Like a parasite, virus or any other kind of pestilence that has plagued humans throughout history, the Olympic Games endure.
Yet, against all the odds, the Tokyo Games are still slated to kick off this summer. Some are even pitching it as a triumph. In the words of Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, the Games will be “proof of mankind’s victory over the virus and as a symbol of global unity.”
In a way, the decision to retain the Tokyo 2020 moniker for branding purposes makes sense. The Olympic Games will ostensibly represent the end to a lost year, one that lasted 17 months, and had most of us stuck in our homes, waiting for this freeze on “normal life” to end.
Perhaps expectedly, the turn of the calendar to 2021 felt extraordinarily hollow. By the time January rolled around, nothing looked like it would change any time soon. To call the event the 2020 Olympics Games in 2021 is a sharp marketing move—a way to tell the world that our long COVID year is finally over with.
But of course, this is bullshit. The effects of the pandemic won’t be over by July of this year, or even by July of next, or the year after that. Any return to normalcy will be marked by a far more widespread understanding that the mechanisms that power, govern, control, and inform our world do not—and will not ever—work for us.
Whenever this pandemic is controlled to the point where our lives resemble what we had before, they will be marked by a year of crippling despair, immeasurable loss, and squandered opportunity.
It will all start with the Olympics.
Slavoj Žižek wrote a short book on the pandemic, in which he opined that “the real struggle will be over what social form will replace the liberal-capitalist New World Order.”
When insurrections happened across the United States following the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police offcer, there was another kind of hope: one that optimistically presaged an end to the carceral state while signalling a resounding, powerful challenge to white supremacy.
For all the ink spilled on the potential of disaster socialism to replace the “shock doctrine” tendencies of financialized capitalism, what has any of it amounted to?
From the calculated defeat of Bernie Sanders in the US Democratic primaries, to a slew of police killings to open our next calendar year, to an ever-widening gulf of wealth inequality and a resurgent red scare, the long year has only demonstrated the capacity of our current system of social relations to manage, disenfranchise, and defang any existential threats to its continued domination.
The Olympics will ultimately be the culmination of all these elements, wrapped up into a mega-spectacle desperately pushing a message of overwhelming hope and finality.
Having retained exclusive vaccine deals while the Global South struggles to secure patent waivers, the Games press on. The message of optimism, hope, and willful ignorance of global anger has been reflected in continually affirmed Olympic policies that will punish athletes for political statements on podiums.
And, despite immense support for cancellation of the Games and a new surge of cases, the Japanese government, along with the International Olympic Committee, have been unwavering in their dedication to “end” the pandemic with a multi-billion dollar bang.
Guy Debord wrote in The Society of the Spectacle of a proletariat removed of all power save for its ability to support capitalism. As workers are sent to be mulched by toiling in shopping malls, sporting events, hospitals and industry for the sake of profit, this has never been more clear.
The second part of Debord’s analysis—of the need for workers to form a new revolutionary process—appears conspicuously absent in our current paradigm. The blame lies largely with an underestimation of capitalism by the popular left.
This is the moment 21st century organizing should have been building toward, but organizing capitulated to spectacle—an objectified vision of what could be, detached from the grim reality of the now.
The complex financial instruments that tune our world and have led to an explosion of global markets as people become poorer cannot nor ever be underestimated. Neither can the state’s role in upholding this unequal status quo. Revolutionary change is not simple; the flashpoint is never going to be a pandemic, or a murder at the hands of police. It is always going to be a process of organization over time, on the ground, in the streets, and in workplaces.
Any optimism around the pandemic signalling the death knell of capitalism was little more than starry eyed wishfulness. The harm caused by the pandemic was seen, but not capitalized on, and now we remain in a liminal zone of periodic lockdowns, implemented and lifted between case spikes.
The vaccine presents a light at the end of the tunnel, but to what end? All of these issues will remain in an inoculated world.
The spectacle of our broken system has never been more present than with the 2020 Olympic Games.
In a paper on the 2008 Beijing Games, LSE professor Hyung Bang Shin wrote that “the experiences of hosting mega-events… have shown that the creation of a ‘unified’, ‘harmonious’ society of spectacle is built on displacing problems rather than solving them.”
In the case of the Olympics, these problems have historically taken the form of displacing unhoused people, demolishing and gentrifying neighborhoods, and the economic devastation of cities. In the context of a pandemic, the Games will not simply displace issues within the city of Tokyo, or even Japan; it will serve to displace existential issues facing the entire global economy.
There will be no divestment from Tokyo 2020 because the organizing committee itself will not allow it. It will be a constituent part of our media ecosystem at every turn, from advertising, to news, and everything in between.
The spectacle will be observed by almost every person the world over, in one way or another, with the overriding message that “The worst is officially behind us.”
Indeed, what is to be done?
Make no mistake, the facade will be thin. It’s already cracked some, with the torch relay becoming a superspreader event. With no international guests permitted and masks (which athletes must provide themselves) ever present on the telecast, no part of this mega-event will seem normal, or like an end to anything.
It will, however, affirm the failure of any emergent alternative to capitalism from our long year. It’s a multi-billion dollar synthesis of all the horrific extremities of capitalism laid bare by the pandemic, asserting themselves in the driver’s seat of society, no matter what mendacious platitudes Suga may profess.
While the good work of anti-Olympics organizing in Tokyo has faltered through crisis and a massively renewed capital focus on the Games, the work done by No Olympics LA has not ceased despite COVID. That is one example set for the rest of us.
If capital sees the Olympic Games as the end of a pandemic and a way out of an existential crisis that could have—but didn’t—signal its collapse, the left must observe the Olympics as a beginning; as a launching point to organize and build to the next crisis, taking the failure of this one as a lesson and not an acceptance of our system’s seemingly eternal power.
This has been a long year of failure, but as the climate crisis and inequality worsen, and as new viruses driven by anthropogenic impacts loom, there will be more opportunities to seize. As the Olympics wind up and wind down, it has to compel us toward a future that currently seems impossible, but must be inevitable.