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Celebration capitalism, protest and the Sochi Olympics

CultureSocial Movements

Jules Boykoff is an activist, author and former Olympic athlete. His most recent book is titled, Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games (2014). He is currently an associate professor of Politics and Government at Pacific University in Forest Grove, Oregon. This in-person interview was conducted in Vancouver during the Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia. The question ordering has been altered for this piece.

In your latest book, you advanced this idea of “Celebration Capitalism” and contrast it with Naomi Klein’s “Disaster Capitalism.” Could you elaborate on your theory and tell us where you disagree with Klein?

I think Klein gets it right in a lot of ways. I see our approaches as totally compatible and basically Klein argues that when there is a disaster whether it’s a tsunami, economic downturn or coup d’état capitalists swoop in to capitalize off the catastrophe. They institute neoliberal policies meaning privatization and deregulation.

My argument is that capitalism is a nimble shape-shifter and that in some moments takes the form of disaster capitalism replete with neoliberal policies. But at other moments of social exuberance, with celebrations such as the Olympics, something very different is going on in terms of the organization of economics. I call it “celebration capitalism” and it is not so much rooted in neoliberal policies of privatization and deregulation, but instead it’s rooted in the celebratory spirit of festive commercialism, sustainability and also the public-private partnerships that are lopsided in favour of the private. So what I argue, and it’s not just me, if you look at the work of independent academic economists, they will tell you that the Olympics are not all they are cracked up to according to the boosters in terms of what they say about jobs and long-term economic development for the city. That’s unfortunately not the case.

Celebration capitalism is meant to complement, rather than critique what Klein is doing. I really see the two functioning as a sort devastating one-two punch whereby under disaster capitalism we’re desperate for something happy to happen. And along comes something like the Olympics which brings people together to cheer for their sport or favourite athletes. We pay for that with huge infusions of public money and then we don’t have the money, which opens up the political door for saying we need to impose austerity - we need to neoliberalize with great abandon. I see them as a one-two punch. One of them is Naomi Klein’s mean-faced capitalism and then you get celebration capitalism, which is a sort of botox smile.

There is also this notion of festive commercialism that riles upon public support for the games that come through things like the cultural Olympiad, where large sums of money are given out to artists. There is also the torch-run that pushes this commercialism.

Also you have these ideas of social and environmental sustainability. This was huge with the Vancouver Olympics. You may recall that there was this idea of bringing in the First Nations. Guess what? That didn’t happen. If you look at the numbers of First Nations participation in the Olympics, they totally flatlined. They went up in terms of VANOC. If you look at the numbers of First Nations participation with VANOC in the Olympics they were minimal. Initially the number of First Nation participants went up a bit, but in the end it went back to 1% working with VANOC. There was quite a bit of “red-washing.” And the last part of celebration capitalism is that the security industry comes out looking very good. Local security is asked to preserve the local celebratory spirit. And essentially treat the Olympics like their own private ATM, getting all sorts of weapons they would never ever be able to get under normal circumstances.

Where does nationalism fit in with “Celebration Capitalism”?

Nationalism is really important to how the Olympics function. Part of the idea of globalization is the erasure of national boundaries and with the Olympics we see the exact opposite. National boundaries are vital. You wouldn’t have the Olympics without these boundaries so nationalism is key.

It seems that every Olympic Games is greener than the next. This idea was especially strong in Vancouver for the 2010 Winter games. When did the Olympic movement start thinking about environmentalism? Tell us about the significance of this change.

In the 1990s, the IOC started to take sustainability seriously and, in the wake of the Rio conference in 1992, the Olympics put forth their own Agenda 21. It eventually made environmentalism the third pillar of Olympism alongside sport and culture. I guess the trick is to take that rhetoric and then ratchet it down to real policies in the real world. In that regard IOC has not been that successful.

Every Olympics has to obligatorily declare itself the greenest games ever and then the greatest games ever. It’s sort of this pre-post rhetorical flourishing we see every time. The reality is that it is very difficult to pull off a sustainable Olympics. I hate to say but we see a lot of what sports journalist Dave Zirin calls “corporate sin washing.” One specific example, in London, they started this new sustainability partners program and one of the partners was BP. I don’t know how you could honestly do that in the wake of the terrible spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Let’s turn to the Sochi games. There seems to have been unprecedented international criticism of the “Olympics with Russian characteristics.” In the American and Canadian press, journalists routinely criticize Russian over-expenditures, corruption, the quality of the facilities and oppressive laws. In your mind, what is the press doing right, and what is it getting wrong, on Sochi?

