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“Celebration Capitalism & the Olympics”: Global Protests Mark Approach of Sochi Games

StoryFebruary 05, 2014
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Russian President Vladimir Putin has spent more than $50 billion on the Winter Games in Sochi, making this the most expensive Olympics in history. In the lead-up to the games, Russia has faced worldwide criticism and calls for boycotts, especially after it passed a law in June banning the spread of so-called “gay propaganda” to children. With the games just two days away, we host a roundtable with four guests: Dave Zirin, sports columnist for The Nation magazine and author of “Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down”; Samantha Retrosi, a luge athlete who competed in the 2006 Winter Olympics; historian and former U.S. Olympic soccer player, Jules Boykoff, who is author of “Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games”; and Helen Lenskyj, author of several books on the Olympics, including “Gender Politics and the Olympic Industry” and the forthcoming book, “Sexual Diversity and the Sochi 2014 Olympics: No More Rainbows.”

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

DAVE ZIRIN: Second, I had a flashback this morning to getting a call from Amy in 2010, when she was detained at the Canadian border, going across for a different event, and the Vancouver Olympics were happening. Do you remember that?


DAVE ZIRIN: And they said to Amy, they said, “Are you here to talk about the Olympics?” And Amy said, “I am now.” And it’s just to point out that these issues we’re talking about are at every Olympics, and there’s no doubt that they’re getting amplified in Russia, partially because of the conflicts between the United States and Russia, but it’s also true that what’s happening in Russia is particularly bad, even by Olympic standards.

And that leads, really, to your question. I mean, the U.S. delegation involves three openly LGBT athletes—Billie Jean King, Caitlin Cahow, Brian Boitano—and then gold medalist Bonnie Blair. Now, what’s so interesting about this is that this is the first time since 2000 that nobody from the president or the vice president’s family has been part of the delegation. This is very clearly a thumb in the eye to Vladimir Putin by President Barack Obama. And I’m sure there a lot of people in the LGBT community and amongst allies who are happy that this is happening. It’s a strong stance for LGBT rights.

But I think people should also be very wary of it, for two reasons. First of all, we have a lot of problems in this country with regards to LGBT rights. I mean, for example, there are 29 states in this country you can still fire someone on the basis of their sexuality, and in eight states in this country there are what are called “no promo homo” laws, which are very similar to the Russian laws, where you cannot propagate homosexuality or anything of the sort. So, that’s the first thing. So it’s like we have to clean our own house.

The second thing, which is really important, is the only question that matters is: Will LGBT athletes in Russia be better or worse off after the cameras have gone home? And by sending over the delegation, one of the things that does is that it allows the IOC—and, by the way, they’re already doing this—and Putin to present the LGBT movement in Russia as a tool of the United States, and it actually opens them up for further repression.

AMY GOODMAN: Legendary tennis star Billie Jean King recently appeared on CBS This Morning and talked about going to Russia as a member of the official U.S. delegation, about the origins of Olympic Rule number 50, which bars athletes from engaging in any type of political demonstration at the games.

BILLIE JEAN KING: It probably came from the fact when John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their arms about civil rights, human rights, back in ’68, I think the rule [inaudible] was written after that, Rule 50.

VINITA NAIR: Because it bans all political demonstration.

BILLIE JEAN KING: It bans—they’re not supposed to protest or demonstrate. And if they do, they can have their medals stripped, and they can be sent home. But I also think people—some of the athletes will probably have their say. And Ashley Wagner, for instance, has already been talking. Bode Miller has spoken out in favor of all of us gay people and thinking it’s just ridiculous, which it is.

ANTHONY MASON: If you were—if you were an athlete at these games, what do you think you’d do?



BILLIE JEAN KING: I would try to do it in a diplomatic way, but I—knowing my personality, I would talk about it.

ANTHONY MASON: You would do something.

BILLIE JEAN KING: I would do something.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Billie Jean King on CBS. Dave Zirin, you wrote, along with John Carlos, The John Carlos Story, and she mentioned that Olympic moment in Mexico City, the Black Power salute.

DAVE ZIRIN: Absolutely. First of all, just worth mentioning and underlining, that when John Carlos went to Mexico City, he wasn’t doing it to protest the politics of Mexico; he was protesting the politics of the United States, and that was fraught with a particular kind of danger and just being ostracized upon his return. But I’ve spoken with John Carlos several times about these Sochi games, and he is so supportive of the movement for LGBT rights and, frankly, so supportive of athletes’ right to freedom of expression and their right, if they feel like they see something wrong, to not check their brains at the door when they go out onto the Olympic field.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you think we’re going to see this moment at the Sochi Olympics?

