A Neoliberal Trojan Horse: Dave Zirin on the Olympics
Dwyer Murphy talks Rio with the The Nation's Sports Editor
Among sports fans of a certain bent, Dave Zirin’s name is a watchword, a way of seeking out like-minded dissidents and idealists while Sportscenter plays behind the bar on a Tuesday night. In a world dominated by advertising dollars, company men, brand managers, player reps and billionaire owners, Zirin is that rare breed: an old-fashioned progressive. A muckraker. He’s the host of the weekly radio show, Edge of Sports, where he delivers his unabashedly political views at a native New Yorker’s clip. The program, which airs on Sirius XM and in podcast form, has a growing and dedicated audience, but at heart, Zirin is a writer. He pens a regular column (also called Edge of Sports) and serves as The Nation’s (first and only) sports editor. He’s the author of eight books and counting, including What’s My Name Fool: Sports and Resistance in the United States, and A People’s History of Sports in the United States: 250 Years of Politics, Protest, People, and Play, which have made him a standard-bearer for progressive athletes, fans, and scholars, and earned the admiration of legends like Jim Boulton, Frank Deford, Lester Munson, Howard Zinn, and Chuck D.
The Olympics have long been one of Zirin’s favorite subjects, from the 1932 Chicago “Counter Olympics,” supported by the Communist Party USA and held in protest of the official event in Los Angeles, to Muhammad Ali’s gold-medal victory in Rome, to the Black Power salute on the podium in Mexico City. He began covering the Games in 2004, and since that time, as another international spectacle rears up every two-to-four years, readers can count on his informed and deeply felt perspective.
Since the official announcement was made back in 2009, the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro have been a flashpoint for controversy. The construction firms that dominate Brazil’s economy, already at work building infrastructure for the 2014 World Cup, ramped up their plans for an economic overhaul. Favelas and other poor neighborhoods in Rio were sacrificed for stadiums, parking lots, and golf courses. Bribes were paid. Police power was abused. Pollution and health concerns emerged.
In 2014, Zirin went to Brazil, where massive street demonstrations were forming to protest the abuses of public trust. In 2016, he returned, this time as a corruption scandal spread like wildfire across the country’s seats of power, and as President Dilma Roussef was stripped of her official duties, with the Brazilian Senate voting to launch an impeachment trial. Zirin spoke with locals and international officials, activists and politicians, writers and athletes. Out of those experiences, he wrote Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, The Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, now with a new edition released in anticipation of the Summer Games.
I spoke with Zirin recently about the ongoing upheaval in Brazil, his literary forebears, and what happens to modern athletes and sports writers who speak out.
Dwyer Murphy: I want to start by asking about your time in Brazil. This book was built out of reporting trips you made before the World Cup in 2014, and again, this year, in the lead-up to the Olympics. Those are two critical periods in contemporary Brazilian history. I wonder, in that span, what were the changes you found most striking?
Dave Zirin: One difference is that during this visit, the level of political crisis was just off the page. The President, Dilma Rousseff, was being impeached the week I was there. It was a madhouse. Nobody knew where any of the pieces were going to land. The second thing that was very different, of course, is that Brazil is in a period of deep economic contraction, its biggest recession in decades. That’s in stark contrast to my first time in Brazil, when the country was on the cover of The Economist with a picture of the Cristo statue taking off from a mountain. There was some uncertainty about the future of the economy then, but now everything is being slashed brutally. That raises a lot of questions, and also fear, about public health, crime, and what will happen to the infrastructure that was built up while the country was on an economic roll. When you couple all that with the Olympics and the demand that comes along with the Games, there are just so many layers of uncertainty right now.
DM: You’ve described the Olympics and other worldwide sporting events like the World Cup as “neoliberal Trojan horses” ushering in debt, displacement and militarization of public spaces. It’s an evocative phrase and a chilling concept, and I wondered if you could explain how, in your view, that mechanism—this Trojan horse—operates?