In terms of what it is getting right, I think it’s a good idea to raise issues of environmental destruction that has been intense around Sochi. I think they’ve done a decent job on that. They’ve done an okay job on the spike in expenses and corruption around that. I guess where I feel the media falls short is over-personalizing the issue around Putin. He has played an absolutely vital role in the emergence of the Games in Sochi. But it is a wider system. There is a bigger and more important backdrop at work here. That goes back to the oligarchic bacchanalia of the Yeltsin years where you had these tycoons that racked up billions. Now they are kicking in their millions to protect their billions to not become the next Mikhail Khodorkovsky, the Yukos magnate that was thrown into jail under dubious circumstances.

The media focused a lot on double toilet and the brownish water. It’s kind of understandable because it’s shocking and visual, but for me serious journalism would take those shocking images and use it has as a hook to explore deeper problems.

Despite the chilling effect in Russia and the IOC’s rules against dissent, there have been acts of resistance. I’m thinking of the Russian snowboarder Alexei Sobolov tribute to Pussy Riot and a Dutch snowboarder displaying rainbow gloves as examples. Is the IOC giving more space for political statements? If so, why?

In the lead up to Sochi, IOC President Thomas Bach said something that was pretty striking. He said that athletes could speak up about equality during press conferences. That gave athletes the ability to speak about the LGBT law and also the incredible repression of dissidents, as Sobolov points to. He has also, at the same time, said that type of activism would be verboten. That inside of venues, on the medal stands, athletes would not be allowed to voice political opinions. That just reinforces what is baked into the Olympic charter. The rule in the charter that explicitly states you can’t engage in any kind of political demonstration during an Olympic event or venue. I think he opened a little bit of space. We’ll see as the Olympics closes out if more athletes follow the lead of Sobolov and Maas.

What are your thoughts on boycotting the Olympics? What forms of protest have you found the most effective?

I do not support the idea of an athlete boycott of the Olympics. When political leaders decide not to send their athletes to the Olympics they essentially only accomplish depriving their athletes an opportunity of a lifetime. There’s really no strong evidence that suggests that people on the ground in these places experience any sort of positive outcome by an athlete boycott. If you think about it, in 1968, that iconic moment when John Carlos and Tommie Smith thrust their black-gloved fists in the Mexico City sky. You would have never had that with a boycott and there was a discussion of a boycott in 1968 so you deprive athletes of speaking out for justice.

I do support a boycott for potential Olympic consumers who maybe would like to go watch the Olympics. I hope they would think twice about spending their money in places like Sochi that has incredibly repressive laws around the expression of political dissent where you have protest zones. There is a law that says if you are an NGO and receive money from an outside source, you need to register with the government as a foreign agent. That’s not a place where I would want to spend my money and so I actually support a consumer boycott.

And in terms of the most effective dissent at the Games, it comes from athletes. It’s an incredible stage and there is a price to pay and I don’t think we should understate that. But it is a powerful stage on which to act and we’ve seen it happened effectively in the past. I was really happy it was a Dutch skier and a Russian snowboarder because if it was someone from the United States only, or Canada only, that just allows Vladimir Putin to use North America as a foil, something that he has done effectively. I think it’s better that it’s a Russian showing that incredible courage that we saw.

Supporters complicate the public discussion about the Olympics with competing numbers and obscure details. Boosters promise legacy projects, tourist dollars, real-estate investment, urban revitalization among other benefits. For many, criticism seems so counterintuitive. Could you speak about the “stay away” effect?

