OP-ed | International Sports and Late-Stage Capitalism

By Janelle Velina

In the former USSR, the Soviets understood that sports were originally supposed to be for the physical and communal benefit, as well as the genuine enjoyment, of the people. By taking capital out of the equation and by allowing the expansion and encouragement of mass participation, the arena of sports actually flourished under the first socialist state when it became accessible to the masses. Under such a system, there was no ‘star system’ where a considerable amount of money was poured into handpicking a select, privileged few individuals and turning them into brand names, sponsored, sports “superstars” who received the lion’s share of scholarships and payments (thus defeating the purpose of team work) — while not-so-famous talented athletes from working class backgrounds have no choice but to work second jobs in order to sustain themselves.  If anything, the current Russian Federation owes it to the former Soviet Union for continuing to be a strong Olympic contender to this day. 

Under capitalism, it is no secret that modern sports are owned and controlled by capital which has commodified such activities, turning them into capitalist enterprises and exchange values for profit. And when International Sports are reduced to nothing more than ‘cash cows’ and brand names, athleticism and friendly competition are essentially almost second thought. 

International events such as the Olympics or the FIFA World Cup are infamous for being utilized as theatres for imperialist, jingoist chest-beating. The Olympics in particular are notorious for allowing the United States to use their events as a sort of extended power projection platform where they can sabre-rattle and bully other competing countries — but particularly Russia and China, both strong Olympic contenders who are geopolitical rivals and major targets of U.S. foreign policy — and make wild, unfounded accusations against their athletes such as alleged “cheating” or “unfair advantages”. In many if not all cases, these unfounded accusations end up needlessly ruining the careers of these “enemy” athletes. Meanwhile, when U.S. athletes are found to have actually been doping and are subsequently stripped of their medals, the U.S. mainstream media either tries to downplay it or to act as if it never happened; not to mention, the United States does not face the same amount of international scrutiny when such a thing happens. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is supposed to be a non-partisan and impartial body, yet time and time again it continues to succumb to acting at the behest of U.S. imperial interests.

Fast-forward to today where the IOC has openly insisted that the people of Japan make sacrifices to ensure that the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games commence, despite Japan currently being in the midst of a ‘fourth wave’ of COVID-19 infections and only having 1-2% of the population fully vaccinated at the time of this writing. This of course sparked even more anger from Japanese residents, most of whom have already voiced opposition to allowing the Games to continue, with many joining protests and signing a petition to cancel them. As the British Medical Journal stated in an editorial published in 14 April 2021:

“Unlike other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan has not yet contained covid-19 transmission. Despite its poor performance, Japan still invokes exceptionalism and continues to conceptualise covid-19 within previous planning for pandemic influenza. The second state of emergency in the Greater Tokyo area was lifted in late March despite early indications of a resurgence and an increase in covid-19 patients with variants of concern, which have now spread across Japan.

The country’s limited testing capacity and sluggish vaccine rollout have been attributed to lack of political leadership. Even healthcare workers and other high risk populations will not have access to vaccines before Tokyo 2020, to say nothing of the general population.”

Of course, Japan is not the only country whose hospital intensive care units (ICU’s) are overwhelmed in capacity — after all, one needs to take into consideration that the Olympics are international events which require large scale international travel, which is a deadly mix when combined with the rate of transmission of the virus. On top of that, there are still many countries that do not have their infection rates contained and under control, nor do they have at least 75% of their populations fully vaccinated; more importantly, the world is still in the middle of a global pandemic. Plus, there are variants of concern that are circulating and significantly affecting (and in some cases killing) an increasing number of younger people — especially those who are frontline ‘essential’ workers — who now make up most of the ICU admissions. To add to the absurdity, the organizers also had the audacity to ask for 10,000 medical personnel plus an additional 500 extra nurses to be re-deployed to the Olympic Village in spite of the fact that many ICU’s are not only overwhelmed in terms of capacity but are also short-staffed.

Even if the IOC and the Japanese government are not allowing international spectators, limiting the on-site audience to domestic-spectators-only still poses a significant risk. As the British Medical Journal points out in that same 14 April 2021 editorial:

“While international spectators will be excluded from the games, cases could rise across Japan and be exported globally because of increased domestic travel—as encouraged by Japan’s official campaigns in 2020. Entrants will be asked to download Japan’s covid-19 contact tracing app, but this is known to be unreliable.

The maximum allowable number of domestic spectators is still pending, but an overwhelmed healthcare system combined with an ineffective test, trace, and isolate scheme could seriously undermine Japan’s ability to manage Tokyo 2020 safely and contain any outbreak caused by mass mobilisation.”

