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“An Olympic Snowden”: U.S. Athlete on Being Turned Into a “Spokesperson for Verizon” at 2006 Games

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With the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, just two days away, we look at a side of the games that you won’t see in the wall-to-wall media coverage. Former Olympic athlete Samantha Retrosi joins us to discuss her recent Nation article, “Why the Olympics are a Lot Like 'The Hunger Games.'” A luge competitor in the 2006 Winter Games in Italy, Retrosi says a lack of government support and sufficient safety protections forces athletes into relying on corporate sponsors and putting themselves in harm’s way. “This is like an 'Olympic Snowden,'” says political sportswriter Dave Zirin, who also joins us in studio. “This is a legitimate whistleblowing moment. People who are part of the Olympic program don’t say what Samantha just said.”

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

NERMEEN SHAIKH: The opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, is just two days away, and the games are already steeped in controversy. Russia has spent more than $50 billion on Sochi, making it the most expensive Olympics in history. The costs have soared in part due to the extraordinary security measures being taken to protect the city. The U.S. State Department has taken the unusual step of warning American fans attending the games to take the batteries out of their cellphones, which could become locating beacons or bugging devices in the hands of the Russian authorities.

AMY GOODMAN: Russia’s human rights record is also in the spotlight. Several Russian activists have been barred from watching the games live. One prominent Russian environmentalist was arrested Tuesday near Sochi. He was reportedly charged with “petty hooliganism,” allegedly for swearing previously at a bus stop. Some LGBT groups have called for a boycott of the games after Russia passed a law in June banning the spread of so-called “gay propaganda” to children. On Saturday, human rights advocates held a protest in Paris to highlight concerns about Russia’s restriction of freedom of expression and assembly. This is Stephan Oberreit, director general of Amnesty International France.

STEPHAN OBERREIT: First of all, get the wider public to understand what’s happening in Russia. People have an image of Russia, of it getting—things getting better. No, there are problems in Russia, and we have to remember that we’re not just buying gas or selling weapons or technology to the Russians, having cultural exchanges. There’s human rights violation, and the wider public has to acknowledge this.

AMY GOODMAN: We’ll spend the hour today looking at some of the controversy surrounding the Olympic Games. We begin with a former Olympic athlete. Samantha Retrosi competed in the luge in the 2006 Winter Games in Italy. She recently wrote an article for The Nation titled “Why the Olympics are a Lot Like 'The Hunger Games.'” Samantha, why?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Well, in the initial part of the—the first part of the article, I talk about the Olympics as a place of exploitation. I make the comparison of the Olympic opening ceremonies to that of the Hunger Games opening ceremonies, in terms of the pageantry, the clearly divided—you have the district-level divisions. I see those—that kind of division really as reflective of national division. I think there are a lot of parallels that can be drawn between the nature of the Olympics themselves, the cruelty and exploitation embedded within them, and the same cruelty and exploitation that we see in the movie The Hunger Games.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Samantha, can you talk about—you became an athlete, or started to train to become a luge athlete, at the age of 11. Explain how you got into it and what happened subsequently.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Well, the—actually, because luge is a sport that’s very specific to a geographic location, you have a track in Lake Placid, as well as one in Salt Lake City.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Actually, could you explain what luge is, for our viewers who don’t know?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: So, a lot of people are familiar with bobsled, because of the movie Cool Runnings, basically. Luge is a one-person version of bobsled, kind of. It’s a very different sport, actually. The athlete is laying on their back, feet first. Actually, the sport has a long history that kind of parallels that of bobsled, but it is profoundly different. The sled is very different. It’s a very technical sport. Of all the sledding sports, it’s the fastest and most technical. And, yeah, so luge is—luge is, of course, an amateur Winter Olympic sport.

AMY GOODMAN: And how did you come to actually start at the age of 11?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: So, because of the very geographically specific nature of the sport, the Luge Association has to actually go out and do their recruitment program. So, I was recruited through what was called the Verizon-USA Luge Slider Search. So, every summer, the organization went out. They basically saw a large pool of athletes from all over the country. The athletes are selected for the U.S. development team from that pool, and they’re sent through a screening process at Lake Placid, in the Olympic Training Center and the track in Lake Placid. And you’re basically selected for your athletic ability and for some of the psychological characteristics that are found in the best luge athletes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So talk about—in the article, you also speak about the role that Verizon played as the corporate sponsor of the U.S. luge team. Could you elaborate on that? What role did they play, and how significant is corporate sponsorship for specific U.S. teams competing in the Olympics?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Well, in the United States, corporate sponsorship is of paramount necessity. There’s no government support for luge or any other Olympic sport. Essentially, the system is entirely privatized. You have the budget of the U.S. Luge Association and many other national governing bodies being entirely subsidized by corporate sponsors. When that’s their only lifeline to even operate, their entire operational budget is based upon corporate sponsorship, you have a very interesting situation where that relationship of dependency really—there’s a lot of vulnerability that the organization has to face, which shapes its activity and the way it treats athletes, and athletes themselves are entirely dependent upon the corporate sponsorship, as well. So, essentially, you become a spokesperson for a corporation as an athlete in the current context.

