12.21.2009

why i can't watch the olympics anymore

Last year, I wrote about not watching the Beijing Olympics. It turns out that was a symptom of a more general condition. I can't watch the Olympics in their present form at all.

For many progressive people, it's easy to get behind anti-Olympics sentiment, because sport doesn't budge the needle on their What's Important meters. It's not uncommon for progressives to disdain all sports, even to boast about their ignorance - sport seemingly the only avenue of human endeavour for which it's acceptable, even preferable, to be utterly ignorant. Those who aren't contemptuous will admit their lack of interest with a shrug. Think of Amy Goodman discussing being harassed by border guards, admitting she had no idea that Olympics were being held to Vancouver. I doubt many in the audience were too surprised.

But I appreciate sport. There are sports that I love watching, there are sports that bore me, and there are many in the middle that I enjoy to some extent. Beyond that, I appreciate - and I'm often in awe of - the talent, drive, dedication and incredible effort that goes into competing on the international level. Anyone who can qualify for the Olympics is a great athlete, and anyone who earns any medal is one of the best in the world.

There's also my connection to the Paralympics. I wrote about disability sports, especially wheelchair sports, for more than 20 years, including covering the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta. From interviewing athletes with disabilities over so many years, I've developed an intimate understanding of their journeys and their issues. I can't help but feel connected to their events.

So unlike many of my progressive friends and colleagues, when I think about the Olympics, I have many competing thoughts and feelings at stake.

There are so many reasons to protest the 2010 games.

Perhaps first on my list should be the stifling of dissent, and the choking of the civil liberties of Canadians protesting the Games. The BC Civil Liberties Union is helping two activists who are challenging the constitutionality of Vancouver's new gag law, the "Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games By-law".
The city passed the Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games bylaw in June to restrict the distribution and exhibition of unapproved advertising material and signs in any Olympic area during the Games.

It includes an exception for celebratory signs, which are defined as those that celebrate the 2010 Winter Games and create or enhance a festive environment and atmosphere.

In the statement of claim, Shaw said he intends to distribute information about his book, The Five Ring Circus, which is critical of the Olympics, with the intention of promoting sales.

He also said he intends to sell T-shirts, buttons, badges, hats and other apparel emblazoned with Olympic Resistance Network marks and messages critical of the costs imposed by the Games.

The pair are asking the court to declare the bylaw's provisions unconstitutional and order the City of Vancouver not to enforce them, but Westergard-Thorpe said she finds the whole exercise unfortunate.

"Going to court on a clear-cut free expression issue is a waste of time and money," Westergard-Thorpe said.

"We've all got better things to do, but if the city insists on passing bad bylaws, people who value free speech have no choice but to stand up and challenge them," she said.

As Cory Doctorow explains,
The bylaw includes a passage entitled "prohibitions regarding city land," which includes a clause that will almost surely trigger a Charter of Rights and Freedoms challenge. Clause 4B makes it illegal during the Winter Games without authorization to:

"(a) bring onto city land any
(i) weapon,
(ii) object, including any rock, stick, or glass or metal bottle useable as a weapon, except for crutches or a cane that a person who is elderly or disabled uses as a mobility aid,
(iii) large object, including any bag, or luggage that exceeds 23 x 40 x 55 centimetres;
(iv) voice amplification equipment including any megaphone,
(v) motorized vehicle, except for a motorized wheel chair or scooter that a person who is elderly or disabled uses as a mobility aid,
(vi) anything that makes noise that interferes with the enjoyment of entertainment on city land by other persons,
(vii) distribute any advertising material or install or carry any sign unless licensed to do so by the city."

Protest signs usually are made using sticks, often are larger than subsection (iii) allows (as are puppets and other protest devices), demonstrations almost always employ megaphones or other voice amplification devices, and can well "interfere with the enjoyment" of the Olympic spectacle by who chose to be so offended. Protesters often pass out leaflets as well. Thus, any of the dozens of protests I've attended over the last few years would easily be in violation of five of seven subsections.

High on the list of reasons to protest the Vancouver Olympics should also be the billions of dollars wasted in a city that suffers from a housing crisis and some of the highest poverty rates in Canada. Environmental destruction and the continued appropriation of Native land go hand in hand with this arrogant, wasteful, entitled mentality.

As a footnote to all this, VANOC originally banned the excellent athlete-supported organization Right To Play from the athletes' Olympics village, because of - what else? - competing sponsorship. They were forced to reconsider after an onslaught of negative publicity.

These are all valid reasons to protest and shun the Olympics, and if I lived in BC I probably would have joined the fray long ago.

But as much as I stand in solidarity with the struggle for free speech and environmental preservation, what ultimately drives me away from the Games are the evil conjoined twins of nationalism and corporate consumerism.

Even when I loved the Olympics and Paralympics, I was never nationalistic about the competition. I never cheered for any country's medal count; I could never stomach the quasi-military pageantry of marching and flag-waving. But I overlooked it, because I loved the sport - and probably because I was less evolved in my thinking.

Now I've come to see nationalism as one of the most destructive forces in the world - an agent of division, an ever-present rationale for war, the enemy of the cooperative, international, universally-human mindset we need if human civilization is going to survive. And I can no longer distinguish between patriotism and nationalism as some do. If there was a way to see the world's most talented athletes compete another configuration, grouped in some other way than by national flag, I could get behind it. But rah-rah Canada is no better than rah-rah United States. It's us against them, and we're better than they are because we live on this piece of land and they live on that one.

