The Long Arm of the Strongman
How China and Russia Use Sharp Power to Threaten Democracies
Earlier this year, an unknown figure leaked a police recording of a conversation between former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Rio de Janeiro Mayor Eduardo Paes. The candid banter between the two political powerbrokers included a profanity-laced back-and-forth about the upcoming Summer Olympics. Fully enmeshed in Olympic preparations, Paes griped, “You have no idea how I’m suffering, sir. It’s fucked!” Lula replied, “But with all the trouble, dear, you’re still blessed by God with these Olympics, you see, because others…” Paes interjected, “It’s true! True.”Lula continued, “The other mayors I talk to are fucked.”
Five months later, and on the eve of the Games’ opening ceremony, Paes may be feeling a lot like those other mayors. Despite his dedication to pre-cooked talking points about how the Rio Olympics will be “a success for everyone,” the Games hardly look like a blessing. The Olympics have been a budget-buster, with costs catapulting 51 percent over initial estimates. Rio’s waterways, which were supposed to be cleaned before August, remain a toxic cocktail of viruses and antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Body parts washed ashore at Copacabana in the shadow of the beach volleyball arena. During the torch relay, a soldier shot and killed Juma, a jaguar that Olympic organizers had crassly commandeered as a prop.
The problems extend well beyond the Olympics, though. Brazil is mired in its worst economic crisis since the 1930s, with unemployment over 11 percent and inflation on the rise. President Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s handpicked successor from the Workers’ Party, is a Senate vote away from being booted from office. Olympic organizers beseeched the Senate to not hold the vote during the Games, for fear of the countrywide demonstrations that would likely ensue. Despite the apparent assurances of key senators that they’d postpone a vote until after the crowds of athletes, tourists, and journalists left town, anything is possible when it comes to Brazilian politics.
Yet Rio is not the first host city to stage the Games at a moment of political peril. In fact, several Olympics have occurred amid political, economic, and social maelstroms.
Take, for instance, the 1936 Berlin Olympics, where perspicacious mavens of geopolitics could sense peril on the horizon. Initially, the Games were of little interest to Adolf Hitler, who was not yet in power when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose the city in 1931, though in 1932 he did refer to the modern Olympics as “a plot against the Aryan race by Freemasons and Jews.” Once he rose to power, however, propaganda minister Josef Goebbels persuaded him that the contest would be a major opportunity to show off the swastika on the world stage. The Führer was not a fan of sports, but he eventually went along, sinking substantial government funds into the Games in an attempt to convert it into a platform for showcasing putative German superiority.
Hitler’s belief in the genetic supremacy of the “Aryan race” clashed mightily with the principles of goodwill embedded in the Olympic Charter. The year before the Games, Germany had passed the Nuremberg laws, formalizing policies that discriminated against Jews. When IOC President and French Count Henri de Baillet-Latour saw anti-Semitic signs dotting the German landscape, he threatened to cancel the Olympics altogether. The Führer begrudgingly relented, ordering the signs removed, but the laws stayed on the books. Future IOC President Avery Brundage jotted in his personal notes, “Baillet-Latour said to Hitler, ‘You keep your law, I keep my Games.’”
Opposition to the Nazis’ racist propaganda efforts extended far beyond the IOC circuit. In 1933 the Amateur Athletic Union in the United States voted to boycott the Games unless Germany halted anti-Jewish discrimination. Nevertheless, the American Olympic Committee decided to participate after Brundage made a dubious “personal investigation” into the matter. After a quick trip to Germany, where he showed willful gullibility, Brundage found that the German government would not discriminate against Jewish athletes. Not everyone agreed. In early 1935, 43 percent of those polled in the United States still favored a boycott. Had they succeeded, the world would have missed U.S. track star Jesse Owens’ monumental performance. He won four gold medals, debunking Hitler’s drivel about Aryan superiority.
Crisis also struck the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. Just a few weeks before the Games were to commence, security forces massacred hundreds of protesters in the Tlatelolco section of the city. Activists were protesting, among other issues, the misuse of funds for the Olympics, linking the questionable spending to an array of social problems. Radical politics were thrumming around the globe as the Olympics took the stage in Mexico City. Addressing the IOC at the opening session of the 1968 Games, Brundage remarked, “We live today in an uneasy and even rebellious world, a world marked by injustice, aggression, demonstrations, disorder, turmoil, violence and war, against which all civilized persons rebel, but this is no reason to destroy the nucleus of international cooperation and good will we have created in the Olympic movement.” Still, the Games proceeded on schedule.