AMY GOODMAN: In what way? Explain what were the rules when you went to compete in Italy in the Winter Olympics around what you could say and what you couldn’t.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Well, as a U.S. national team athlete, I signed a contract every year with the U.S. Luge Association, and that contract stipulated what I could and couldn’t say, how I should use my media time. Essentially, I was being trained to be a spokesperson for Verizon.

AMY GOODMAN: What would you say about Verizon? They give great phone service?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: No, I would say, “Thanks, Verizon, for making all my Olympic dreams come true. The realization of my American Olympic dream is enabled by Verizon.” So, that’s kind of the line, kind of defines how an athlete talks about their relationship to Verizon. Of course, it’s not always that specific line. But during the Olympics, of course, you take on a whole ’nother range of sponsors, you know, the sponsors of the U.S. team, in general, USOC sponsors. And—

AMY GOODMAN: The Olympic Committee sponsors.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Yeah, U.S. Olympic Committee sponsors. And so, then you become a spokesperson for those sponsors, as well. So, you know, the sponsorship relationship and, like, the sponsors themselves are contingent upon the actual event. World Cup settings, Verizon was the main sponsor. The Olympics, you had the full range of U.S. corporate—U.S. team corporate sponsorship.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And yet, despite the fact that corporate sponsorship plays such a big role, you also point out that individual athletes, in fact, often have to take on other jobs just in order to support themselves, because they see very little of that sponsorship money.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: You know, that’s one of the repercussions of a privatized sporting hierarchy. The athletes are—a lot of them are fully subsidized by their corporate sponsor when it comes to the basic level of subsistence. So, Verizon paid for my travel expenses. They paid for my—anything that I needed to live. Outside of that, I had no other lifeline to any other support. There’s no government support. My contract mandated that the sponsorship I could pursue individually was limited based upon that allegiance to Verizon exclusively. So, really, if I wanted to have any economic flexibility, I had to go out and get a job. Right now, Verizon is no longer sponsoring USA luge, for example. A lot of those athletes have had to take on additional work hours, in—and that’s in addition to the full-time job of being a competitive national team athlete. And some of them have actually joined the—

NERMEEN SHAIKH: What does that involve, being a competitive national team athlete? If you could just give a sense of what kind of training you were a part of.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Sure. Well, I started as a child. Age 11, I was selected. At that point, I was, you know, in a lot of ways, separated from my family, my social community outside of sport. It’s a full-time job. You train all summer. You basically have a month off. Now, the training changes. I mean, in the summer you’re doing off-season training that, you know, develops your core explosivity, a lot of the physical aspects of a successful luge athlete. And in the winter, you’re doing that in addition to the actual—the act of sliding, you know, training for the technical aspect of the sport, and competing. So, it’s an entirely—

AMY GOODMAN: You were going to school when you were 11?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Yes, of course. We did have a tutor traveling with the team. But really, what happens is, you have kids who are kind of self-educating themselves, faxing their homework back and forth between schools. Some schools don’t allow the kids to stay there, because they don’t have attendance policies that will accommodate an athletic schedule. In that case—in my case, I went to a sports academy to get the help that I needed as a student, as well. So, yeah, you’re disconnected from school. You’re disconnected from your family. You’re really absorbed in the winter sports world.

AMY GOODMAN: And talk about the physical duress of this. How did you endure?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: You know, especially in a lot of Winter Olympic sports, there is an element of danger. It’s part of what makes them so exciting and marketable during the Olympics. Physically, of course, it’s very challenging. Believe it or not, to be a luge athlete or any other athlete, you need to be at tip-top physical condition. Not only are technical skills important, but of course physical, physical skill, is equally important. Now, when it comes to the element of danger, as we saw, for example, with the Georgian luge athlete in 2010, who died during the luge event, technical error results in physical duress. So you have—you know, in my case, I retired with four concussions on my plate, after a 10-year career. You know, of course, you have the—

AMY GOODMAN: How many times were you stitched up?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: I had the equivalent of well over a hundred stitches, but, you know, that took place over four major crashes that resulted in significant—a significant level of injury.

AMY GOODMAN: What was your worst crash?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: It was the Olympics. It was in Torino.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what happened in Italy.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: It’s—I mean, it’s actually an interestingly political situation. One-fifth of the women’s luge field crashed in Torino. There are—obviously, one-fifth of any sport, that’s an anomaly. That’s not normal. These are the world’s best athletes. The Olympic development process comes into play quite significantly during the Olympics. The tracks are freshly constructed during a World Cup event or World Championship event. You’ve had years training on those tracks. Everyone knows what the technical requirements are. The coaches are able to convey the technical requirements to athletes.

