A CASE FOR KILLING THE OLYMPICS

It’s a $600 million cake even Drapeau shouldn’t expect us to eat

JOHN McMURTRY January 1 1973

A CASE FOR KILLING THE OLYMPICS

It’s a $600 million cake even Drapeau shouldn’t expect us to eat

JOHN McMURTRY January 1 1973

As with all institutions, the Olympic Games have a rhetoric of self-praise. So we hear a great deal about the games embodying in action the human quest for excellence and perfect form. About their bringing together the nations of the earth in peace, harmony and common pursuit. And about their holding up to us all global models of dedication, courage and skill.

These words can certainly grip the heart. The ideals they flourish seem so self-evidently fine that the body tends to shiver a little at the feeling of them. So much so that one wants to move from the deep chords they stir to the opinion that the Olympic Games we have actually exemplify such ideals — like some precious flash of light every four years in a generally darkening world.

The problem is so many vicious realities about the games keep intruding into one’s illusions about them. I think, for example, of the hundreds of demonstrators gunned down by police during the Olympic preparations in Mexico City in 1968; with little but lying counts of the dead and homilies on law and order emanating from the Olympic-opiated scene. (“We have been assured,” said the International Olympic Committee during the slaughter, “that nothing will interfere with the peaceful entry of the Olympic flame nor with the competitions that follow.”) I’ve been told, too, by Canadian runner Abby Hoffman that the response of a number of athletes to the Israel-Palestine tragedy at Munich was, in fact, relief: it meant they had a little more time before their events. “Forget the blood, everybody,” the idea seems to be, “the Roman Circus is in town.”

Then, of course, it’s difficult to miss the stench of jingoism excited by the Olympics. Nationalistic gesture permeates just about every phase of the games; flags, anthems, uniforms and nation scores measure and punctuate the action like a military exercise. If any athlete breaks national rank — as the black winners in the 400 meters have in both 1968 and 1972 by not assuming soldier postures during the post-race American victory anthems — he is almost certain to be persecuted as a national pariah. (In 1968, the fist-raising black runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos were immediately kicked off the American team, expelled from the Olympic Village as well as from all further Olympic competition, and given 48 hours by the Mexican state to leave the country.) For their part, the news media of every country broaden and deepen the whole nation-state regimen with a selective attention and solicitude for their country’s athletes that would excite snorts of laughter were they not so reminiscent of the propaganda that precedes wars. As for the official Canadian attitude toward such media chauvinism, it’s indicated by the remark of Bill Cox, a vice president of the Canadian Olympic Association and chairman of its Communications Services: “Short of a world war, there is no bigger forum for our country than the Olympics.” Typically this attitude mimics that of big brother America: the American Broadcasting Company, for example, sent 250 people to cover the 1968 winter games at Grenoble — more than the entire American team — on the grounds that the “only time all nations get in uniform is for war or the Olympics.”

Acting as a sort of microcosm of this nationalistic glory tournament is the struggle for spotlight among the athletes themselves. Here too the grammar of the situation is imposed by Olympic regulation — formal king-of-the-castle podiums and ceremonies after every final event, recognition of top-finishing competitors only, and medal mania. And here too the media — not to mention the fans, both in the stands and back home — dramatically reinforce the formal mechanics of the victory-for-self imperative with words of pity for the great majority, the losers, and worshipping praise for a tiny minority, the winners.

This approach seemed reduced to absurdity in the 1972 Olympics when seven-gold-medalist Mark Spitz, who was really only best at two strokes of swimming, alone received more recognition and applause from the U.S. media than all the thousands of other athletes who had come from every reach of the human race. The message was pointed — being top dog is pretty much all that matters. Or, to use the more specific words of Mark Spitz’s father to Mark Spitz, “Swimming isn’t everything, winning is.”

Possibly the most distressing aspect of all this is how the athletes themselves get into it. They seem to conceive of their very identities as depending on where they end up in this ego-trip machinery. They appear to really believe that their success as people, let alone as sportsmen, stands or falls with what they do inside the isolated and official Olympic frame.

