The Olympic saga: profit and protest

The Olympic rings logo, made up of coronaviruses.
Gordon Frazier / FS
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Tokyo’s Summer Olympics happened despite massive opposition. During the opening ceremonies people protested outside the stadium. An estimated 80% of the Japanese public didn’t want them to happen in the midst of a pandemic.

Concerns about public health — Tokyo is in its fifth coronavirus surge and declared a state of emergency — were ignored. With 80 to 95% of Tokyo residents unvaccinated, bringing in 80,000 people from around the globe was always going to be risky. As of Aug. 3, there were 259 known cases of Covid-19 inside Olympic Village.

Regardless, the Games went on. With international bankers, developers, and ruling politicians as the spectacle’s most prominent supporters it’s not that surprising.

Follow the money. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) raked in an estimated $30 billion profit. Bankers and developers also cashed in. All modern Olympics share a common plot line. First, the promise of huge public-works improvements. Then demolish public spaces and poor neighborhoods. Give the land to billionaires and stick the taxpayers with the bill. This is the definition of privatization — the movement of public money into private hands.

Japan is no exception. It has not recovered from the 2011 earthquake, the accompanying tsunami, or the Fukushima nuclear meltdown. The radioactive slurry released into the soil, air, and sea includes caesium-137 and strontium-90. The damage was the equivalent of a thousand Hiroshima bombs. The region remains under a state of emergency 10 years later.

But Japanese officials assured the IOC the nuclear site was safe, and diverted heavy equipment from Fukushima’s ongoing cleanup to Tokyo for construction of Game sites. Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, a symbol of the 1964 Olympics, saw scores of its iconic trees cut to make way for crowds and stadiums. The Tsukiji fish market, a major Japanese tourist destination, was moved to build the Olympic Village.

Tokyo’s politicians made a weak attempt to cancel the Games. They were told by the IOC that the city would be on the hook for $30 billion if they did. This debacle resulted from the cozy working and financial relationship between the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, the central bank and the local Olympic committee. Local leaders caved in.

The IOC has a long, sordid history of arrogance and collusion with bankers and corporate big-wigs. Construction firms which dominate Brazil’s economy were allowed to rip down Favelas, or shantytowns, to build stadiums, parking lots, and golf courses for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Athletes protest. Call them out-of-touch, or bigoted misogynists, but the Olympic leadership allowed Alen Hadzic, a white male fencer accused by multiple women of sexual assault, to participate in the Games. His own teammates wore pink face masks to show solidarity with survivors of abuse. Meanwhile, the IOC banned Black runner Sha’Carrie Richardson, one of the fastest women in the world, from competing for smoking a joint after she learned her mother had died.

As a matter of fact, the very people who make the Olympics possible, the competitors, are too often treated like disposable commodities whose health and safety concerns are secondary to ratings and national medal counts. Images of injured athletes powering through the pain are held up as examples of heroism. Career-ending injuries — remember Kerri Strug? — are not uncommon.

But athletes, past and present, have stood up for their rights, and the rights of others. Over the past year, the IOC has threatened and punished many athlete-protesters. That has not stopped these activists, many of them Black and female, for standing with international justice movements including Black Lives Matter. And indelible images of women fighting for dignity and protection from abuse continue to resonate.

When Olympic officials banned a swimming cap designed to accommodate Black women swimmers’ natural hair the swimmers created an outcry.

The Norwegian women’s beach handball team wore shorts in protest of the official uniform — a skimpy bikini bottom. Musician Pink offered to pay the huge fines imposed on the players.

Guatemalan gymnast Luciana Alvarado took a knee at the end of her routine, in support of the Black Lives Matter movement, and the internet went wild.

U.S. silver medalist Raven Saunders raised her arms in an X “for the intersection of all oppressed people.” Hammer thrower Gwen Barry raised her fist as she began her routine and later blasted the ICO for threatening to investigate Saunders. The international outcry forced the Olympic honchos to back down.

Many athletes are stepping up when they see injustice. They are going public, calling it out and getting support. This is a far cry from 1968, when Tommie Smith and John Carlos, two Black sprinter medalists, raised a Black power salute. They were stripped of their medals and pushed out of their sport.

Today, there is a world of people ready to back athlete activists. Here’s to the ongoing legacy of protest — let it stand strong!

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