Did you at any point stop to wonder why there was such commotion over the Rio Olympic diving pool suddenly turning green two weeks ago? Things, after all, go wrong at sporting events all the time. But though the explanation for the color change turned out to be predictably mundane, before any reasons were given people were fascinated, curiously obsessing over this relatively minor development. Though they couldn’t put their finger on the problem, Olympic fans were uncomfortable because they recognized something just wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. This glitch was a reminder amid the spectacle that it was all just an illusion.
Rio 2016 was an apparent display of unity in a world that’s increasingly divided. It was — following a well-publicized mass ejection of Russian athletes pushed out for doping — supposed to be a symbolic middle-finger to corruption, with events taking place in a country rife with it. But more than anything, Rio 2016 felt like a bid to prove the dominant neoliberal order is still in working condition, at a time when economists and other experts are saying that that system is on its last legs. The people of Brazil certainly feel that. The country is currently deep in a recession, its worst for a century, but you would barely know it from the $11-billion dollar flash of the 2016 summer games. As fireworks popped, Brazilians starved.
In February last year, the OECD published a report which found that the share of economic growth as enjoyed by workers in G20 countries (those include the US, the UK and Brazil) was at its lowest since WWII. Earlier this year, meanwhile, there came an even bigger bombshell: the International Monetary Fund (IMF) released an essay entitled Neoliberalism: Oversold?, which conceded that neoliberalism had in practice increased inequality and hampered economic growth. That the IMF, one of the most staunchly neoliberal of all contemporary institutions, was criticizing policies it had long endorsed was a hint to many that neoliberalism had perhaps had its day.
Still, we won’t be rid of this economic model just yet. George Monbiot recently referred to neoliberalism as a “zombie doctrine,” as while we have now reached a “low-growth, low-inflation, low-interest-rate equilibrium,” neoliberalism nonetheless “staggers on” because we’ve yet to find an alternative. For now, until someone comes up with something better, those running the show have to keep on pretending everything’s all right with the failing system we have.
Rio 2016 was a particularly farcical display of a paid-up member of the neoliberal club attempting to keep up appearances. Brazil is broke, its waters are polluted, crime is high and its people regularly protest en masse about all of it. Once the games began, the endless sporting coverage helped audiences to forget that, outside those grand stadium walls, Brazil like so many countries around the world today is seeing an increase in disorder (though non-Lochte reports of athletes being robbed at gunpoint served as reminders), but even what we saw inside occasionally reminded us that things are off. Officials were accused of corruption, pools turned green, and the success of certain nations athletically didn’t seem to correspond with reality back home.
Take Britain. Not quite as drastically cash-strapped as Brazil, the UK is still an increasingly uneven place, growing in millionaires as its number of families on the poverty line also swells. As in the US, as in Brazil, as in most countries in the post-2008 world, real wages in the UK have stagnated and inequality is increasing. No matter — like the Brazilian government, the British powers-that-be decreed that millions still had to be spent on its Olympics charade.
Britain outdoing its London 2012 success with an even greater medal haul this year has been cause for great celebration in the UK. But it has come at a price — and if you want to get specific, that price was £350 million (or £4m per medal). That’s how much it cost the British taxpayer to win 27 golds, 23 silvers and 17 bronzes in Rio, while at home cuts are made in the name of austerity, record numbers of people are forced to use emergency food banks and Theresa May’s cabinet tries to avoid economic meltdown post-Brexit. Britain, wrote the Guardian’s Simon Jenkins last week, is like Soviet nations of old using Olympic victory as a “proxy” for real economic success.
Only a casual inspection reveals that things in the UK aren’t very healthy at all, and that the strength and riches of Team GB represents the real Britain in no meaningful way. With each passing games, the British government has been forced to spend more and more money to maintain the facade. Britain, like the neoliberal order, is in truth sputtering out. So it throws money at the problem, hoping that’ll provide a distraction for a little longer. It’s another illusion: forget about the Olympics being a meritocracy — Britain is now second in the world because it can afford to buy medals, where some countries can’t even afford to buy swimming pools.
The truly inspirational Rio 2016 story of refugee team swimmer Yusra Mardini winning her heat in 100m butterfly, a year after she towed a capsized dinghy to safety on her way out of war-torn Syria, was ignored by many, perhaps because it ultimately shatters the fantasy that the system we have is working. Very few also picked up on the story of Kiribati weightlifter David Katoatau, maybe because the issue he was highlighting — climate change causing major and irreversible damage — is the most uncomfortable of our time, and also intrinsically linked with the eternal-growth strategy of neoliberalism. Instead, the press chose to celebrate cheerful underdogs that make us feel we all have a chance to be champions (unlikely — at the Olympics, as in the real world, the already-privileged often get the best opportunities), and celebrated big winners, icons of power and wealth that reaffirm the idea that those are the two most important things one can have in this world.
Like neoliberalism, the Olympics began modestly and has become a beast, fully subscribed to the ideology of infinite growth, with each new iteration flashier and more costly, vampirically taking money from the many and using it to glorify a few. Next time, the Olympic games will be even bigger — five more events have been added already — and will take place in Tokyo, the capital of a country that is economically quagmired. Optimistically, by 2020 a new economic order may have Japan booming again, and financially prepared to actually organize such a major sporting event. But if not, at least the country will have the Olympics as a distraction.