Even when one takes a deliberately naive stance and considers the Olympics from the perspective of athletic performance alone, the reality is mean spirited. On the surface, there is undeniably beautiful and inspiring human action — the courageous grace and explosive effort that has fixed me, for one, in a trance before the TV set for hours. But beneath the surface, one can’t miss the anti-athletic phenomena. There’s the grotesquely one-sided development of physique which accompanies the increasing specialization and fragmentation of events (imagine how well a shot-putter could run the mile). There’s the universal commitment to dreary drill and routine that usurps the very nature of “sport” which, as its etymology makes clear, is properly a spontaneous rejoicing in bodily expression (one Olympic swimmer once told me that his experience had actually taught him to hate swimming — a not surprising result given the common Olympic-athlete schedule of training seven hours a day at one event for years on end). There’s the preoccupation with winning that often so successfully distracts athletes from the performance itself that they are too tied up to let go (recall the reported “choke-ups” of great athletes like Jim Ryun); the same preoccupation can also make athletes so antagonistic toward their fellow competitors that they are happy to discover any means they can to beat them (for example, the groin kneeing and body grabbing that go on in Olympic water polo contests). Then there’s the elitism that manages in one way or another to discourage the vast majority of people from any sport activity except watching others from a seat (consider the shockingly poor fitness ratings — Canada’s 30-year-old males have the same rating as 60-year-old Swedes — of spectatorist countries like Canada and the U.S.). And there’s the command relationship between coach and athlete, which so destroys fun and autonomy that continuing to call what happens “sport” seems obscene (the Japanese girl volleyball team, for instance, seems admired for the way its coach maintains discipline by making offending players weep with humiliation and pain in practice: he instructs the other girls to shout and drill volleyballs at anyone who fails to perform his orders correctly).

Lest anyone respond to all this with romantic invocations of the past and the “classical” notions of sport, remember that the founders of the Olympics, the ancient Greeks, were not much more enlightened. The Olympic events were originally founded on war skills — spear throwing, running, hand-to-hand fighting and so on — and they were approved most of all for the training they encouraged in this respect. Indeed, Plato and Aristotle more or less rejected such athletics, not because they were warlike but because they did not drill for war well enough. As for the jingoistic dimension of the Olympics, the ancient Hellenic states are said to have regarded a victory by one of their citizens as of similar status to a state victory by the sword. As today, this national glory seeking had its individual counterpart: only free Greeks (not women or slaves) were allowed to compete and victory or loss was regarded even more intensely as great honor or great disgrace. As for lavish rewards for the winners, they may have been even more spectacular than today with such things as income-for-life grants to those who emerged on top. In fact, the ancient Olympics were eventually banned by the Romans for being too professionalized.

None of this will surprise those who know much about the ancient and bellicose roots of our Western culture. Much like contemporary society, things then, too, tended to be run along the lines of antagonistic contest for personal status — drama festivals ánd philosophical intercourse as well as dirty politics and imperialism. Much like now, too, this fury to distinguish the self in conflict gave rise to considerable fear and hate, as the term agon — the Greek word for “contest” and the root of our word “agony”— suggests. The Olympic Games themselves merely reflected this general culture pattern — appropriately in honor of Zeus, the absolute power whose single principle of life was glorification of himself.

Well, given all the inhumanities of the Olympic enterprise snarling beneath the gloss of spectacular entertainment and official rhetoric, what uplifts can we hope for? When I first started writing this piece my head spun with possibility. I thought of the noble principle of amateurism — giving freely of one’s talents — being universalized across the Olympic event. With everyone from stadium workers to hotel owners, from television companies to the athletes themselves uniting in voluntary gift of their abilities to a global audience. I thought of the surplus wealth that would be set free by such a great effort of communal grace being dedicated to ever more play areas, greening the face of our cement-and-steel cities. With the greening beginning in the places I think we really owe — like Hanoi and Calcutta — and spreading across the globe with each Olympics like a gathering summer day. I thought of the king-of-the-castle podiums, flag waving, anthems and nation scores being dropped from the games altogether in favor of a real world “meet.”

With all the competitors rejoicing together after the events as a human community in celebrative harmony undivided by egotistic or nationalistic barriers. And I thought of all the events themselves as embodying a new kind of competition where the goal ceased to be victory of the self or of the nation state and became instead a human effort to overcome past limits of physical expression. With contestants vying together to achieve the greatest performance ever of human speed, endurance, daring and strength. In short, I imagined an Olympics lifting us out of the rat race of our everyday life and clasping hands above the fight as a new and visible world symbol of what the human soul truly yearns to be.