DAVE ZIRIN: I don’t know what form it will take, but I have heard enough and spoken to enough people to know that there will be many visible signs of LGBT dissent and the fight for LGBT liberation at these games.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s go to Helen Lenskyj in Canada. You’ve written a lot about gender diversity, about sexuality, gender politics in the Olympic industry. Talk about the significance of Sochi 2014.

HELEN LENSKYJ: I think it has the potential to change history, but the world has lost that opportunity, just as the world lost the opportunity to change history before the Berlin Games, the Nazi Games of 1936. On the other hand, there has been worldwide outrage at Putin’s Russia and the anti-gay propaganda law. And that came to many of us in the LGBT communities as a pleasant surprise, that there was that much global reaction to this legislation, and so much—as a result, so much LGBT visibility in mainstream media.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Jules Boykoff, could you talk about—you wrote an article last year about WikiLeaks and the 2014 Olympics. What did the Stratfor files reveal, to go back to what Samantha was talking about earlier, about corporate sponsorship and these particular Olympics?

JULES BOYKOFF: Well, the WikiLeaks documents revealed that Stratfor was working for a number of Olympic sponsors, including Coca-Cola.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain what Stratfor is.

JULES BOYKOFF: The global intelligence firm based in Texas that WikiLeaks somehow got the documents from, email conversations that they were having. And it demonstrated that Coke was actually really concerned with activism at the Vancouver Games. In particular, they were asking a number of questions about PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, and trying to figure out in advance what they might do to undercut the games. So, they’re definitely concerned with movement building around the Olympics. And just to echo something that we just heard here, movements create space for the athlete activists. And I think that’s what Professor Lenskyj was saying there, in a way, is that if you have movements on the ground, that opens up opportunities for athletes to take a courageous stand.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Do you think that the Olympics should have been boycotted, though?

JULES BOYKOFF: I do not. I think that would have just taken away the opportunity for Olympic athletes who have dedicated their whole lives to that moment, as Samantha described just a moment ago. And I don’t think it really would have necessarily accomplished anything. In fact, when scholars look back at the boycotts of the early 1980s, it’s pretty resoundingly proved that these things really did nothing to change the political situation on the ground for real people.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go back to Helen Lenskyj. You have already written a book on the Olympics. You said that was going to be your last book on the Olympics, and yet you wrote another book. Why did you feel the need to write a book specifically on Sochi 2014?

HELEN LENSKYJ: In last summer, 2013, I saw the story about the rainbow fingernails and the courageous Swedish track-and-field athletes, the women who painted their fingernails in rainbow colors, and then the outrageous statement by the—a woman from the Russian track-and-field team who said, famously, there are no gays and lesbians in Russia. And then again, last week, the mayor of Sochi said there are no gays and lesbians in Russia. And my book looks at the history of gays and lesbians in Russia, not just during the Soviet era, but in the last—since 1993. And in some regards, their position has improved, but the prejudice has such long-standing roots. The prejudice against particularly homosexuality, male homosexuality, has a long and complex history, that prejudice that I document in the book.

And it’s very hard to change Russian attitudes. And with Putin in power and Putin’s alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church, that makes the task of trying to create more public acceptance of sexual diversity extremely challenging. So we see opinion polls where the majority will say, “No, gays and lesbians don’t deserve the same rights as heterosexual people,” and then we see Putin, to the Western world, relying on an argument, his argument, about his demographic crisis and the fact that the birth rate in Russia is low compared to other Western countries. The death—the life expectancy is very low. He, as a man in his sixties, is at that extreme of life expectancy for Russian men, and he tries to present himself, quite successfully, as a model of virility and masculinity and so on. And in fact, on that sort of sexualized language, some Russian critics or opponents of LGBT rights are saying that lesbian and gay issues are a sample of Western decadence and that this creeping Western decadence will actually dilute Russian manhood, and then that will result in children hearing about the possibility of being gay or lesbian, choosing that as if that idea was never in their heads, this idea about sex education putting bad ideas into children’s heads. So then this will have dramatic effects, according to this line of reasoning, on the population growth. Putin and others seem to think that gays and lesbians don’t have kids. In fact, we do. But nevertheless he thinks it would be the end of Russian—the Russian population, the end of the country.