Only four years later, Brundage was again thrust behind the podium when, at the 1972 Munich Olympics, militants from a group calling itself Black September entered the Olympic Village, kidnapped Israeli athletes and coaches, and executed two of them. This whipsaw saga led to an eventual gun battle in which all the remaining Israelis, five Palestinians, and a German police officer were killed. Again, Brundage demanded that the Games press full steam ahead. He stated, “I am sure that the public will agree that we cannot allow a handful of terrorists to destroy this nucleus of international cooperation and good will we have in the Olympic movement.” In fact, many members of the public did not agree. Nevertheless, Brundage famously demanded, “The Games must go on.” And they did.
Then there were the Salt Lake City Winter Games of 2002, which occurred in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. In addition to contending with the increased threat of terrorism, these Games also had to deal with another crisis: a massive corruption scandal within the IOC. In this sense their climate of disarray closely resembles what we’re seeing in Rio today.
To be sure, the infamous Salt Lake City bribery scandal—which involved the extreme coddling of and gift-giving to IOC members in the hope of securing their votes—was the tip of an Olympic-sized iceberg of corruption. A U.S. congressional subcommittee investigating Olympic malfeasance found that bribery was rampant in Atlanta in the lead-up to the 1996 Summer Games. Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, said, “Atlanta officials and volunteers gave many gifts that were expensive and travel to IOC members… Pages and pages of Cabbage Patch dolls, shopping sprees, carburetor kits, brake pads, jewelry, children’s clothes and shoes, golf clubs, Spode china, computer parts.” For the 1998 Winter Games in Nagano, Japanese bidders had spent an average of $22,000 on more than sixty IOC members whose votes they desired. After the Games, the Nagano bid committee conveniently destroyed all its records, so we’ll never know the full extent of the corruption.
Salt Lake City’s corruption was no aberration, then. Still, the bribery was staggering. To influence IOC members, bidders made more than a thousand expenditures totaling almost $3 million. Congolese IOC member Jean-Claude Ganga pocketed more than $250,000 worth of freebies. During numerous trips to Salt Lake City, Ganga’s mother-in-law scored a knee replacement, his wife underwent cosmetic surgery, and Ganga himself was treated for hepatitis, all courtesy of the bid committee.
Meanwhile, coming so soon after the 9/11 attacks, security concerns topped the agenda during the Games, a trend that continues to this day. In Utah, a 12,000-strong security force policed the Olympics, marshaling biometric surveillance technologies, chemical weapons, and riot gear.
As the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, took place, political turmoil erupted in Ukraine. Before the Games’ closing ceremony, street fighting in Kiev led to dozens of deaths and injuries. The day before the Games wrapped up, Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country. By early March, Russian troops had landed in Crimea, where the local parliament voted to join Russia. On March 7, the first day of the Sochi Paralympic Games, rallies in Russia encouraged the people of Crimea to join Russia. On 16 March, the closing day of the Paralympics, the people voted to do just that. Still, the Games proceeded apace.
Still, the double-whammy political and economic crisis that Brazil is experiencing makes the 2016 Olympics unique. As political scientist Sérgio Praça told The Associated Press, “This is the worst time in Brazilian history to hold the Olympic Games.” He added, “This was supposed to be a great year for Brazil and Rio, but it’s been anything but that—even if the Olympic Games go well.” With Rio’s Metro workers mulling the possibility of going on strike, and a recent poll finding that nearly two-thirds in Brazil believe the Rio 2016 Games will bring “more harm than benefit,” having the competition “go well” is looking more and more unlikely.
But another key element that makes Rio truly unprecedented is that the 2016 Games are occurring amid a wider, slow-motion crisis of the Olympic movement. The five-ring brand has taken a major hit in recent years. Fewer and fewer cities are keen to fork over the funds required to host the high-priced sport gala. In the recent bidding on the 2022 Winter Games, only Almaty, Kazakhstan, and Beijing, China, remained, after citizens in Krakow, Oslo, Stockholm, and elsewhere said “no thanks” to hosting the Games despite showing initial interest. The field for the 2024 Summer Games is down to Budapest, Los Angeles, Paris, and Rome. This means trouble for the Olympics, but it may also mean that bid cities can wield extra leverage over the IOC in the future.