Tom Winterbottom, a writer and researcher with a specialization in Brazil, can't hide his affection for the Olympics. "I love the Olympics," he says. "I love watching them, and I love all sorts of different sports, which is weird."
Weird because Winterbottom just penned a piece in Public Books illuminating the degree to which the fundamental corruption and greed of the 2016 Olympics has ravaged Rio's infrastructure and working class under the guise of unity and competition.
"The Games’ promised progress has unraveled with startling speed," Winterbottom writes. "From the Zika virus outbreak to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment, to the state of Rio going bankrupt and abandoning half-completed marquee projects, hope has fallen victim to the 'spirit' and international goodwill that the Olympic 'movement' purports to offer."
Winterbottom identifies two primary culprits: First, the IOC, the notoriously unregulated non-profit organization that holds the television rights and building contracts to the Olympic Games. And second, the cultural history of Brazil, which he addresses in his upcoming book, A Cultural History of Rio de Janeiro after 1889. Throughout Brazil's history, Winterbottom sees an aspirational desire for progress and national greatness clashing with a failure to follow through when the costs of social progress for all classes becomes too high.
He spoke to Fusion about what historian Jules Boykoff calls "celebration capitalism," the IOC, the actors benefiting most from its presence, and whether he has any hope for an Olympic Games that can promote international unity without simultaneously enacting local destruction.
The following interview has been edited and condensed.
Can you define "celebration capitalism"?
The idea behind "celebration capitalism" comes from the book by Jules Boykoff, and the premise is that we think of the Olympics in a benevolent light, because they deal in this strong currency of sport and athletic experience. But what he suggests is really happening—and what he likens to what Naomi Klein calls "disaster capitalism," but on the opposite side of the spectrum—is that it operates in this state of exception. So for this two week period, it'll be a short period of time where the normal rules of operation go out the window, and anything is justified, be that forceful evictions, stigmatization of favela communities or poor communities, forced relocation, and police and military repression.
Those sorts of things can get augmented in those periods of a state of exception, and the Olympics is the primetime example of that. It's so focused in one city in one place on one population that it just has this immense impact.
In some places, it's not necessarily as profound, but in recent years, especially with Rio, it's pretty obvious the impact this "celebration capitalism" is having because so much money is being invested in it, and yet the benefits for the host city is so negligible, and the legacy is so limited.
Your argument is that the Olympic branding of goodwill makes it more palatable for these measure to be undertaken, and for developers to exploit these opportunities.
Exactly. These very attractive narratives of sports and athletic excellence give them that excuse. Don't get me wrong, I love the Olympics, which is weird. I love watching them, and I love all sorts of different sports, and that's the kind of emotional connection that people feel to these events.
In some ways, and this is partly from Boykoff's book, it's made more palatable precisely because, oh well, you know what, all of this is fine, because the Olympics are great, and we'll get to watch the Olympics.
"The question is, “Is it worth it for cities to host it?” There is research that suggests that the benefit of mega-events is negligible or negative in terms of economic, social, and political impact. And yet despite some moves to the contrary, cities for the most part still do want to host it. It’s seen as an important thing to do to mark your coming to or presence on the global scene.
In that sense, cities like Rio, and also Sochi—if that narrative comes into contact with a city that's really looking to project that global image, then I think the results are pretty disastrous.
Who are the primary actors benefiting from this "celebration capitalism?"
The classic example here is a man named Carlos Carvalho, who is a big property developer, who, according to different figures, owns a lot of the land that the Olympic stadium and village was built on. He's already made hundreds of millions as a result of the games, but stands to make a billion dollars as a direct result.
These bigger players—property developers, owners, construction firms, and corrupt government officials—are taking off significant slices of these contracts to produce these games. And the crying shame is that these poorer sectors of societies are marginalized, even more than they were before.
Rather than this ethos of collaboration and community, the Olympics—at least in Rio—is actually deepening the division between those sectors of society.
For sure, some people have done very well, but the large majority has not.
Are there any policy solutions to bridge that gap?
“Unfortunately, in Brazil, and this is if you’re writing from a social legacy perspective, there were grand ideas for policies such as “My House, My Life” and “Rio Home”. These were two of the big marquee policies that were proposed as part of the Olympic bid in 2009, and one idea was that every favela would be integrated into the urban fabric of the city by 2020, and they’d distribute income and profits from the games into these social projects. That has not happened, and instead a lot of stigma associated with favelas has perpetuated.”
And there was a big brouhaha when they were released, and part of what won Rio the rights. But progressively, as the tide turned in Rio's economic and political crisis, those social projects fell by the wayside. They've been dismantled, reduced, or completely taken away. There's a legacy in Brazil of unfinished projects; in favelas, there was the idea of building cycle lanes, but they just haven't been completed.
There was this big idealized push for progress that started in 2009. It was an idealized dream of progress, and my argument in the book is that same dream can be seen in the last hundred years of Rio history in a similar way, an aspirational dream of progress and to be something other, to be more global.
We have this special relationship to time, I argue, in the city, where on the one hand there are these big pushes toward the future, toward progress, toward something better, and then it falls back, because the potential of that promise, and what was promised, was always too great for the context in which it was issued.
What's happening in Rio right now is not that much of a surprise, if only we look at the history of the city. There has been big things like this in Rio's history, and in my book, that's what I'm interested in getting to.
To achieve this macroscopic goal of national progress, could you see the Olympics being an effective tool of achieving that goal, given a set of more stringent regulatory measures?
I was talking to some friends about this. The idea with Rio is that the real shame is it leaves this aura, this possibility, of what could have been. And it’s a legitimate question—could it have been better? For sure it could: it could have been held as an austerity games, or one that really looked for realistic social inclusion and legacy. But given the current nature of the games, and the cultural history of Rio de Janeiro, that is not realistic. Moreover, the IOC, in its current guise, is an organization that’s tarnished to the point where it needs a pretty fundamental overhaul, and only then could we get towards a more productive future for the Olympics.
Are you optimistic that the Olympics could be an effective tool for social progress?
Yes, but it has to come with a caveat. Fundamentally, I think they're a good thing. They bring people together. It's competition, it's fruitful, and it's unique. Do I think that the IOC needs to scale back this capitalistic tendency? I also think so.
One suggestion—and something I’ve thrown around with friends—is just hosting the Olympics in one city. This is where it is, and it’s not such a saturated traveling road show that relies on cultural stereotypes and reinforces socioeconomic divisions. We’re not going around and running over every city to prepare it for these two weeks, but rather, it’s a recurring event every four years in the same place. That could be, for example, Athens. And then there could be more effective social policies enacted across the world to coincide with the Olympics, to make the idea and the spirit of the Olympic movement less tarnished and more progressive.
Could that work? I think so. But do I see it happening, necessarily? Not quite yet. For now, there’s a few cities still interested in hosting. It’s going to take a few more years until the fervor for change really takes off, and that’s because the events of the Olympics—once all the issues die down and the Games start—typically overwhelm all the negative press. The currency is very strong, and as such the organizers of the games are still seen in a somewhat benevolent light.
In a few months much of the news about Rio right now will be old news, with sporting achievement and attractive narratives having taken center stage. To give another example: the World Cup, in terms of legacy, was a disaster for Brazil. And yet, it is typically thought of as having been a success.
But do I think the Olympics are a good thing, fundamentally? For sure, I do.
Michael Rosen is a reporter for Fusion based out of Oakland.