Independent academic economists talk about this notion called the “stay away” factor. In cities like London that have a lot of tourism to begin with, tourists would normally stay away during the Olympics because the prices spike. Right now, to fly to Sochi, it costs five thousand dollars from Vancouver. Typically it costs around two thousand dollars. Anyone that would have normally gone to Sochi is not going to go during the Olympics Games. You basically swap in a bunch of Olympic tourists for the tourists that would have otherwise been there. You can make a bit more money because you can jack up the prices and make off with a little bit of a windfall but there is not a huge number of new tourists. So the businesses around don’t tend to benefit as much. The hotels make off with a little bit more but the restaurants serve the same number of people. In fact, there is research that Olympic tourists don’t have the same consumption patterns as regular tourists. They don’t go out as much at night to the restaurants, they don’t go to places like theater. In London, the theatres got crushed.

Many Olympic critics say that the current version has abandoned the humanist ideals of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. You say dissent was present in some of the earlier games. What are your thoughts on that?

In fact at the very first Olympics when they were revived in the 1890s Greece there were people critiquing the games as a waste of time and money. They were talking about how it was going to spike up costs in the city. In terms of the ideals they sound great on paper and when you read the Baron it sounds good. A lot of it is also mired in awful racism and incredible colonialism but that was also a function of the time, and that is not to give him any kind of free pass on that stuff because there were plenty of people at that time that who were not were ascribing to such racism, sexism and colonialism but you know there is a lot of what he wrote that was powerful and resonant to today, kind of difficult to disagree with. But underneath it all he was also doing it for militaristic imperialistic reasons. He talked about burnishing the flabby youth and that was all about trying to restore French power after the embarrassment of the Franco-Prussian war. Underneath a lot his idealism talk was a certain penchant for doing well in war. So there is a real tension in his work.

What is the significant of the 1932 games?

The 1932 Olympic Games took a serious turn toward the political-economic in a lot of ways. In 1927 California passed this bond act to help pay for the Olympics. And shortly thereafter there was the Great Depression so people started to second guess if this something they wanted to spend their money on. So there were protests in Sacramento, the capital of California. They were saying “Groceries, not Games” and protesting the use of public money for this. Actually, interestingly enough there were a number of public works projects in California and Los Angeles like this huge aqueduct that they were not able to get proper bonding for because of the fact they put this one million dollar bond on the Olympics. This is when the New York Times came in and questioned these “experiments” in political economics. That experiment in political economics was in fact a bare bones model of what we see today, where we see the public pays for the Olympics and private entities are there to scoop up the rewards.

It was also important because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) made a concerted effort to coddle the press who were there. They set up these lavish boxes for the media to come to, they invited them from all over the World and they came. And there was positive media coverage, no surprise, emerging from the 1932 Olympics. And since that moment we’ve seen the media treated up and put on this conveyor belt when they get to the Olympics. When they get off this conveyor belt is to invite criticism from the IOC. A lot of people from the press these days they get on this belt of official exhibits and never get off, they never go see the underbelly or quiet crevices where people are actually not so happy about the Olympics coming to their town.

Canada’s first experience with the Olympics in Montreal comes much later and is often cited as a disaster. Could you speak about that period in the Olympic movement and how it has influenced the contemporary games?

For me the 1970s are a vital pivot in the history Olympics for two reasons. One is what happened in Denver. Denver was awarded the Winter Olympics in 1976 but a groundswell of dissent from locals who environmental and fiscal concerns over the games. A groundswell actually rose up and created a referendum that ultimately said we are not paying for this thing. The IOC was ultimately forced to move the games to Innsbruck, Austria. There was unprecedented activist action that is not talked about enough, in my opinion. The other thing that happened is Montreal. The Mayor of Montreal, Jean Drapeau said “The Games could no sooner run a deficit than a man could have a baby.” He estimated the costs to be 125 million dollars. Those costs eventually escalated to 1.5 billion dollars. It became known at the “Big Owe.” It wasn’t paid off for 30 years until 2006. And to top it off, a man had a baby, a transsexual man named Thomas Beatie from Bend, Oregon had a healthy baby girl in July 2008. Basically Jean Drapeau was totally wrong across the board. Even though it was a disaster, it set the table for the city of Los Angeles in 1984 to have a whole lot of leverage because nobody really wanted the Olympics anymore and Los Angeles was the only city to put forth a serious bid. It gave them all sorts of leverage that nobody has ever before or since had with the IOC. It was that leverage they created, what some people call the most neoliberal games Olympics of them all, most privatized Olympics of them all. It was a serious turn towards the commercial. All of that would not have been possible without these two key incidents in the 1970s.


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