AMY GOODMAN: And just explain that reference you made, Professor Lenskyj, in August, the Swedish high jumper Emma Green Tregaro painted her fingernails in the colors of the rainbow flag in support of Russia’s gay community during a qualifying round at the IAAF World Championships in Moscow. And she was forced to repaint them after being warned that this was a breach of regulations of the International Association of Athletics Federations and that she could be sent home. She said, quote, “I couldn’t imagine how big and how much it would mean to people. So I’m so glad that I did it. Of course I’ve got some ugly messages too, and that makes it even more worth it,” she said. Dave Zirin?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, that’s absolutely right. But one thing about these games, which is, in a bizarre way, Putin has fulfilled the greatest mandate of the Olympics, which is to unite the world, in that it’s united people in disgust over the many different issues that people care about that are being expressed at these games. I mean, no matter what your issue, your passion, your desire for social justice is, there is a part of these Olympics that will inflame you.

I mean, the Olympics, one thing we haven’t discussed is it’s happening at the 150th anniversary of the Circassian genocide, 1864. And Sochi is actually a Circassian word. And this is a way of erasing that history. But it’s actually led to a tremendous movement. There’s even going to be a demonstration in Times Square in New York on Friday, to coincide with the start of the games, of a Circassian expatriate community here in New York.

AMY GOODMAN: And very quickly, to explain what happened 150 years ago?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, I mean, yes—


JULES BOYKOFF: Sure, yeah. Tsar Nicholas II engaged in what most scholars call a genocide of the period. And basically, Circassians were forced to flee, and many of them live in diasporic communities around the world. We saw protests just the other day from Circassians in Turkey. There’s a huge pocket right nearby in New Jersey. There’s also a number of Circassians in Syria. So, basically, forced to leave their homeland for their own safety.

DAVE ZIRIN: There’s also been environmental degradation in Sochi of a horrific degree. There has been announced the mass extermination of stray dogs in Sochi in the lead-up to the games. I mean, so this is literally one of those things—the violation of labor rights. At least 25 construction workers have died in the buildup to making the games. And, of course, all the LGBT issues we’ve discussed. I mean, if people out there care about issues of human justice, I think people should realize that these Olympics are an amazing opportunity to educate the people around you about the very brave movements that are taking place and the stakes involved.

AMY GOODMAN: Samantha, could athletes talk about this, their concerns?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: I think it’s going to be very, very—I’m optimistic that it’s going to happen; however, there are a set of structural boundaries in place for athletes that’s really tied into the structure of corporate sponsorship. Essentially, there are contracts that are signed. And in light of the fear that athlete activism could actually become a realistic prospect, I have a feeling, you know, there’s going—there are going to be requirements. Olympic participation may very well be contingent upon remaining politically disengaged. When an athlete is entirely economically dependent upon the sporting hierarchy, those organizations, and the corporate sponsorship, and they’ve invested, some of them, upwards of a decade in their pursuit of this moment, those are going to be very real questions that they’re going to need to ask themselves.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to continue this discussion after break. We also had a chance to talk to Pussy Riot yesterday. They just came into New York. They have a lot to say about the Olympics, just freed from jail, two of the members. Well be back with our guests in a moment.


AMY GOODMAN: That’s music by Pussy Riot. This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

I want to turn now to two members of the Russian feminist punk group Pussy Riot, who arrived in New York City on Tuesday. Nadia Tolokonnikova and Masha Alyokhina were released from prison in December under a new amnesty law in Russia, just a few months before the end of their two-year sentences for protesting Russian leader Vladimir Putin inside an Orthodox cathedral. Shortly after they landed here in New York, the two Pussy Riot members gave their first public appearance here in the United States at a news conference organized by Amnesty International. They spoke in Russian, and they were translated by Nadia’s husband, Pyotr Verzilov. I had a chance to ask them a question.

AMY GOODMAN: Welcome, Masha and Nadia, to the United States. On this eve of the Olympics in Sochi, what message do you have for Americans? And if you had a chance to ask both of our leaders one question, President Obama and President Putin, what would you ask each of them?

MARIA ALYOKHINA: [translated] As well as we know, the position of the American political leadership towards the Olympic Games, it’s something like a boycott. But, of course, we’re talking here about the political leadership, not about U.S. citizens who will of course be in Russia during these games. So it’s important to make a statement towards these people, American citizens who will be in Sochi. We would like for Americans to really look at Russia and see Russia beyond the images of Olympic objects and buildings. These objects have no relation to Russia; they are foreign objects in Russia. The only thing which connects these objects to the country is taxpayer money, which has been stolen and which has been used to build up these Olympic objects.

