In the Blog
What I learned while trying not to watch the Olympics
Now that we’re no longer inundated with the minute-by-minute updates from London—newsflashes brought to you by Coke and McDonalds—it’s time to take part in Ye Olde Olympic retrospective and for me to confess the following: My name is Meg. I am a feminist. But I also love the Olympics. That said, I am highly, highly critical of the corporate ethos that governs not just the Games’ infrastructure, but also how the labour of amateur athletes is discussed and constructed.
Really though, there is much to learn from the Olympics. In fact, the Olympics provides us with a perfect snapshot of hypercapitalism. Hypercapitalism is, in brief, extreme capitalism at the expense of traditional values. What exactly ‘traditional values’ implies is anyone’s guess.
My personal interpretation of hypercapitalism as it relates to the Olympics is extreme capitalism projected as [fictitious] ‘unity’ and ‘oneness’ that is, in reality, founded on exploitation: of the environment; of labour (I’m including behind-the-scenes media workers, athletes, and low-wage service workers that make the Olympics hum along in host cities); and colonialism, since more often than not Olympics are held in settler states or nations that are directly benefiting from ongoing colonization.
There’s tons to talk about and I’m only scratching the surface in this post. You could spend several posts dissecting sexist and racist media coverage, so I’m going to focus on a few instances that struck a chord with me.
If we think of our media consumption as a personal marketplace, then the Olympics operate according to a logic of scarcity, followed by inundation. The bulk of amateur athletes and sports competitions are invisible in the interim between the Olympics and subsist on meager incomes. Corporate sponsorships are often necessary in order to obtain a livable wage. For instance, Canadian kayaker Adam van Koeverden is a Roots spokesperson and appears in numerous ads for this chain, in addition to maintaining the rigorous training schedule a competitive athlete. Let’s also acknowledge that van Koeverden is white, a man, and fulfills normative standards regarding idealized body types.
But what about athletes who don’t compete in ‘glamorous’ sports? Like American weightlifter Sarah Robles? She’s highly skilled and extremely hard working. In fact, at the 2011 World Championships, Robles beat everyone. By everyone, I mean that Robles beat every man and every woman at this competition. Yet she subsists on $400 a month. What does this tell us about society’s collective body dysmorphia? Or rampant sexism and oppressive gender binaries?
The New York Times virulent critique of US hurdler Lolo Jones, which I refuse to link to and contribute indirectly to website hits, is overtly racist and sexist. In short, Jones is accused of being a virgin and an image-obsessed vamp, taking advantage of her “exotic beauty” in the form of corporate sponsorships. In spite of this media savvy, Jones is also accused of being a disappointing, overrated hurdler because…get ready…she has never won an Olympic medal. That was pretty shocking, so I’ll just give you a minute to recover on your fainting couch. But I digress. Jones competes at an international level. She competes at the Olympics. Tell me again how she under-performs? And tell me again how it’s not misogynistic to sexualize this female athlete’s physicality?
What this editorial refuses to acknowledge, besides its own ignorance, is that capitalism’s success rests on its capacity to harness citizens In short, we become complicit in our own exploitation through consumerism and the impetus to create ‘personal brands.’ Amateur athletes—a profoundly underfunded yet idealized facet of the workforce—is no different. Stated earlier, the quest for sponsorships is necessary to maintain a standard of living that allows an individual to pay rent and eat, but nothing changes on broader systemic levels. That Jones is able to capitalize on physical appearance and Robles is not tells us more about the ways in which economic forces intersect with and reinforce sexist gendered norms.
And then, of course, there was the “issue” surrounding Damien Hooper. In short, the Aboriginal boxer, who was also representing Australia and was a medal favourite going into the Olympics, entered the ring wearing a shirt with an Aboriginal flag on it. He was publicly chastised and force to apologize for this most egregious action. Why, you ask? Because all ‘political propaganda’ is forbidden at the Olympics. You see, Hooper should have asked permission to wear said shirt. (Image below)
But irony and white privilege are quite a pair aren’t they? What this sort of dogma effaces is that we are immersed in politics and we are all political agents. The Olympics, try as it might to create an ahistorical, uncritical sensation of ‘oneness’ is political. Hooper is an Aboriginal colonial subject living in a settler state, colonized by England, the host country. But that’s not political … that was a long time ago; it’s not like colonialism is ongoing. It’s not as though genocide is perpetuated, one generation after another, through systemic violence. Stop being a downer already! Rhythmic gymnastics is starting!
Sports, as they are depicted in mainstream media, are a series of dehumanizing practices. Highly reductive and quantified, athletes take on the status of idol or failure based solely on physical performances. Bodies become numbers and the unique individuals behind these performances no longer exist. In fact, if we talk about workplaces relying on quantifiable statistics, amateur sports provides a particularly grueling technocracy. As a former competitive track athlete, I can speak to this on a personal level: when your worth is wrapped up in a distance or speed, you can become alienated from your labour in a manner comparable to a line worker in a factory performing compartmentalized, repetitive tasks.
Keep in mind that this is a mere taster of the problematic coverage that comprised the Olympics, and that I would love to see this conversation respectfully continue in the comment section. I didn’t even touch on the coverage of US gymnast Gabby Douglas’ hair (not a joke) or women’s beach volleyball or Leisel Jones’ body.
So let’s end with the following thoughts from Racalicious contributor and spoken-word artist Leanne Betasamosake Simpson, because I can’t say it any better.
Here is the part that I need to say out loud even though it’s neither new or profound: every aspect of the Olympics is political - who is there, who is not there, where they are held, where they are not held, the sports that are involved, the sports that are not involved, the sports women are allowed to compete in and those we are not, the basic human rights of transgender athletes, whose history is told and celebrated and whose is silenced, the privileging of the competition of able bodied athletes and the fact that the social costs of the games fall squarely on the backs of the economically poor.