Today in Verbatim, This contributing editor Andrew Wallace interviews Dave Zirin, sports editor of U.S. progressive weekly The Nation and host of Edgeofsports.com, a blog and radio show that examines the collision of politics and sports. He’s the author of several canonical books on that topic, most recently of A People’s History of Sports in the United States, and before that wrote What’s My Name, Fool? Sports and Resistance in the United States and Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports.
As always, this is a transcription of the biweekly This Magazine podcast, “Listen to This.” You can hear the whole audio interview here, but we’d also encourage you to easily subscribe to the podcast through iTunes so you never miss an episode.
Andrew Wallace: You were in Vancouver prior to the Olympics and I read your piece in Sports Illustrated. I was wondering if you could elaborate on the sense of discontentment that you experienced there before the Games.
Dave Zirin: I was there just a couple weeks before the start of the Games and what I found, walking around the streets and just talking to people is that it seemed to finally settle in on people just how much the Games were going to cost, how much of an inconvenience it was going to be, and just how shut out of the party a lot of them were going to be.
I spoke to one person who was so excited, and had been saving for a long time to go to one of the hockey games, just to find out that he wasn’t even close to what it would actually cost to get a ticket to go. That sense, you could see it just weighing on people in a really serious way. Also, this is a media term, the optics were just terrible. When I was there it was announced that funding for physical education programs were being cut, letters were going out to 800 teachers because of budget overruns. To have that on the front page of the local newspaper while the top flap was all about Olympics, Olympics, Olympics, happy, happy, joy, joy, it definitely bred a feeling of discontent.
Andrew Wallace: But do you think now, we’ve had the Games for the last two weeks and the hype machine got in motion and with the spectacle and excitement of it do you think that all of that will be forgotten?
Dave Zirin: Well it’s interesting; I think a lot of it was forgotten during the Games because there’s a rush. You’ve got so many people there and it’s such a big party, but if history is any guide, now is when you’re really going to get the second shoe dropping because the bill is going to come due. The amount of money, all the accounting is going to be on the table.
When Vancouver first got the games, one local politician said publicly that according to his figures and his estimates it would be a $10 billion influx of funds into the city. PriceWaterhouseCooper, the independent accounting firm, said right before the games started it would probably be more like less than a billion. That’s a huge drop off, now what are the final figures going to be? Once the dust is cleared and all the accounting tricks and obfuscation has been cleared off the table. That’s usually when you see politicians losing their chops, so we’ll see what happens.
Andrew Wallace: Right, one guy, Christopher Shaw with No2010, he said that he thought it would be the equivalent of the Montreal, maybe not equivalent in scope, but of the Montreal Olympics which everyone calls “the Big O” because I think with all the interest, they were still paying back over $100 billion in debt to the city.
Dave Zirin: Yeah that’s right, in Montreal, the lead up to the Games was similar. I mean it’s so interesting, you go back and you look at previous games and it’s always the same promises and it’s almost always the same results too. Before the Montreal Olympics a local politician said that Olympics cause deficits about as often as men have babies and yet, the Montreal Games of course, it didn’t get paid off until 2006. It took 30 years to pay off the debt. Will Vancouver be that bad? It’s hard to say, but one of the things is that the Olympics, and the financing of the Olympics, is always held hostage to the larger economic forces in society and in the world and I think that’s one of the things that really hurt in Vancouver is that this was the first “post-global recession” games and we’ll see what kind of effect that has in the long run.
Andrew Wallace: What do you think the implications could be for future Olympic events then, because I think what’s really interesting is what happened in Chicago recently, that their was such a backlash to that bid, right? So are we seeing a change in the tide there of how people feel about the Olympics?
Dave Zirin: Yeah, I mean I also think one of the things you’re going to see is the Olympics rely heavily on the BRIC countries and their satellites. By BRIC countries you know: Brazil, China, India (and Russia), and I think that their going to rely on countries where dissent can be smashed with as little publicity as possible and where a lot of these projects can be pushed through with as much hypocrisy as possible. I think that’s going to be the unfortunate future of the Olympic games unless we really do have international solidarity movements for people who want to keep the Olympics out and I think that’s going to be the only thing that leads to what I think is the only sensible solution for the Olympics which is to have a permanent winter and summer site and to eliminate the bid process all together.
Andrew Wallace: That’s interesting, what problems would that solve?
Dave Zirin: Well it would end the bidding process and that’s where you have the root of the IOC’s power and the root of a lot of corruption and lies that surround the Olympics.
See, the best way to understand it is that the IOC is like McDonalds headquarters and what they demand of every city is that they be a franchisee. That means if you’re a city and you decide say, democratically, through your city council that you’re going to have strings attached to the Olympic bid, that you’re going to have civil society at the table, that’s a favourite phrase, but at the end of the day though, if the IOC says “well, actually no,” then that’s just the way it is.