DZ: The starting point is a line that John Carlos, the ‘68 Olympian, said to me: the reason why they only have the Olympics every four years is because “it takes them that long to count the money.” Countries accrue debt coming out of the Olympics, but that burden tends to fall on the backs of the poor, not the wealthy. You have displacement, but that displacement actually can serve to gentrify cities. Olympic infrastructure tends to be put in working class areas, because rich people would never tolerate that disruption in their lives. Afterwards, those areas become developed and people get pushed aside. And then with Rio there’s something particularly pernicious and that’s the return of Olympic golf. Golf needs land. The IMF and World Bank have long told countries in the developing world that they should have golf resorts, because it’s a way to bring in foreign tourists and currency. So that’s another part of the Olympics. You create this tourist mecca that reimagines what work is for working-class people. It’s not industry, and it’s not union work. It’s service work. The jobs the Olympics create, after the construction, are almost entirely service work. It tends to be low pay and flexible. These are the hallmarks of neoliberal economies. These countries are trying to drastically reorganize their economies. Usually they need a war or a hurricane to do that, but those are risky and difficult to plan. The Olympic Games—that’s something you can plan for.
DM: This isn’t just a developing world issue, though. A lot of people seem to want to chalk this up to the events being in Rio, Beijing, and South Africa, but you describe similar forces at work in places like London, which hosted the last Summer Games.
DZ: I was asked that just the other night at an event in DC. This well-meaning, kind, good person raised his hand and asked, based on what’s happening in Rio, do you think countries in the developing world shouldn’t host the Olympics? It’s kind of a stunning question. First it otherizes Rio, and turns it into something far and remote and dysfunctional. And interestingly, when I interviewed Eduardo Paes, the mayor of Rio, and asked him how things were going, he immediately launched into this message—we’re not New York, this is the developing world, and any rough spots you see are a product of that. What that narrative does is completely overshadow the fact that these issues—debt, displacement and police violence—crop up wherever the Olympics goes. The only things that change are the languages used to describe it and the people protesting it. So when we start talking about Olympic injustices as if that just occurs in Beijing because that’s a dictatorship, or just in Sochi because of Putin, or just in Rio because Rio is in the developing world, it ends up becoming farce.
DM: Let’s take a step back and talk about your history with the Olympics. You’ve reported on the Games throughout your career. You mentioned John Carlos before. You co-authored a book with Carlos about his and Tommie Smith’s protest, raising black-gloved fists on the podium in Mexico City in ‘68. Obviously the Olympics are in your wheelhouse, since you write about sports and politics. Was there a moment that galvanized you and started to shape your view of the Games?
DZ: It relates to somebody who’s been in the news lately: Muhammad Ali. I was young watching the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta. Seeing Muhammad Ali light the torch while Bill Clinton clapped for him, and seeing Ali accepted into the community of nations, the same community that had rejected him when he became a rebel against war and racism, that was really striking to me. I saw the way the Olympics were being used. And at that same time, I read an article in Sports Illustrated—a very standard SI article—that pointed out, as an aside, that an ally of Dr. King’s, Hosea Williams, was outside the Olympic facilities protesting because housing had been demolished, and young black men had been unjustly imprisoned as a way to get Atlanta ready for the Games. It was that contrast—of Clinton cheering Ali and Hosea Williams outside with a picket sign—that got me to thinking about the Olympic Games in a way that was not just critical, but curious. I was curious about the symbolism, and the gap between the symbols and the reality. The Olympics projects itself as this engine of peace, and there’s all this talk of an Olympic movement and bringing people together in a world rife with divisions, yet the Games land in countries and displace people and hold them up at gunpoint while gentrification ensues. That gap was really striking to me. In 2000, the Olympics were in Australia, and that was a relatively placid affair. I didn’t think about it too much. Then there was 9/11 which added security concerns to the Games. The first post-9/11 Summer Games were in Athens, and I was a young writer then. That’s when my motor really got going.
The Olympics projects itself as this engine of peace, and there’s all this talk of an Olympic movement and bringing people together in a world rife with divisions, yet the Games land in countries and displace people and hold them up at gunpoint while gentrification ensues.
