Make the Olympics Good — Griffin Mahon, University of Virginia
The 2020 Olympics began this week, in 2021. Delayed due to COVID, they likely shouldn’t have been held as only 35% of the Japanese population is vaccinated and cases there have been increasing since mid-June. But sunk costs and lots of advertising revenue on the line means that the games have plowed ahead.
Indeed, the country has declared another state of emergency in response to the recent rise in cases. The Japanese head of the games earlier stated that they were still considering cancelling the games, a consideration that by now seems to have passed. The International Olympic Committee chief seemed less concerned about health and safety despite offering platitudes. And cases are on the rise… With over 10,000 athletes from 206 places, it’s possible that it won’t just be Japan affected by this potential global superspreader.
Politically-astute followers of the Olympics and sports in general will find this recklessness and profit-seeking par for the course. Still, I must admit that I am excited that the Olympics are on. I don’t actually watch too many sports — but for the demonstrations of physical excellence and for the fact of a truly international gathering not devoted to money or war.
A few years ago, still very much a new socialist, I heard about a campaign associated with DSA in Los Angeles, NOlympics. It was exciting to me because it was taking aim at a big target, and using the Olympics to show how everything in our society is done behind closed doors by the rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else. The grievances against the Olympics are manifold and justified: the physical removal of the poor and homeless, the takeover of public space, the gargantuan un-auditable sums of money, the former facilities turned into jails.
But a while later it occurred to me that campaigning to cancel the Olympics might be a losing goal. For one, most people probably like the Olympics, or rather don’t associate it with politics or know about its seedy management. And the effects of the games are quite local while the pride is national. And secondly, shouldn’t we be in favor of grand gestures of fraternal cooperation, if they are properly implemented?
My point is that on the Left there is often an impulse to see institutions doing bad things and then imagine that those institutions are static and unchanging and must therefore be done away with. But this seems like a fundamental pessimism. Take, for example, this recent article: “Abolish the Olympics.” It lists the myriad ways that the games are and have been disastrous. But for each one of those injustices is there not a corresponding alternative? Wouldn’t socialist governments be able to negotiate and host the games differently? Can’t we take power?
A socialist Olympics would be sustainable and accessible — distributed across a country, free viewing, participatory elements, and more funding for children’s athletics and national athletes. We can look to our movement’s past physical culture and sporting infrastructure for inspiration.
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