I spoke to a lot of people in Vancouver, very well meaning progressives who were pro-Olympics when they first heard about it, precisely because they got a ton of promises from local politicians about this seat that the table. But it was a mythical seat at the table and they became fierce Olympics opponents precisely because they were shut out of how a lot of the infrastructure spending would happen. And I think that’s the reality of the Olympics and if you had a permanent site it would just eliminate this kabuki theatre all together. Being on the International Olympic Committee would be little more than a ceremonial post, which is what it should be instead of what it is now, which is a position of a frightening power almost like a free-floating state with absolutely no oversight.
Andrew Wallace: And with charitable status right?
Dave Zirin: Yeah exactly, a non-profit that makes billions, I don’t even know how that works.
Andrew Wallace: So what do you think that means for say something like Rio? I mean, how does the progressive movement get in there and start speaking to the issues that could happen in Rio, because you know the things that are exacerbated by the Olympics are things like police corruption, political corruption and those are endemic problems in Rio right?
Dave Zirin: Yeah, huge issues in Rio with police brutality, huge issues of gentrification particularly the clearing of the favelas. I mean there’s already been a very dramatic gun battle where a police helicopter raided one of the favelas and someone in one of the favelas got a lucky shot off and the helicopter hit the ground—huge fire, explosion, right outside of Rio itself. I think the Rio example is going to be really interesting because, on the one hand you have a Brazil of that is ground zero to the World Social Forum movements in Porto Alegre, you’ve got the worker’s party in Brazil, that’s sort of on the one hand. But on the other hand, you also have the World Cup coming to Brazil just two years before the Olympics. They’re going to be able to push through a lot of the infrastructure, spending and policing that they need to do for the World Cup and that’s going to be interesting because it’s one thing to oppose the Olympics in Brazil. It’s another thing to oppose the World Cup. That might be a much tougher political needle to thread.
Andrew Wallace: That all being said, if we look at the Olympics that just happened, do you want to point out what you think your three most significant stories within the Olympics that went beyond the X’s and O’s of the field were?
Dave Zirin: Yeah, one, first and foremost, is the death of Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian luge slider, which really resulted from the fact that he and the other luge sliders had no access to be able to practice at Whistler because of Canada’s Own the Podium campaign. And the fact that the people who were in charge of the International Luge Federation, the FIL, they created this track up there in Whistler that, for a year, people have been warning about, that it’s too fast and it’s too dangerous, it’s too much like trying to turn luge into the X-games, some wacky spectacle of lightening speed.
So people were talking about it for a year, and the predictable happened, somebody died. And the Olympics just go on as if it didn’t happen, including NBC news, issuing a dictate to NBC sports to stop showing footage of Nodar’s death. They didn’t want it ruining the party. But it symbolizes so much of what’s wrong with the Olympics. The Olympics speak about standing for these ideals of ethics and sportsmanship, but in reality it’s “go for the gold all the way and go for network profits all the way,” and it’s an absolute farce. So that’s a big one is Nodar Kumaritashivili.
But there are other stories that complemented the Olympics as well. Not all of them are bad stories by any stretch. The other ones I would say though are like the protest movement that occurred, the fact that for all the debates and discussions about the protest movement, organized largely through the Olympic Resistance Network, I mean it was something that was an Olympic protest movement that was open, and out and on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, so they got a remarkable about of publicity and I think really put a marker in the ground for future cities.
So those are stories that I’m going to remember that took place off the field of play. Beyond that too, I’ll just throw another one out there, It was really quite shocking the amount of homophobia by broadcasters against U.S. skater Johnny Weir and how accepted it was. I mean, like broadcasters saying over the air that he should be gender tested, all kinds of things like that. That he was ruining figure skating. It’s just unbelievable; he wasn’t macho enough for figure skating? Are you kidding me? It’s just ridiculous; to have that amount of homophobia in figure skating just really set my eyes back.
Andrew Wallace: Were you impressed with how Weir came back? I thought his comments in the interviews after the original homophobic comments were made were quite interesting and quite strong.
Dave Zirin: Weir’s never been shy, that’s for sure. He’s never been shy, but I still regret he didn’t make it to the top five. He came in sixth, because Lady Gaga was going to come and perform, and be there in person, so that would have been a lot of fun. So we were denied that.
But I think it’s still an important story because of these issues. Particularly the issue of gender testing in Olympic sports, its something I’ve written a lot about in the last year with South African runner Caster Semenya being a part of that story and it’s something that the International Olympic Committee–you can tell they’re trying to shift away from it in a number of ways, but as of this interview we’re doing right now, I mean they still have a Neanderthal view of gender testing. Although they’re moving it away from having it in their rules that the idea of being a “man” is this inherent advantage in sport, which is at least somewhat of a step forward. They still operate on a very strict gender binary and haven’t quite figured out what to do with people who don’t fit into their little compartments.