author of the forthcoming book A People’s History of Sports in the United States. He is a regular contributor to The Nation magazine and writes a weekly column called “Edge of Sports.”
As the 2008 Summer Olympic Games open in Beijing, we speak with sportswriter Dave Zirin. "This is the Olympics the West wanted: games where the grandest prize is not a gold medal but a glittering entree to China’s seemingly endless army of potential consumers," writes Zirin. "This is the reason that George W. Bush will attend the opening ceremonies, the first U.S. President to do so on foreign soil." [includes rush transcript]
AMY GOODMAN: We turn now to Dave Zirin in our firehouse studio, the sportswriter, author of the forthcoming book A People’s History of Sports in the United States, a regular contributor to The Nation magazine, writes regularly a column called "Edge of Sports." His previous books include Welcome to the Terrordome and What’s My Name, Fool?: Sports and Resistance in the United States.
You’re covering the Olympics.
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Talk first about the protests.
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, absolutely. I mean, we’re going to expect to see an avalanche of situations unfold in China over the next eighteen days. Some of those protests will be done by people like Phill, who we just spoke to. Some of them will be done by people in China themselves, protesting injustices in the country.
But I think as this unfurls and as the avalanche of criticism falls on China over the next two weeks, I think we need to remember that these are the Games that the West wanted. I mean, there’s a reason why George W. Bush this evening is going to become the first US president to attend an opening ceremonies of an Olympics on foreign soil, the first one in history. And there’s also a reason why sixty-three US corporations are spending upwards of six to eight billion dollars — billion dollars — to promote their products over the course of the Games.
And there’s a reason, as Naomi Klein recently reported, the US is largely responsible — or I should say the West is largely responsible — for the unbelievable security apparatus that’s going to be taking place in China. 300,000 closed-circuit cameras are going to be in operation in China, and there’s no indication that those will be taken down once the Olympics are over. Those are being supplied by the West, as well.
And there’s a reason why all this is happening. It’s being done for two reasons. And this, to me, is the big story of the Games. It’s being done to integrate China more fully into the global economy, and it’s also being done so that Western capital can reach what they call the most unaffiliated — and this is their word — “unbranded” army of consumers in the world, a middle class that’s almost 300 million people that doesn’t yet have the brand loyalties that Western corporations are looking for.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And what are some of the companies that are really advertising heavily at the Games? I mean, you have the —-
DAVE ZIRIN: Right.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Pepsi changing the color of its ubiquitous blue can.
DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, this is classic. This is classic. And people, go to edgeofsports.com. You can see the -— oh, there it is on the screen, for people who are watching this on TV. Pepsi has adopted a new red can with the slogan "Go Red, Go Pepsi." I mean, it’s a slogan that would have gotten you a visit from COINTELPRO a generation ago, and now it’s being used to sell Pepsi products over there in China. I mean, absolutely outrageous.
Nike — this is another brilliant so-called US-based corporation — is airing commercials in China where Chinese track superstar, Liu Xiang, is beating Western athletes in the race, and it says, “Go Beijing! Go Liu Xiang!"
So, it’s all being done to try to sell products to consumers, who Madison Avenue, they describe them — it’s a very creepy phrase, if you think about it — they describe them as “unbranded.” I mean, it has almost a slavery connotation. But they’re unbranded, meaning they don’t yet have the brand loyalties to say, “Well, I’m an Adidas person, not a Nike person. I’m a Coke person, not a Pepsi person.” So it’s an opportunity to reach those consumers that, frankly, is unprecedented. I mean, it’s like the equivalent of an oil company finding oil somewhere in the world that’s yet to be tapped, and there is a passion by Western corporations to get in there and tap those markets.
AMY GOODMAN: What are the other protests that are taking place?
DAVE ZIRIN: Well, the other protests are very interesting, because often a lot of the media attention in the West is about people who travel across the world to unfurl banners, and those protests are certainly important, but the ones in China are important, as well, because, otherwise, it paints this picture of China versus the world, when actually inside China there’s many an issue that people are trying to raise.