When it comes to the Olympics, nationalism wears a bar code. The Olympics have become one gargantuan extended commercial for Love Of Country, as we are inundated with imprecations to buy, buy, buy - buy to show your pride.

This week I flicked on "The National" for the first time in a long time. They were doing a story on Olympic gear - what's hot, and what everyone is looking for at the various Hudson Bay Company stores, which of course have the exclusive rights to "official" Olympic merchandise. In other words, CBC was running an extended commercial disguised as a news story. The story goes like this. Canadians want to support "our" athletes. We can support our athletes by buying stuff. Buying stuff means you have pride in Canada. Do you love Canada? Do you cheer for Canadian athletes? Then buy stuff.

In this equation, patriotism is inextricable from consumerism. Canadians dutifully march to the store and announce their love of country by exchanging their hard-earned dollars for a bunch of crap with a Maple Leaf sewn on.

Pride in "our" athletes doesn't extend to "our" workers. HBC laid off 1,000 people earlier this year - and their Olympic gear isn't made in Canada. VANOC claims the gear is "produced according to a high level of ethical sourcing and social responsibility," but we have no way of verifying that. Knowing what I do of the garment industry and international standards, I wouldn't put the claim in my shopping basket.

Net proceeds from one item are "helping complete the funding of the five-year Own the Podium 2010 initiative, which provides Canadian athletes with top equipment and training for the 2010 Games". What about all the other items? Who do they help? HBC stockholders. HBC's parent company is the US firm NRDC Equity Partners. That's some slick sleight-of-hand that has Canadian believing that this is somehow a patriotic exchange.

Along with the orgy of nationalistic consumerism comes the corporate branding of Everything Olympic. And for me, nothing is worse than the ominipresent logos of McDonald's and Coca-Cola. Two companies whose names are synonymous with poor nutrition, bad health, environmental destruction and the corporate takeover of the planet are now as integral to the Olympics as starting blocks and skis. But in Canada, there's a Maple Leaf in the middle of that big golden M. See? It's patriotic!

* * * *

Someone will inevitably ask why I eschew the Olympics, but continue to watch major league baseball. Baseball, too, is rife with advertising and consumerism, in a way that often drives me completely around the bend. My answer is simple: I love baseball. Baseball is too important to me to give up, for any reason. I find a relaxation and renewal in the game - especially in the nightly ritual of baseball in our home - that nothing else in my daily life brings. I simply love it too much to allow prevailing cultural winds push me away. I don't claim moral purity. I'm only doing what feels right.

Shortly after we moved to Canada, the 2006 Torino Olympics began. I loved how in Canada "the Olympics" means the winter games. In the US, there are "the Olympics" and the "winter Olympics," which are less hyped and less popular. I was also thrilled to find the greater visibility the Paralympics enjoy here, compared with their near-invisibility in the US. I never cheered for U-S-A U-S-A, but I imagined I'd get into cheering for Canada.

Ah, well. I still think there are aspects of the Olympics worth celebrating. But some things are just more important.

7 comments:

Andrea said...

Ahhhh
sigh
There are those that are soooo anti-Olympic and then there are those who are so happy.
What pisses me off more than anything are those that protest and ruin the joy that many feel about the Olympics.
My step-sister won some contest that allowed her to run a portion of the torch run. She was a lucky one and not marred by the protest on her leg of the run. The guy in the wheel chair who couldn't even do his leg of the run because of the protest - that was just sad and had me fuming mad!
Yes I agree with the cons about the Olympics but then I also agree with all the positives of the Olympics.
Out here the protesters have demeaned themselves in the eyes of many of us who were sitting on the fence about what was right and wrong with these games. Too many have over stepped their bounds and have ruined the pure joy of sport for too many - a lot of them young with hopes and dreams.
will I go to the Olympics even though it is in my back yard? Nope. Cant afford it.
I will watch it on tv though and will cry regardless of who has won and will cheer on my fellow Canadians because I have great pride for what they have accomplished.
I am one of those that believe that sports, along with arts, is one of the most important gifts you can give someone. People from all over come together for the love of a game (or a concert) and all feel the same joy, passion and strive to do their best because of it. I cant find any fault in that.

M. Yass said...

'Round these parts, we've taken to calling them the "Owe-Lympics."

L-girl said...

I'm glad protesters spoiled the torch relay.

As for backlash against protesters, that happens whenever anyone is inconvenienced - be it a garbage strike, blocked traffic or anything else. Protests are fine if they happen somewhere else. I doubt anyone complaining about protesters would have done anything but gone along with the games anyway.

johngoldfine said...

Somewhat off-topic but on the topic of consumerism--whatever else one might say about the MFY, at least they didn't sell the name of their stadium to McDonalds or some other corporation.

For me Olympics are one of sport events I have no interest in watching, though I confess I was once stuck in a hotel room in Portugal for 14 hours a day and the only program I could hope to understand was the Winter Olympics done live in real time from high in the Alps. I saw a lot of skiing!

L-girl said...

whatever else one might say about the MFY, at least they didn't sell the name of their stadium to McDonalds or some other corporation.

Because the name Yankee Stadium is more valuable to them than those other corporate names. They're one of a handful of teams that recognize that.

I remember years ago hearing the mayor of Denver say that about Mile High Stadium.

johngoldfine said...

A few weeks ago a student referred to an outing to Boston to see baseball at "Red Sox Stadium." Some fan, eh? It took all my professionalism not to swap the A he was in the process of earning for an Insta-F.

L-girl said...

A few weeks ago a student referred to an outing to Boston to see baseball at "Red Sox Stadium."

ARGH

Very patient and professional of you!