image by Agência Brasil, via Wikimedia Commons (licence CC 3.0)
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by Diego Angeles
The Rio Olympics were an apparent success. All the scheduled events, from the opening and closing ceremonies to the sporting competitions, were carried out according to plan. The strongest, fastest and best athletes received their due. Despite concerns about the Zika virus; the budgetary constraints in Rio´s public sector (health, education and transport to name some of the most affected services) and the subsequent social unrest; the increasing insecurity in the city and, especially, the political crisis surrounding Dilma Rousseff´s likely impeachment and corruption amongst high ranked politicians, the whole show was delivered. How was it possible? I didn´t perceive any of these issues in the images coming from BBC iPlayer. As it seems, the Olympic games, as any other good show, can escape from their surroundings, no matter how dreadful they are.
One of the most anticipated moments during the Olympics´ opening ceremony is the parade of nations, a traditional ovation to the participating athletes and, simultaneously, a sort of ritual to invoke the peaceful spirit that the Olympics promote to the world. And it is worth questioning, how detached from reality is this truce of peace?
When ancient Greece celebrated the Olympic games, wars and hostilities were forbidden in honour of Zeus and the participating athletes. The truce became an ideal during the first modern games at the beginning of the 20th Century and by the 1990s it gained a legal framework under the auspice of the United Nations. Today, global sporting tournaments such as the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup are capable of bringing together more nations than any other international event or institution. For instance, the Rio´s Olympics alone gathered 205 countries, against the 193 UN members. Such capacity seems to be the ideal occasion to promote internationalism among the participating nations, since sports, it is believed, stand as an activity free of conflicts or at least where physical power has no harmful aims (a sublimated form of violence).
And just as in ancient Greece, the truce remains more a myth than an observed principle. Many past Olympics have been interrupted by acts of terrorism and wars (the Russian invasion of Georgia during the Beijing 2008 games´ opening ceremony to name a recent case). The images of athletes from all the corners of the world competing in harmony contrasted starkly with those coming from our real world. Rio was no different. During the 17 days of international sportive celebration all manners of hostilities, from military to cultural ones, were executed:
While the world celebrated the amazing deeds performed by Usain Bolt, 5-year-old Omran Daqnesh reminded us that Syria´s silent victims are its youngest, whose main sport seems to be avoiding bullets and bombs; at the same time a couple of Muslim athletes competed in the Volleyball tournament wearing their altered hijabs, some women using what has been called “burkinis” were banned from French beaches; and while homosexual competitors displayed their affection in front of the cameras with no apparent restriction, the still recent events in the Pulse nightclub in Florida put in evidence that homosexuality is still under attack in many parts of the real world. So where is this world of tolerance and peace shown during the Olympics? Was it a fantasy?
This series of contradictions can be interpreted as a result of the media. The Olympics, as the FIFA World Cup, are events designed for global media viewing, mainly on TV and the internet. As if we were watching a Hollywood blockbuster, the Olympics have to be crafted following marketing strategies in order to avoid cultural clashes (or rather the ´clash of civilizations´). Moreover, as a product for the media, the Olympic games subvert values by promoting the frivolity and coolness missing in our, otherwise, sad world. Contexts were irrelevant, sportive spirit and cheerful multiculturalism were what really mattered. How different are the aesthetics of sporting competitions to those promoted by a current TV series? Only the nice face of the world is on the covers. ‘Topless Tonga flag bearer steals the show…’ the Daily Mail announced.
Even more so, the games are well known for their highly commercial nature. The Olympics are a brand which sells very well among big media corporations via the expensive broadcasting rights and advertising deals that Coca-Cola and McDonalds, recurrent sponsors of the games, profit from. But the link between commercialism and media could also have a different effect upon us – the Olympics´ consumers.
According to Slavoj Zizek, the current capitalist system relies heavily upon the compensation of people´s guilt after engaging in consumerist practices, or what he calls capitalism with a ‘feeling good’ effect. This is possible because sensory and emotional experiences constitute the added value of any particular consumer good in the present time. The Slovenian intellectual exemplifies this term with the environmental strategies deployed by Starbucks. When selling their cappuccinos and lattes, the company also offers relief for poor farmers in Guatemala. This way, we compensate for taking advantage of someone else´s poor labour conditions or the environmental impact the coffee industry causes. Other consumer products such as movies or smartphones (smartphone) have an added value that exploits emotions (the state of relaxation after watching a repetitive movie plot, for example) with the consumer´s consent. Zizek labels this attitude as a perversion. In a similar fashion, are not the Olympics compensating for the distress that the daily news causes upon us? What do we feel when seeing the representation of an international ‘refugees’ team in the games? Deep in our heads, we know that swimming the Mediterranean is not a training method for a sporting event.
The Olympic games are always a good opportunity to reflect on the state of our world since they stage the possibilities of a better place. As in the old Greek theatres, the Olympics represent the drama of human condition caused by political, economic, social and cultural divisions. However, we must be aware of the anaesthetic effect that the ´show´ might also have. The ‘feeling good’ effect that media and consumerism have today on our daily lives could emanate as well from the Olympics. The contemplative and emotional nature of these sort of events can eliminate their potential for reflexion and critique. Contrast Brazil´s call out for environmental actions against the thousands of people displaced from their houses in Rio to give way to the Olympic village. We should remember that the tolerance displayed during the games is not a show and that we can escape the perversion that Zizek talks about. And more importantly, we must remember that the truce for peace promoted by the Olympic tradition is not a branding slogan, but a different perspective on our world.