The most important one, the most — one that speaks to the hearts of people in China, are the fact that between 1.5 and two million people were literally removed from their homes in Beijing to make way for the Olympics. I mean, China has spent $40 billion on the Olympic Games. Just to give a point of comparison, Greece in 2004 spent $9.5 billion, and that was considered wildly over budget. So, $40 billion were spent, most of that on removing people from their homes. And there are two remarkably brave women — their names are Xia and Ma [phon.], and I write about them on The Nation blog — and they were actually brought to a police station Wednesday night, because they are starting to raise the issue of why it was that their compound was torn to the ground to make way for Olympic facilities.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to Dave Zirin. Again, his forthcoming book is A People’s History of Sports in the United States. After we finish our conversation with Dave, we’ll be joined by Thomas Frank. He has written a new book. It’s called The Wrecking Crew. Stay with us.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: We’re talking with Dave Zirin, author of the forthcoming book A People’s History of Sports in the United States. We’re talking about the crackdown on dissent in China before the Olympics. What about — you’ve written about crackdown in other places around the world pre-Olympics, including in this country.
DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, that’s correct, and that’s one of the things that I think is one of the most important points for people to remember, is that what’s happening in China is not really a China problem as much as it is an Olympics problem. Now, granted, in China it’s magnified. I mean, there’s an expression that China does everything big, and there’s the myth that you can see the Great Wall of China from outer space, which is actually an urban legend, but whatever. The point is, China — they say China does everything big, but that happens with every Olympics.
I mean, if you look back, I mean, you could just name the Games, and I’ll give you examples of a couple of key points that you see throughout the Olympic Games. One of them is a crackdown on ordinary people. The other is the tearing down a public housing. And one of the biggest ones, which is one of the things that I think is the most — the biggest concern, is the ramping up of police powers. And that’s why a lot of activists right now in Chicago are very concerned about the Games coming there in 2016. The Chicago Police Department already has a very spotty record when it comes to the rights of people in police custody, and the idea that they’ll be granted —-
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: Well, describe -—
DAVE ZIRIN: Sure.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: — some of what happened in LA in ’84, in Atlanta in ’96 and in Athens, as well.
DAVE ZIRIN: Sure. Well, I think the US ones are maybe the most useful for right now. In LA, 1984, you had the notorious gang sweeps that later became the inspiration for the NWA song and video “Straight Outta Compton.” And that involved them actually — they actually revived old anti-syndicalist laws from the early part of the twentieth century that were used against the Industrial Workers of the World that involved, if people did particular signs or whatever, it meant you were in the IWW, and they imprisoned you. They adapted that to young black youth in LA in 1984 for wearing gang colors or giving each other special handshakes or gang signs. And they rounded them up, put them in prison, which led to just a reservoir of bitterness that I would argue bore fruit in the ’92 riots in LA, and that was part of Daryl Gates’s control at that time.
’84 also was the first entirely privately funded Olympics by Peter Ueberroth, who today is the head of the United States Olympic Committee. And that’s something which really also laid the groundwork for the post-Cold War Olympics, which have become far more about selling products than having some sort of morality play between the United States and the USSR.
’96 in Atlanta, to me, was a particularly brutal time, because that was found by — I believe it was the ACLU, but it was found conclusively that police were filling out reports — arrest reports, before even hitting the streets, that listed that they were going to arrest people, and they would fill it out “young black male,” and then they would go out in the streets, and they arrested people for crimes like lying on the sidewalk, basically for being homeless. And they rounded up thousands of young African Americans as a way to make the city, quote-unquote, "presentable" for the Olympic Games. And not to mention the fact that a lot of public housing was torn down in Atlanta, as well. And this is what the Olympics brings.
A lot of people say the slogan of the Olympics — well, the famous slogan is “bigger, faster, stronger," or whatever it is. And I think the slogan should be "Something wicked this way comes," because wherever the Olympics go, they leave behind just a wreck of a city behind it and a busted economy. Just ask the people of Greece, who are going to be paying off the ’04 Olympics for a generation, or the people of Montreal. The 1976 Games in Montreal made big news in 2006, that they finally paid off the debt from the ’76 Games three decades later. That’s what the Olympics bring. It’s a feeding frenzy for corporations, but it’s not so good for the people who actually live in the city.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Dave Zirin. He is a sportswriter, his forthcoming book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States. This is a big anniversary.
DAVE ZIRIN: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s the fortieth anniversary of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. You can talk about the lead-up to those and then the men who we’re now seeing on CNN as commentators.
DAVE ZIRIN: Right. It’s remarkable the way the wheel has turned for Tommie Smith and John Carlos, the people who raised their black gloved fists in 1968. I mean, I think it says something really interesting about the journey that this country has made in the last forty years. I mean, these are two men who have really been proven right by history.