DM: You hold a rare position in the world of sports writing. You’re seen as being outside of the mainstream, maybe because the mainstream is more or less defined by the league PR offices and the corporate behemoth in Bristol, Connecticut. There just aren’t many people out there looking critically at the social dynamics and politics of sports. For readers and listeners who enjoy that kind of engaged sports journalism, who are the great practitioners? Which writers did you learn the trade from?
DZ: First and foremost, I’d say Mike Marqusee, who wrote the book Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties. He was a columnist for The Guardian who passed away in January of 2015. We miss Mike terribly, and obviously I’ve been thinking of Mike a lot since Ali died. Actually, I just got a call from Verso Books saying they have to do a rush reprint of Redemption Song because of the level of interest since Ali’s death. Marqusee was just ahead of his time and brilliant. But then you go back to the 1930s and there’s Lester Red Rodney, who was the sports editor of The Daily Worker. In my book, What’s My Name Fool, the first chapter is called, “It All Starts with Lester Rodney.” That’s not to say Lester Rodney created the concept of having a political perspective on sports, but he did create the concept, as far as I can see, of being a writer trying to chronicle the political questions in sports. You didn’t see that before Rodney. Sports writing was considered the bottom rung of journalism. Or else you saw the Damon Runyon-esque writing—”there I was with this dame, smoking and watching the fight…”—which didn’t capture the politics at all. Another aspect of Lester Rodney is that he was able to develop relationships with people in the black press, people like Sam Lacy, heroes of the black press who were taking on difficult questions. They exchanged articles about segregation and racial issues in sports writing. That was the kind of writing I was attracted to when I was a young writer, looking back through the archives. Later, as the world opened up in the late 1960s and early 70s, there were other writers like Bob Lipstye and the late great Ralph Wiley: writers who really did try to intersperse politics and sports.
I didn’t come up with anything out of whole cloth. The only thing different about my work was that before I took it up, there was a little hiatus in people writing this way.
DM: Still, given today’s sports writing climate, it was a leap to think this could work.
DZ: Let me be clear: I didn’t think it would work. I was a third grade teacher who was getting married. My wife was a teacher, too, and we decided that we shouldn’t both be teachers. She said, Look, we’re going to have a family soon, so this is your window to figure out what it is you really want to do. And I said, I want to write a political sports column. So I got a job at a small newspaper on the Eastern shore, and I did everything for them. All I asked in return for being a real nose to the grindstone person was the space to write a political sports column. That was my ambition. I just wanted to do something that would make me happy to wake up in the morning.
DM: You open several of the chapters in this latest book with quotes from Eduardo Galeano, the great Uruguayan novelist, journalist, historian and soccer writer. How did you come across Galeano’s work? What did it mean to you during this project?
DZ: Galeano is one of the most lyrical, beautiful writers in any language. I don’t know anyone else who can make history read like poetry the way he does. When I started fancying myself a political sports writer, I realized the fact I didn’t know anything about soccer was a problem, since soccer is the most politicized and global sport. I needed a crash course in learning and loving soccer, and a friend told me the first thing I should read was Soccer in Sun and Shadow by Galeano. I’d read Open Veins of Latin America, but I had no idea he’d written a soccer book. I went from being a Galeano fan to an acolyte. It occurred to me when I was writing this book about Brazil and the World Cup and the Olympics that I wanted it to be a kind of tribute to Galeano and in the tradition of Soccer in Sun and Shadow.
DM: In a recent podcast you were talking with Kavitha Davidson, who recently published an article about Muhammad Ali and degenerative brain diseases for Rolling Stone, about how scandalized the American sporting public is today when its athletes take political stands, whether it’s a #BlackLivesMatter t-shirt, or Dwight Howard talking about Palestine. Fans—and many in the media—seem to want to put athletes in their place. To a certain extent, I think sports writers get the same treatment. There’s this attitude out there that sports people aren’t equipped to talk politics.
