Back from Rio, Dave Zirin on Firsts at Olympics, Treatment of Russian Athletes, Future for Brazil

August 19, 2016
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Dave Zirin

sports editor for The Nation magazine.

We continue our conversation with Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation and author of Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy.

Watch Part 1: Dave Zirin: Brazilians are Fed Up with U.S. Olympian Ryan Lochte and Privileged First-World Tourists


This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, in news from the Olympics, Brazilian police have accused a group of U.S. Olympic swimmers of vandalism during an incident at a gas station last weekend and say they are now considering whether to recommend charges against the four men, which includes gold medalist Ryan Lochte. The swimmers told authorities they were robbed by gunmen impersonating police officers in the early hours of Sunday as they returned in a taxi to the Athletes Village from a party in the city. However, after an investigation, Rio police said there had been no robbery. U.S. Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun said in a statement, quote, "We apologize to our hosts in Rio and the people of Brazil for this distracting ordeal in the midst of what should rightly be a celebration of excellence," unquote.

AMY GOODMAN: We spoke with Dave Zirin about this scandal. Go to for Part 1 of this discussion. But right now we’re going to talk about what this controversy comes amidst in the Olympic Games, as it enters its final weekend. There have been a number of historic firsts for American athletes. For the first time ever, American women placed first, second and third in the 100-meter Olympic hurdles. The runners, Brianna Rollins, Nia Ali and Kristi Castlin, are all African-American. The American Olympic gymnastics team has also made history. The so-called Final Five women’s gymnastics team concluded their run in Rio with an historic nine medals. They are most diverse gymnastics team to ever represent the United States. Simone Biles and Gabby Douglas are African-American. New Jersey-born Lauren Hernandez is of Puerto Rican descent. Madison Kocian and Aly Raisman are white.

For more, we continue our conversation with Dave Zirin, sports editor for The Nation.

Dave, you were just down in Rio. Talk about the significance of these wins.

DAVE ZIRIN: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, with Brianna Rollins and company, after they finished one, two and three in the 100-meter hurdles, I mean, Brianna Rollins, she said, "Black girls rock." And that garnered quite the social media reaction. And that matters for a couple of reasons. It matters, first of all, in Rio itself, because the issue of race in Rio is much more taboo than even the United States. I don’t think necessarily people think in the United States we necessarily have open discussions about race and racism. But in Brazil, it’s really something that is a narrow discussion, that rarely happens. And a lot of that has to do with historical reasons, like there’s no history of a mass black freedom struggle or Jim Crow, you know, that created that struggle in Brazil, yet at the same time, if you look at who’s affected by poverty, by police violence, the darker the skin, the more likely you are to be affected by these issues. And Michel Temer, the golpista, or the coup president, who’s took over for Dilma Rousseff, he famously just inaugurated the first all-white, all-male Cabinet really in Brazilian history, by anybody’s reckoning, and that was seen as extremely symbolic. So race is very real in Brazil. And so, when you have these like very public expressions of black pride, even when brought down from American athletes, it really does have a resonance and starts a conversation that creates a much more kind of internationalist pride.

And when you factor that statement of "black girl magic," when you connect it to the way in which Gabby Douglas has—who was such an Olympic hero back in 2012 in London, African-American gymnast, the first gymnast in history in 2012—U.S. gymnast, I’m sorry, to win both the individual and the team gold back in 2012. These Olympics for Gabby Douglas have, by all accounts, according to her camp—her family, her friends, her coaches—have been a kind of psychological nightmare for her, as she’s been bullied on social media, as she’s been attacked for her hair, as she was attacked for not having her hand on her heart during the national anthem, which somehow is a worse offense than tearing apart a bathroom and peeing all over the place, like Ryan Lochte did. And so, Gabby Douglas has been almost like this image of pain during these Games. And so, to have not only the greatness of Simone Biles on the same team as her, and seeing her and Gabby embrace, but also this "black girl magic" from Brianna Rollins and company, I mean, it really does have a bigger resonance than just, "Oh, hey, the United States got one, two, three in the hurdles."

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dave, in terms of the other countries in the competition, clearly the Chinese team is not happy with its performance in terms of medals acquired. And also, if you could talk about the Russians and the pre-Olympic scandal over doping and how that’s affected the Russian performance in these Games?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, I don’t know what the reaction is going to be from the Chinese, other than that there is a great deal of disappointment. Usually, that says something about what’s happening inside the Sports Ministry in China, and that there will be some sort of shake-up. But it’s not exactly an open source kind of discussion where we can understand what actually has happened, because it is rather puzzling.

