of the fact that after the confetti has been cleared, after all the cameras go home, there is still an LGBT community in Russia that’s going to have to deal with these laws. And the question then becomes — the only question that matters, Josh, is — are the actions taken by the Olympians going to make the situation on the ground better or worse for the people who are there after the games are over?

And I have very real concerns that by President Obama using this issue to stick a thumb in Putin’s eye — and everybody knows that Russia and the United States have issues that go well beyond this, from Syria, to trade, to the Middle East — that it comes across as using the protests to further the United States’ other aims. I have to say, when you consider that the U.S. hasn’t said anything about its ally India, you know, a country of over a billion people, recently passing homophobic laws — you don’t want to be in a position of selectively being against oppression.

How would you reform the Olympics, in terms of the economics, in terms of the structure, in terms of the content, in terms of how decisions get made?

I think that there are two ways to go about it. Everywhere the Olympics go, they bring budget-busting economic projects, displacing people from their homes, and the utter militarization of a region. Those are true of every Olympics, whether we’re talking about Sochi, whether we’re talking about Vancouver, whether we’re talking about Atlanta, whether we’re talking about Beijing, whether we’re talking about Mexico City, whether we’re talking about Hitler’s Berlin.

I mean, it exists to greater or lesser degrees, but it’s there all the same. And so if we’re going to remedy, very concretely, those problems, then I think the thing that makes the most sense is having one stable Olympics set. Where the infrastructure can be built and rebuilt — where you don’t have to remove people from their homes. I mean, you stick it somewhere in the world, so you don’t get extraordinary acts of hubris like Vladimir Putin saying I’m going to put the Olympics in a subtropical climate …

The other way: Well, there’s just a lot of people who say that in a sane world, the Olympics should be abolished, because it’s just about promoting nationalism. And I don’t go down that road entirely, because I think that there’s clearly, I mean, an appetite for these kind of sports to be highlighted, and there is art and beauty in these kinds of sports.

I mean, I would love it if it was organized in a way that was less nationalistic, of course. But at the same time … there’s a way in which I think, when we celebrate these global sports that places in other parts of the world are able to excel at, that it’s actually good for people in the United States to be able to witness that. Often that coverage is skewered toward U.S. athletes. But I think in and of itself, it’s good; I like the concept of a global athletic festival. It’s something worth celebrating.

But the way it currently operates, it operates too often … like a neoliberal trojan horse. Where people are excited about the Olympics, and then all of these economic, neoliberal sporting shock doctrine measures are pushed through.

How do you see the moral or political responsibility of fans? Whether we’re talking about the economic policies or the security policies of the Olympics, or the clinging to the name “Redskins,” or the alleged abuses in the NCAA, what kind of politics or responsibility goes with being a fan and watching a sport?

Well, I think the first thing is people got to stop — I mean, you have seen recently this ferocious pushback from the right wing on this, that is trying to frame this as a left-wing, right-wing issue … These are pretty clearly right or wrong issues. Like, either we are going to have racist team names for a sport, or we’re not. So it’s not left or right; it’s racism versus anti-racism …

With stadium funding, it’s are you for corporate welfare and taxpayers getting soaked, or are you against it? Are you for NCAA athletes getting exploited within an inch of their lives, or do you support them fighting back? I mean, this needs to be the way these discussions are framed. Because there’s a lot of injustice in sports, for the simple reason that sports are insanely profitable, and they are controlled by a small minority of people, and in that way it’s not that different from any other big business.

But the main difference is that I think we have some sort of collective sense of ownership of sports … Who the hell roots for Exxon Mobile over British Petroleum? … You say ,“This is my team.” You don’t say, “This is my gas station.” And I think that because people have that sense of ownership, they need to exercise it in ways that are more psychological, and demand what they don’t like about sports to change.

How do you decide whom to root for?

I mean, I decide who to root for on the basis of what I feel in my gut. There are teams I love from my youth …

But sometimes you don’t have a team to root for. And then I think it’s always fun to root for a team who, if they win, it kind of provokes an interesting discussion about sports and politics. Maybe that’s just me personally. That’s just like, for example, I just wrote this piece … If you’re not a Broncos fan and you’re not a Seahawks fan, root for the Seahawks, because if Russell Wilson, the quarterback for the Seahawks, leads his team to victory, then it really chops away at a lot of very tired tropes that surround the quarterback position: from his height, to his ability to scramble, to the fact that he’s a person of color, to the fact that he was a later-round draft pick. And that’s kind of cool, that he’s able to take some of these tired sports radio tropes and just turn them on their heads.

So, who do you root for in the Olympics?

Well, I try to not root for anybody in the Olympics, honestly. I like rooting for individual stories in the Olympics. And I like just really taking in how interesting I think so many of the events are that are usually denied in mainstream sports coverage…

I think speed skating is amazing, figure skating is amazing … I mean, shoot, I can even get into curling if I’ve had a couple of beers.

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