DZ: I mean, in a way I’m glad that’s the landscape, because that’s what makes it powerful when somebody does speak out. If it were an accepted free-for-all, these statements would have the effect of George Clooney at the Oscars talking about the Sudan. But when it’s rare, and it takes courage, it matters. It matters when an athlete takes a stand, or when my friend Jemele Hill goes on ESPN to say that people have to stop acting like the Muslim world owns the patent on homophobia, which is what she said after the Orlando shooting. That matters, just like it mattered for Ali to stand up.
DM: Coming back to Brazil and Rio, a lot of your research was done on the ground in favelas, in the neighborhoods where people were being cleared out to make way for development connected to the World Cup and the Olympics. In the book, you seemed to be working hard to describe these endangered communities and their plight without romanticizing the poverty and the hardship these people endure.
DZ: You have to be careful; I talk about that explicitly in the book. It’s a difficult balance, and I’m not saying I did it perfectly, but the compass has to be self-determination. What do the people in these communities want? What I found in Rio was that often they wanted to stay because they built these places up themselves. But that certainly wasn’t every case. Some of the favelas are in terrible shape. When the government says it wants to clear the land, and here’s some government housing that’s clean and safe, with running water, some people consider it a miracle. But I want to be clear, that’s a minority of cases, not the majority. Even within that minority—and this is something I found out during my last visit, when I got to talk with a lot of people I knew who had been displaced since I was there previously—a lot of people expected there to be a key exchange. They owned their place in the favela, because of the squatters’ rights law, and they thought they would be given a new key and would own their new place in government housing too. What they found instead was that the bank owned the note on their new home, and they had to deal with the realities of a mortgage for the first time. So even in the best situation, where somebody is leaving a place that’s dire, dangerous and dirty for somewhere safe, they find themselves in a new kind of debtor’s prison. This is where we get to my limitations. I don’t understand banking laws, or Brazilian banking capital, so I don’t understand how they’re doing this. But I would challenge you to do a Google search: nobody’s writing about this. What happens when you move into new housing and find yourself with no power relative to the bank or the government service that has a note on your home?
The compass has to be self-determination. What do the people in these communities want?
DM: In the media coverage of the lead-up to Rio 2016, Zika has taken over. Displacement was a major story for a while, but now it’s mostly pushed aside. I went through the Guardian recently and counted seven Zika stories to one about housing. How do you think the virus has factored into the narrative about Rio’s pre-Olympics troubles?
DZ: When I was down in Rio, talking with people, interviewing them, asking them about their concerns and fears, nobody mentioned Zika. It was incredible. This is an obsession in the First World, not in Brazil. Brazilians have already been living with the fear of dengue for decades. I’m not saying that Zika fears amount to some sort of hysteria. They’re very real, particularly for those who want to have kids. But if you’re in Brazil, and you hear people saying “There’s no way I’m going there in August, because of the mosquitoes,” or “This is going to cause a global pandemic,” you have to wonder, What the hell are they talking about? August is winter in Brazil. A million people just visited Rio in February, at the height of mosquito season, for Carnivale. The wine is already out of the bottle. Two-hundred thousand people are going to visit for the Olympics. It’s going to be 60, 65 degrees. Now there are incredible rain forests right in the middle of Rio, and people who do eco-tourism in that kind of area will of course increase their risk of coming into contact with mosquitoes. But if you’re confining yourself to a luxury hotel and going to the Olympics, then back to your luxury hotel, you might not see an ant let alone a mosquito, because these luxury places are going to be fumigated within an inch of their lives. I want to be really clear—I’m not minimizing the tragedy of these births whatsoever. But the conversation about Zika strikes me as a little paternalistic. Reading some of the coverage, it reminds me of when Ronald Reagan was at a state dinner in Brazil in 1982. He raised his glass to give a toast and said, “To Bolivia!” People just have no idea about the reality of this country.
DM: One final question. Are you going to be watching the Olympics?
DZ: I am going to watch because to report on it successfully, you have to know the stories happening inside and outside the Games and the interplay between the two. Also, I’ll be watching because I think so much of Olympic sport is beautiful. It’s one of the only times we get to celebrate women in sports in a serious way, and one of the only times we get to partake in the diversity of the sports that are out there. I always appreciate and like that. I just wish we could have the Olympics a la carte.