As far as Russia goes, I can tell you from being down there the treatment of the Russian athletes—and people may be happy with this or not happy with this in the Democracy Now! audience—but the treatment of the Russian athletes is just brutal, every Russian athlete assumed to be doping, because there was a big push by WADA—that’s the World Anti-Doping Agency—before the Games to ban Russia from the Rio Games. And by banning Russia, that also means their flag would not fly at these Olympics. They would not march out. And instead, Thomas Bach, the head of the International Olympic Committee, had this sort of oddly gutless decision where he said that he accepted the findings of the report and that all of the Russian sports ministers would be banned from being at Rio, yet the athletes would be approved on a federation-by-federation basis. Now, there’s a problem with that, because some federations, like, say, fencing or judo, for example, are dominated by Russian power, by Russian officials, by Russian sources; other federations are dominated by people who are very anti-Russian. And, of course, you can’t separate any of this from this 21st century cold war that we’re living under, where Putin is the new big enemy, the hacking of the DNC. All of this stuff infuses these discussions.

And so, when you go down there, what you have is the Russian athletes, who are now like compelled to attend, they get booed mercilessly, whether they’ve used steroids or performance-enhancing drugs or not. They might as well have, you know, a scarlet S across their chests. The medals that the Russians won—I was at the fencing event. The Russians won gold in fencing. I can tell you that a lot of folks in the fencing community were like, "Oh, it was fixed. It was fixed." I don’t even know if that’s true, but what it does is it—you know, it casts aspersions and shadows over their accomplishments. And in other events, the Russians say the opposite, of course, famously, you know, splashed and mocked by other U.S. swimmers. So, it’s an ugly situation.

And it’s so interesting, because the International Olympic Committee always says that the Olympics should transcend politics. And they use that argument to bash political athletes. They use that argument to keep signs out of the arena that criticize the new coup government in Brazil. Yet, at the same time, politics are everything, in terms of understanding what’s happening in these Olympics.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about the significance of Usain Bolt and what he has accomplished?

DAVE ZIRIN: Usain Bolt from Jamaica, what he just did was he won another 200-meter gold. That means he’s won eight gold medals in track and field. That puts him only one behind the all-time record, a record that’s shared by U.S. Olympic legend Carl Lewis. Yet what makes Usain Bolt even more impressive than even the great Carl Lewis is that Carl Lewis won, I believe, two of his golds in the long jump, maybe even three, actually, in the long jump, and Usain Bolt doesn’t do the long jump. Usain Bolt just does 100 meters, 200 meters and then the relay. And so, for him to be able to have this—accumulated this much accomplishment, but, even more than that, to create the gap that Usain Bolt creates between him and the other runners, and to do so with such joy and passion, I mean, it’s not only been the sort of thing that’s rewritten the record books in track, but it’s also really ensconced track and field as the national sport of Jamaica.

There are now real resources and institutions in Jamaica. I would argue that, per capita, there are more resources for track and field in Jamaica than there are in the United States, where track and field programs have been cut viciously by larger public education cuts in this country, and especially with money being diverted to sports like football, which gets, you know, such a lion’s share of the money in the United States, a sport that, frankly, isn’t played anywhere else in the world. Track and field has been embraced in Jamaica. And track and field is, of course, a heck of a lot more head healthy for you than football. So, that is a fortunate turn of events in terms of sporting culture in Jamaica, which is more healthy, I would argue, than the sporting culture in the United States. And it’s really all been done because of this unique charisma that Usain Bolt brings to the scene, Usain Bolt, who now needs to be in the discussion, with people like Jim Thorpe and Michael Phelps and, perhaps in the future, Katie Ledecky, and Jackie Joyner-Kersee, as the greatest Olympians of the last century.

AMY GOODMAN: And any of your final—your favorite stories of Olympians or what took place in Rio?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, it’s—I have two favorite stories from these Olympics. The first is Wayde van Niekerk from South Africa, who set a world record in the 400 meters, almost broke 43 seconds, which is unheard of. What makes his story so remarkable is that he’s a person of color from South Africa. Two parts of his story are really amazing—well, really three parts. The first part is just from a track and field perspective. He set that record from lane eight, which is a darn near impossible thing to do. It’s the worst lane to run in. And not only does he win gold, but he sets a world record. That, in and of itself, would make this one of my favorite stories. But in addition to that, I mean, to be trained by a great-grandmother is a great story unto itself. There are so few women who coach men’s track and field. That makes it utterly remarkable at the same time. And to hear him talk—to hear Wayde talk about it, I mean, she has absolutely completely changed his life. He was an average runner at the international level, running in about 48 seconds. And to bring it down to 43 seconds is amazing.