Clearly, business interests trump public health for the IOC. Then again, it is a privately funded organization, meaning that it has to prioritize the profit-making interests of those private investors. This is also not the first time that it has cynically asked working people and the poor to sacrifice their well-being for the sake of the Games– or more accurately speaking, for the sake of profits. After all, they are notorious for pushing host cities to evict working class people from their homes or, if they’re homeless, from their tents so that they can make room for building new, expensive athletic facilities (even though it is more cost-effective to make use of already existing ones), as well as to prop up Olympic Villages. To further rub salt on the wound (so to speak), the cost of living in many host cities significantly increases as these cities are hosting the Games; once the event is over, they end up falling massively into debt and taking billions from taxpayers. However, this most recent cynical call-to-‘self-sacrifice’, amidst a global pandemic no less, should demystify any notion that the Olympics truly stood for “excellence, friendship and respect” based on promoting “sport, culture and education with a view to building a better world.”

The Tokyo Summer Olympics were originally scheduled for the summer of 2020 but were postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. They were moved to July 23, 2021 in the hopes that the pandemic would end by then. Obviously, the pandemic has not ended yet for many places around the world; and this time, the IOC is no longer willing to wait until it is completely safe to host the Games. Once again, profits are critical for its private financiers, particularly in broadcasting. As stated in the IOC’s document, “Olympic Marketing Fact File – 2020 Edition“:

“Olympic broadcast partnerships have provided the Olympic Movement with a secure financial base and helped to ensure the future viability of the Olympic Games. Olympic broadcast partnerships have been the single greatest source of revenue for the Olympic Movement for more than three decades.” (p. 27)

Also stated in the funding overview on their website: 

“The Olympic Games generate substantial revenues almost unparalleled across the sporting world. In total, through the sale of broadcasting and marketing rights, as well as other income streams, the revenue for the Olympiad that spans 2013 to 2016, covering the Olympic Winter Games Sochi 2014 and the Olympic Games Rio 2016, was USD 5.7 billion.”

Hence the reason why the IOC [1] is only willing to make the compromise — although a meaningless measure as already explained above — of not allowing international spectators to fill stadiums. If the Games were to be cancelled yet again and postponed to the summer of 2022, then that would mean no live broadcasting coverage, which they heavily rely upon and which generate much more revenue than ticket sales for spectators’ seats. Another year of no broadcasting due to cancellation would spell a huge loss in the billions in revenue, which would certainly hurt their private investors’ profits. And with no huge source of revenue to exceed their expenses, their private investors cannot turn a profit. 

The world of sports is inextricably linked to physical health. And so, there is a fairly obvious values dissonance when an international organization purports to espouse “excellence, friendship and respect” based on promoting “sport, culture and education with a view to building a better world,” and yet also pushes for the commencement of the Games in the midst of global public health crisis. Indeed, this little to no regard for rationality only makes sense within the logic of capitalism, which sees people’s lives as expendable. If the Olympics truly were internationalist in spirit, then the IOC would allow the Games to be cancelled for the sake of public health and science.

While it is nothing new that the modern incarnation of the Olympic Games are a neoliberal spectacle, these recent turn of events should at the very least show its true face with more clarity. They are a microcosm of the dominant system of capitalism in which they were shaped — one which made it all the more clear, in the face of a pandemic, that it is built in such a way that prioritizing the [capitalist] economy and profits is a must and is the only choice. So of course they are a far cry from representing ‘people’s sports,’ let alone any internationalist sentiments, both of which are not possible under capitalism — unless the masses reclaim the world of sports from the capitalists. Yes, the arena of sports is undoubtedly full of contradictions, but it is far from being a mere frivolous pursuit; the Olympic Games have undeniably always been a centre where the culture of sports and political economy are virtually inseparable.

________________________

Notes:

  1. This article does not focus on the case of whether or not the government of Japan should cancel the Summer Olympics because Japan literally and legally cannot do so. The IOC owns the Olympic Games and has the authority over them; Japan is just contractually obligated to host them — but that is not to say that the government can’t petition against them or try to send a request to postpone them once again, of course. However, in the end, it is the IOC that has the sole power and ultimate decision to end that contract. For further reading on the subject:

    O’Shea, Paul (2021, May 20). Should Japan cancel the Tokyo Olympics? It may not be able to. The Conversation. Retrieved from: https://theconversation.com/should-japan-cancel-the-tokyo-olympics-it-may-not-be-able-to-161121

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