by: Joy Ellison
Every Olympic year I become a sports fan. Under the glow of the Olympic flame, I’m suddenly eager to watch sports I can barely name. The Super Bowl? Yawn. The Cubs? No thanks. The White Sox? Please. But when it’s time for track and field, gymnastics, and diving, I’m ready to join millions the world over in gaping at unbelievable feats of athletic prowess from the comfort of my couch.
The 2012 Olympics haven’t disappointed. London has served up the same intoxicating sports entertainment I’ve come to expect. The opening ceremonies were replete with flags, Harry Potter, corporate sponsored cell phone hook-ups, and the Queen – all of which I can only assume are very important parts of being British. Then there was the thrill of competition. Gabby Douglas became the first black American woman and the first woman of color to become the individual all-around champion in gymnastics. Palestine was represented in the games for the first time. There’s a reason that NBC pushes these feel-good Olympics stories on us: it’s hard not to love them.
When Kyla Harrison became the first American to win a gold medal in judo, I got excited. Sure, I was excited because I love judo as a sport. I’ve practiced judo off and on for almost ten years and love watching it. But that’s not what I felt. As a radical dissident, patriotism has never appealed to me. But there’s something about watching US women’s sports that made me feel strangely connected to the United States. Almost proud to be an American. That’s when I realized what, behind the sports, the Olympics is all about.
Nationalism. And the Olympics can help us understand its nature and why we must start thinking beyond it.
The Olympics made me realize that nationalism is fun. Nationalism comes with costumes and flags. It has got a sweet soundtrack. The Olympics is nationalism at its most appealing. National pride seems harmless. Even contentious international politics seem cute. At the Olympics, politics take place on a symbolic level. No one gets hurt.
But make no mistake, the nationalist trappings of the Olympics are the same nationalist trappings that convince 18 year-old boys to take up guns and shoot other people in the name of their homeland. That they are a nationalist event alone is not why we need to take a second look at the Olympics. While we are distracted by a sense of patriotism, transnational corporations are keeping their eyes on gold. From Coke to G4S Security, transnational corporations are using the Olympics to pursue profit unfettered by national borders or ethical standards.
Companies with some of the worst human rights and environmental records in the world are making billions of dollars on the London Olympics. Much of the money to be made comes in the form of lucrative contracts from the city of London. Billions of dollars have been taken from human services and handed over to companies who don’t seem to care about human beings and certainly aren’t distracted by national borders.
Take G4S, which won the contract to provide security for the London games. G4S is the world’s largest security company, operating in 125 countries. In the US, they operate for-profit prisons. In the UK, G4S provides security guards at immigration centers where whistleblowers claim the company uses potentially lethal techniques to restrain asylum seekers. In the West Bank, G4S runs checkpoints and prison security systems where the human rights of Palestinians, including child detainees, are routinely violated. G4S took over for military troops in Iraq. They have their eyes on Afghanistan. Now G4S is providing security for the Olympics. As Laurie Penny asked in her column for the Independent, “are we really happy for global security, from prisons to police, to be in the hands of private firms that turn immense profits from the business of physical enforcement and are accountable almost exclusively to their shareholders?”
The Olympics lay bare the rise of neo-liberalism world-wide. Governments of the world are taking money away from social services and handing it to private companies who are happy to make a profit wherever and however they can. These transnational companies have figured out what we are slow to realize: in our increasingly connected world, money trumps nationalism almost every time. If we are to understand what these changes will mean for our lives, we need to start thinking as globally as G4S.
The nationalism of the Olympics may be fun, but there are bigger games afoot.
Joy Ellison is a Master’s degree student in the DePaul University Women’s and Gender Studies program. Joy loves writing, comics, and community organizing and can be followed on Twitter at j_in_tuwani