During the Olympics, you know, you’re starting from scratch, and nobody knows how to drive a track, a new Olympic track. They’re also being constructed to be technically demanding as possible. They’re being constructed to be the fastest tracks in the world. There’s this aspect of sensationalism that is pursued during the Olympic Games. And on top of that, you know, in my case, those who regulated the track access, so athlete access to the track, in advance of the games really limited athlete training. And this was, you know, partially a product of the attempt to give home-track athletes an advantage. So you have a number of—

AMY GOODMAN: Wait, you mean the athletes from the particular country an advantage?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Yes. Yeah, so those athletes had unlimited access to the track, whereas all the other athletes had extremely limited access.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you worried, going into this, when you saw how limited the access was?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: I had not—going into my Olympic moment, I had not had a single clean run on that track. I had not had a single run that I looked at as “this is what I want to have in the Olympics.” So, the moment that I pulled off of the handles, I knew: OK, this is about damage control; this is not about, you know, pursuing an Olympic gold medal; this is about preserving my own physical safety.

AMY GOODMAN: And what happened?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: I wasn’t able to preserve my own physical safety. I crashed and had a grade five concussion, multiple stitches. Actually, my—the competition had to be suspended for 20 minutes because I had bled onto the track, and the blood had left a massive hole, which was a safety hazard for the other athletes who would follow me. But I—I mean, retrospectively, I was lucky, because I could have ended up like the Georgian luger who actually lost his life because of these circumstances.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go to break, and then we’re going to come back to continue and widen this discussion. We are speaking with a former Olympic athlete, Samantha Retrosi. She is a luger. She competed in Italy in 2006. When we return from break, we’ll be joined by Jules Boykoff, a former member of the U.S. Olympic soccer team, who has just written the book Celebration Capitalism and the Real Cost of the Olympics. We’re also going to be joined by political sportswriter Dave Zirin and Canadian professor Helen Lenskyj, who has just finished a book, Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics. We’ll be back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh, as we continue our conversation. Before we widen the discussion to be joined by a number of guests, we want to stay with Samantha Retrosi for just one minute, because one of the things we didn’t get to talk about before the break is what happens when a corporation, when you’re a single corporate—have a single corporate sponsor, pulls out. You’re all dependent. In your case, it was on Verizon. What happens when they pull out? What are the options you have as athletes for support?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Essentially, you increase outside work hours. A lot of the U.S. luge athletes have actually joined what’s called the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program. And, of course, this helps them deal with some of the outside cost-of-living expenses. But they’ve also actually had to enter that program in order to make up for some of the funding that Verizon had formerly—had formerly provided. Some of the luge athletes actually were having to pay for their own track time.

AMY GOODMAN: You join the Army in order to continue?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: It’s a specific program, but yes, essentially, you are joining the Army. You’re enlisting. And it doesn’t necessarily—just being a member of that program does not mean that you will not be—you will not be shipped off, deported to—or sent out to fight in, you know, one of the multiple theaters.

AMY GOODMAN: You mean you can be?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: You can be, yes, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have to go through regular boot camp training and all that before you go back to your sport?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Yes, the—usually, the one break—in terms of athletes integrating into this program, the one break you have, during the spring, from training—it’s about a month, to recover—is then spent, you know, integrating into that program and going through the process of attendance in boot camp.

AMY GOODMAN: So this is what it means to be—what is it—an amateur, so that you can compete in the Olympics. You can’t be a professional athlete.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: Yeah, apparently it’s not enough to represent your country as an Olympic athlete. Apparently, you also have to join the U.S. Army World Class Athlete Program if your sponsor decides to pull out.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s introduce all of our guests right now. We are joined by Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine and host of Edge of Sports Radio on Sirius XM. Dave is the author of a number of books on sports, including, most recently, Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down. His forthcoming book about Brazil and the upcoming World Cup and 2016 Olympics is called Brazil’s Dance with the Devil.

And we’re joined by Jules Boykoff. In the '80s and ’90s, he represented the U.S. Olympic soccer team in international competition. He's the author of Activism and the Olympics: Dissent at the Games in Vancouver and London and his latest book, Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games.

And joining us from Toronto, Canada, we are with Helen Lenskyj. Her latest book is Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics, which is being published this month, also wrote Gender Politics in the Olympic Industry: No More Rainbows.

And again, we are also with Samantha Retrosi, who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. Her latest piece in The Nation is called “Why the Olympics are a Lot Like 'The Hunger Games.'”

And joining me, Nermeen Shaikh, in hosting today’s show. Nermeen?

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So, Dave Zirin, let me begin with you by asking your comments on the fact that for the first time the U.S. delegation to the Olympics doesn’t include anyone from either the president or the vice president’s family. Could you talk about the significance of that and why you think that decision was taken?

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely, but before I do, first of all, I just want to thank Samantha Retrosi for her words. I mean, this is like an Olympic Snowden. I mean, not that she faces jail time, but this is a legitimate whistleblowing moment. People who are part of the Olympic program don’t say what Samantha just said, and it’s very brave that she’s doing that.

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