I mean, we have to remember the context. Preceding the Games in Mexico City in 1968, you had protests of students and workers that led to the slaughter of hundreds, some even say thousands, by the Mexico City police. And this was the tumult that surrounded the Games, not to mention, of course, earlier in 1968, the riots at the Democratic National Convention, the assassination of Dr. King, Robert F. Kennedy, etc. So you had a lot of excitement around the Games, but it was also a period where sports were seen as a citadel apart, that surely sports would remain immune from the spirit of protest that was pervading not just the United States but the world.
And Tommie Smith and John Carlos, they brought those protests to the Games. And I think it’s important to remember, they were not just a moment, they were a movement called the Olympic Project for Human Rights. And I think what makes them so spectacular is that what they stood for has really been proven right by history.
AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to a clip for a minute. After they won their memorable Olympic medals, working — on the US track team, they raised their fists in Black Power, as you said, in the Black Power salute during the national anthem as a protest against racism in the US. We interviewed Tommie Smith last year. He talked about how he decided to stage the protest.
TOMMIE SMITH: John Carlos and Tommie Smith decided in the dungeon, only a few minutes before the victory stand, what they were going to do. I had asked my wife earlier to bring me a pair of gloves from California. She had not left to come to Mexico yet. So I asked her to bring me gloves after the meeting. And I didn’t know what I was going to do with the gloves, but I knew I had to make a representation of my feelings, and it would have to be silent, had to be respectful, and it would have to be visual. And this is the raised fist. I had the right glove, John Carlos had the left glove. They were gloves, which my wife brought from California. And it was a cry for freedom. When both fists went up in the air, very justified in that they went up, not undignified or disrespect to the flag. We did face the flag. We didn’t turn our back on the flag. But it was a silent gesture. It was a prayer in hope that our system would become a stronger system in representing all of its people equally, human, and civilly.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Tommie Smith, who, together with John Carlos, raised their hand in the Black Power salute at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Sharif?
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And it’s interesting to know, you write about what exactly they were protesting. They didn’t wear shoes —-
DAVE ZIRIN: Right.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: —- to represent poverty. They wore beads to represent lynchings. Can you talk about that? And also, who was Avery Brundage?
DAVE ZIRIN: Sure. And also remember, John Carlos, if you look at the picture, his jacket is unzipped, and that was to represent, as he put it, working people, black and white, in the United States, people whose accomplishments don’t get recognized. That was a big breach of protocol. And let’s not forget Peter Norman, the Australian runner, who’s wearing a solidarity button that says OPHR on it.
One of their demands was for Avery Brundage to step down as the head of the International Olympic Committee. It was believed that Avery Brundage was racist. And given his track record in the twentieth century, they certainly had reason to believe that, starting back in 1936, where Brundage really hand-delivered the Olympics to Hitler’s Germany. And so, that was one of their demands.
But they also wanted South Africa and Rhodesia, as long as they were apartheid countries, to be denied access to the Olympic Games. They wanted more black coaches hired, and they wanted Muhammad Ali’s title restored. I mean, these are things that, I would argue, have been proven right by history. And that’s why we celebrate Tommie Smith and John Carlos now, when in the past they were referred to with the most horrible names you can imagine and even received death threats, and they couldn’t get work, and all kinds of horrible things that they suffered.
SHARIF ABDEL KOUDDOUS: And finally, as the Games are opening today in Beijing, NBC has exclusive rights to cover them. What do you think is going to happen in terms of their coverage of the protests of the Games in general?
DAVE ZIRIN: Glad you asked that, because that’s the test for NBC right now, and that’s the pressure that we should be bringing to bear upon NBC, because NBC is, of course, owned by General Electric. General Electric, independently of NBC, is one of the top ten sponsors of the Games in China, and they’ve even helped supply a lot of the equipment that’s being used to surveil and keep the Games, quote-unquote, "safe." So I think there is a pressure now on NBC; it’s: are you going to be an honest broker? Are you going to cover the athletes and the people of China who are attempting to use the Games as a platform to speak out about issues that they care about? If they don’t, if they soft-shoe it, I think it, frankly, will damn NBC as being a shill for the Olympic Games.
AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, I want to thank you for being with us. We hope to talk to you again through the Olympic Games. Dave Zirin, sportswriter, forthcoming book, A People’s History of Sports in the United States.