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The Fantasy of an Olympics Without Politics


London Summer Games 2012

CREDIT: Flickr

"For the first time since the end of the empire, it truly feels like the capital of the world," said London Mayor Boris Johnson. The Olympics are over, and as on every other occasion, they were celebrated as a golden opportunity for a non-political meeting of nations – a time for setting aside differences and focusing on universal commonalities.

Johnson's comments, however, point to the political scaffolding holding the whole thing up – the Olympics are an exercise in showcasing fabricated national narratives, which, like this year's opening ceremony, focus on what feels good while editing out unpleasant truths about colonialism and oppression. When it comes to the Paralympics, which ended last week, the feel-good narratives play a particularly powerful role – sometimes, as self-identified disabled writer s. e. smith points out, perpetuating stereotypes about those they intend to celebrate.

Critiques of the Olypics are often dismissed as unpatriotic; nothing more than "humourless miserable lefties who want to turn a great sporting occasion into a political football." The International Olympic Committee, even, has tried its best keep the Games politically untainted, like when they opted out of holding a moment of silence for the eleven athletes killed at the 1972 Munich Olympics because their death was associated with a political act, for example.

Despite efforts, rules, and even threats of disqualification, people–for better or worse–have always found a way to politicize the event/

Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter reads, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The rule gained a lot of attention in London, when the International Olympic Committee was threatened Damien Hooper, an Aboriginal Australian light-heavyweight boxer, with disqualification because he wore a shirt with the Aboriginal flag before a match.

The IOC ultimately decided not to take action, leaving disciplining up to their Australian counterpart. The situation raised some interesting questions about what kind of politics are accepted at the Olympics, and why we continue to be invested in the illusion that an event so grounded in nationalism and corporate sponsorship could ever be devoid of politics

The IOC allows “positive” political statements, if they’re cleared beforehand, but Damien Hooper's case demonstrated that the IOC has a fairly narrow definition of positive statements – i.e. nationalism is positive if it reinforces prevailing notions of what it means to be a nation, but not if it subverts them or acts as a resistance to colonialism.

Another example, of the scrutiny and racist commentary gold-medalist gymnast Gabby Douglas faced online and on air, tips us off to the lie our nation tells itself about living in a post-racialized world, reflected in the naïve statements by commentators, like Bob Costas about her achievement being part of a world where identity politics are no longer relevant. In reality, being a person of color competing at the Games, especially in historically white events like gymnastics, will continue to come with burdens of representation that go beyond the act of being part of a national team.

It seems that what is acceptable politics at the Olympics, is the erasure of colonial violence and structural racism in favor of feel-good, faux-progressive statements along the lines of “why can’t we just get along?”

s. e. smith took issue with language used by well-meaning, non-disabled spectators (something others have termed "inspiration porn"), to discuss how inspiring the Paralympics are to them in an article called "Disabled People Are Not Your Inspiration."

She writes:

People seem to think they’re “honoring diversity” or some such when they do this, but there’s a fundamental disconnect between inspiration porn and recognizing the basic humanity of disabled people. People who insist that we’re so inspiring are turning us into objects, not people. There’s no room for disability rights, disability pride or even basic respect in this framework.

As long as we keep disguising the Olympics as a politics-free zone, we condone the censorship of political statements which raise uncomfortable truths, and ignore the realities of the context within which those statements occur. The Olympics and Paralympics are not events magically detached from systems of oppression, but when we talk about them that way in order to capture nationalistic moods that can be bottled and commodified, we only allow commentators and organizers to perpetuate those systems of oppression within the events themselves.

Pauline Holdsworth is a reporter for Campus Progress. Follow her on Twitter at @holdswo.

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