NADIA TOLOKONNIKOVA: [translated] So, in regards to President Obama, I would say it’s not a question, but more of a call. And this call and appeal is to not be afraid to publicly say your thoughts about what you feel is happening in Russia, once you are there during your next visit. The question to Vladimir Putin: Aren’t you sick of it all?

AMY GOODMAN: That was Nadia Tolokonnikova, before that, Masha Alyokhina, two members of the Russian feminist group Pussy Riot who were just released from Russian prison. They arrived in New York Tuesday. They will speak out tonight at the Barclays stadium in Brooklyn at a big Amnesty International event. They are founding a new human rights group called Zona Prava, or Zone of the Rights. Dave Zirin, your response?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, first, in a sane world, Pussy Riot would be playing the opening ceremonies at the Sochi 2014 Olympics. Second of all, when they’re at the Barclays Center, I hope they speak out about the displacement in stadium building that took place in Brooklyn to build that stadium, because these issues are international. And third, to say that that’s actually something that Pussy Riot stands for. One of the things they’ve been speaking out here is the fact that the United States has the largest prison-industrial complex in the world.

AMY GOODMAN: They’re visiting prisons.

DAVE ZIRIN: They’re visiting prisons. And so—and I think that’s got to be our approach to these entire Olympics. It’s an opportunity for us to be educated about Russia, about injustice, to stand in solidarity with the many social movements in Russia. But at the same time, we have to realize that a lot of those movements in Russia have reflection here in the United States.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: And, Jules Boykoff, one of the striking things that you point out, because a lot of people think that Olympics are a very good thing because they bring in a lot to the local economy, but you say, against conventional wisdom, that in fact the Olympics are not economically beneficial to host cities. Could you explain how that works?

JULES BOYKOFF: Certainly. One of the central myths of the Olympic machine is that when the Olympics roll into your town, it’s going to amplify the economy, create jobs for everybody, and leave a wonderful trail in its wake. In reality, if you look at the work of independent academic economists, they’ll tell you the opposite. That doesn’t happen. And so, don’t take—if you don’t want to take it from the independent academic economists, take it from Mitt Romney. Just the other week, he was asked about a potential 2024 Boston bid, being the former governor of Massachusetts, and he did some actual straight talk. He said, “Hey, it might be fun. We might have a lot of great sports come to town, and we might feel high-spirited for a little bit. But the Olympic Games are not a money-making opportunity.” That’s Mitt Romney there.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, talk about the significance of Mitt Romney, when talking about the Olympics, with Utah and Salt Lake City.

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely, Amy, and that’s why they turned to Mitt Romney, in part because he came in to work with Rocky Anderson, the mayor of Salt Lake City, in the wake of the bribery scandals, so he was there in 2002 at the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City.

AMY GOODMAN: The bribery scandals of?

JULES BOYKOFF: Of IOC members, of International Olympic Committee members, given scholarships for their kids to go to school and all sorts of other material benefits, as they later said it, you know, sort of euphemistically in their report.

AMY GOODMAN: Dave Zirin, you lay out the costs of these Olympics. What was your comparison of the costs of these Olympics, the statistics?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, sure. The low statistic is now $51 billion for these games. That is more than every single Winter Games—

AMY GOODMAN: But the comparison you make this to?

DAVE ZIRIN: Yeah, so many comparisons to make. One road from the Olympic Village to the top of the ski mountain is going to cost $8.7 billion. Not only is that more than the entire price tag for the Vancouver Games, but they could have paved the entire road in Beluga caviar, and it would have cost less than $8.7 billion.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, what does this have to do with men’s bathing suits?

JULES BOYKOFF: What does it have to do with—oh, well, I quoted a professor in Brazil who said that statistics are like a mankini, which is of course like a Speedo that men wear in Brazil, and said they show so much, but they hide the most important parts.

AMY GOODMAN: So, they’re not making money on this, although there are some who are making a tremendous amount of money.

DAVE ZIRIN: Exactly. As John Carlos says, the reason why they only have the Olympics every four years is because it takes them four years to count all the money. The question is: Who gets it, and who’s left behind?

AMY GOODMAN: Who gets it in Russia?

DAVE ZIRIN: Oh, it’s going to be a combination of the Russian state and the Russian plutocracy that exists. I mean, all of these things are so interwoven that we’re actually now having complaints of the Russian plutocracy, because they’re being enacted with what they’re calling the Putin tax, where Putin is now tipping into them to say, “You need to help me pay for these things. We just lost $30 billion, and we’re $40 billion over budget.”