But even more so is his mother, Odessa Swarts. Odessa Swarts was a South African track and field legend in the 1980s, but she could not compete internationally because South Africa was banned, because of its apartheid policies. Now, what’s especially important about his mother, particularly for Democracy Now! listeners, is that because of her greatness, she still could have run in the '80s in some of the big races and gotten a lot of money from the apartheid government and run in the big stadiums and been, in effect, a symbol of what South Africa was trying to push in the 1980s, which is "We're not really as racist as you think, just because we have apartheid policies." That was something they did in the ’80s, is they took black faces and biracial faces, and they put them in high places, in terms of like national and international propaganda. But she refused to do that, instead running in something called the South African Council on Sports, which was an explicitly anti-apartheid formation that brought black and white athletes together, and was really the child of the South African Non-Racialized Olympic Committee, which was started by your friend and mine, the late, great Dennis Brutus, who was the poet laureate of South Africa and who was at Robben Island with Nelson Mandela. So, to have his mother banned from the Olympics because of apartheid South Africa and have him win that gold medal, that is one of my favorite stories.

And my second favorite story has to do with a guest that you had on your show, and that’s the great Anthony Ervin, a U.S. swimmer we can actually be proud of on these dark days of Ryan Lochte stories. And to have Anthony Ervin at age 35 win gold in the 50 meters, basically to be the Usain Bolt of swimming, and to have him—I mean, just him doing it at age 35, to have him win this gold 16 years after his first gold in 2000, to have him take all that time off in between, and to have him be somebody who’s a proudly political person, who’s writing his education thesis on Muhammad Ali, and takes these ideas of sports and society and culture seriously, I mean, he’s like the anti-Lochte, like a deep thinker about the Olympics, about sports. And he shows that you don’t have to be some sort of broed-out jerk to be a gold medalist in swimming; you could actually be a person of thought and of substance, and be the kind of person we can actually be proud of.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dave, when the athletes go home, and the cameras and the reporters leave Rio, what, in your sense, is going to be left to Brazil from these Games, locked as it is in a struggle over a—what many are calling a coup of their president?

DAVE ZIRIN: I mean, I think that’s the most important question we can ask right now, as the Games come to a close. I’ve been covering these mega-events since 2004, and I can say that this isn’t just a Brazil question. The real story always begins after the cameras have been packed up and the confetti has been cleared away, because this is when the bills come due. And this is when you get a lot of robbing Peter to pay Paul.

Now, what’s so incredibly crisis-ridden about Brazil and Rio right now is that they’ve already been doing this. I mean, there are stories in The New York Times about the hoarding of medical supplies in case people from the U.S. Olympic Village got sick, and so medical supplies being denied to people in Rio. There are stories about cuts—and this was under Dilma, by the way—cuts in the health budget to pay for the Olympics at the time of the Zika outbreak back in February, when it was winter and the height of mosquito season. I mean, so these stories are already out there. I spoke to teachers in Rio who have class sizes of 50 to one, teachers who were part of school occupations with students, because they can’t get hot lunches into the school and have nothing resembling good supplies and are actually dealing with the incursion of standardized testing to such a degree that they can’t teach. I’m sure that’ll sound very familiar to U.S. teachers. And so, all of this is going to be stepped up, I believe, after the Olympics go away, because they’re going to have to pay for a lot of what was put down. And then we’re going to see some real pitched battles.

And I really hope—I guess I’m speaking now to all my media sisters and brothers out there to not turn your back on Rio—please do not—once the Olympics are over. I know I’m going to be going back to report on what’s happening, and I hope we all do, because I think the international spotlight is the only thing that’s going to prevent further police brutality, further immiseration of the favelas, further displacements and further corporate reform of what is a magical city.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you very much, Dave, for being with us. Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine, recent article, "Ryan Lochte is One of Many Privileged First-World Tourists—and Brazilians are Fed Up." He’s also written the book Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González. Thanks so much for joining us.

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