AMY GOODMAN: And, Jules Boykoff, you, too, are an Olympic athlete. You were on the Olympic soccer team. Did you relate to what Samantha Retrosi was describing in this very painful, from 11 years old, odyssey she took, sponsored partly by Verizon, until Verizon pulled out, and what it meant, ultimately leading to the censorship at the Olympics about what you can say?

JULES BOYKOFF: Well, I can certainly relate to the strict regime that was imposed on the athletes. To be clear, I played for the U.S. Olympic soccer team from '89 to ’91, so I didn't make the final cut for Barcelona '92, so I didn't actually participate like Samantha did in an actual Olympics, but nevertheless did play internationally against the Brazilian Olympic team, the Yugoslavian—Yugoslavia existed then. Czechoslovakia existed then. In fact, we played against the Soviet Union at the time.

And, you know, one thing that was really striking to me, we played in this French tournament, and we were not getting rooted for. And as a naive 19-year-old, I thought, oh, everyone was going to cheer for the United States. And it really put this thought in my mind when I went home: You’ve got to figure some of these things out. And so I did—went home and started to do a political excavation of what might be going on here, where we got the French shoulder, cold shoulder, around the country.

AMY GOODMAN: The New York Times says today, “the State Department has recommended that fans take the batteries out of their cellphones, which could become locating beacons or bugging devices in the hands of the authorities.”

JULES BOYKOFF: Mm-hmm, yeah.

DAVE ZIRIN: I have to say, on top of that, too, they’ve also told the U.S. Olympic athletes to actually break from tradition and not walk around Sochi wearing their U.S.A. gear, their sweat outfits, for fear that that would make them a target for terror attacks, which are also something that’s a high level of concern, because the Olympics are being held so close to the theater of the Chechen wars, which have taken the lives of 160,000 people over the last 20 years. So whether it’s the Russian state or whether it’s Chechen rebels or people who have had family members killed in that war, I mean, this is an act of incredible hubris by Putin to put the games here, and it’s put a lot of people’s lives at risk.

AMY GOODMAN: Helen Lenskyj in Canada, as you wrote your second book on the Olympics and particularly focused on Sochi 2014, what surprised you most?

HELEN LENSKYJ: It surprised me that there were so many parallels with the attitudes towards sexual minorities in Putin’s Russia and in other parts of the world. So I didn’t want to demonize Russia as being the only place with these kinds of attitudes and policies.

But more important, what struck me were the parallels between the IOC and Putin’s Russia. And my conclusion is that those two, the IOC and Putin’s Russia, deserve each other. They share so many characteristics: the moral bankruptcy of their leadership, the fraudulent voting processes that still go on within the IOC—and I don’t have time to document them, but they’re in the book—the attitudes toward gays and lesbians. Specifically, the IOC is quite satisfied with gay and lesbian invisibility in sport, as is the wider world of sport, and Russia is—Putin’s Russia is enforcing lesbian and gay invisibility. The reliance on this old argument that sport and politics don’t mix, that is what I call magical thinking, that sport will solve all of the world’s problems, it brings people together, it brings world peace. Even—not this particular rhetoric here, but it solves the problem of teen pregnancy—people have said that. So, sport and magical thinking are common to both the IOC and Putin and Putin’s Russia.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Jules Boykoff, the boost to the security industry and policing?

JULES BOYKOFF: Absolutely. In general, with the Olympics, the security industry and local police make off in great shape. Basically, they treat the Olympics like their own private ATM machine, getting all the kind of military devices that they would never be able to get under normal political times. And that’s a trend we’ve seen throughout numerous Olympics.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we’ll see if this discussion happens when we’re watching television throughout the Olympics, if it happens on NBC—

DAVE ZIRIN: Remains to be seen, absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —all of these issues that you have all raised. Would you do it again, Samantha, if you could compete again, or would you lead your childhood a little differently?

SAMANTHA RETROSI: That’s a difficult question, because—

AMY GOODMAN: We have 10 seconds, I hate to tell you.

SAMANTHA RETROSI: I would say who I am politically today is really a reflection of what I went through as an elite athlete, and so, no, I would not. I think the process of politicization that has the potential to happen as a result of that lifestyle, it’s well worth—it’s well worth what I went through.

DAVE ZIRIN: So, wouldn’t trade nothing for my journey now, is what you’re saying.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Samantha Retrosi, I want to thank you for being with us. Jules Boykoff, his new book is called Celebration Capitalism and the Olympic Games. Thank you very much to Helen Lenskyj and to Dave Zirin.

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