Such were my hopes.

But then I looked into the nitty-gritty of the Olympics. The scratch, the money. How much it costs, who benefits and who loses. After that, any illusions I had lèft were dissolved by the clang and snatch of silver.

In the Munich Olympics, the estimated cost of the games started off at $150 million. Then began the familiar pattern of escalation — cost after cost being added onto the backs of taxpayers to the music of politicians, sports barons and building developers giving justification and excuses. By the time the Munich games ended, the most conservative estimate of total cost was $600 million. To be borne by the German people, paying off federal, state and municipal governments. When calculated on a per-Olympic-minute basis, the Germans ended up having to pay almost $30,000 a minute for the privilege of hosting the two-week spectacle.

The same sort of thing happened in Mexico and Tokyo, and the same sort of thing is happening now in Canada for the scheduled ’76 Olympics in Montreal. In all these places, too, the big con that “we’ll get it all back from tourists and the future use of facilities” spun out from the promoters. In fact, no such thing happened. For example, the Mexican Olympics got only a little more than a third of the tourists the promoters predicted. What’s more, the Olympic Village apartments, which were supposed to be sold after the games to big companies for tourist accommodation, just didn’t sell. The Mexican government tried to get rid of them at $25,000 a shot to the Mexican privileged, but didn’t have much luck (there aren’t that many Mexican privileged). Further, the predicted tourist boom to follow the Olympics ended up as a tourist slump for two months (the same phenomenon occurred in Rome and Tokyo and after Montreal’s Expo). As for Munich, the mayor of this city began by justifying the hosting of the games as a massive public works project to alleviate some of his worst municipal problems. But he ended up with new problems: bloody police-guerilla shoot-outs and German army patrols in the streets.

The public works projects planned for Montreal are pretty massive, too, even though Mayor Jean Drapeau — whose city still owes the federal government $123 million for Expo — started off in 1968 with a cost prediction for the Olympics of $ 10 to $ 15 million. Drapeau now seems at best incompetent when his projected 1976 figure turns out to have been one-fortieth the amount spent by Munich in 1972. He has since increased his estimate (to $126 million, one report said), but, as of this writing, has been systematically ambivalent about overall costs. The Quebec government, for its part, has estimated that Drapeau’s Olympics will cost $300 million, excluding the cost of the Olympic Village which it places at $120 million. Since the Quebec government’s total estimate, $420 million, does not allow for inflation in building costs, one can conservatively figure the final price to be about $600 million.

Now the Bourassa government has agreed to support the Montreal Olympics — but has never said how much this support will amount to. The federal government, at this writing, has made no significant commitment in the face of an expenditure best indicated by The Financial Post's calculation of the interest charges on the Olympic Village alone: $309 million (at 8 1/4% over 25 years).

As far as the social worth of this enormous outlay of money is concerned, Drapeau’s most plausible defense seems to be that one project, the Olympic Village, will eventually provide 4,000 housing units for Montreal’s poor. Yet he must know that even here his justification lacks credibility. For he must know that his plan to scatter the Olympic Village units throughout Montreal will not meet the International Olympic Committee’s requirements for a single unified village — Lord Killanin, the IOC’s new president, has as much as said so. And if Drapeau doesn’t scatter those units he’ll have difficulty getting the financing he’s reportedly counting on to build the village in the first place. He’s expecting to get the money from the federal government’s Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation and CMHC is not interested in a single unified development in urban Montreal. So either the CMHC will have to lower its standards of housing the poor or Drapeau is going to be without the funds he counts on for the Olympic Village. In either case, the prospects are not promising for the 12,000 to 15,000 people who are supposed to be getting a decent place to live.

What is even more vexing in this whole situation is that the problems already diseasing Montreal, poverty and pollution, are receiving brutally inadequate attention. For example, a recent study for the Montreal City Health Department of 3,400 urban core schoolchildren found that more than half of them were physically ill, most suffering from upper respiratory and skin diseases. Ten percent of these children required hospital treatment. In one school, 21% of the students were undernourished, 41% emotionally disturbed and 51% lived in houses with inadequate sanitation facilities. For further example, the Quebec government’s Health and Welfare Commission, in its 1971 report, said that of 42,939 houses in six sectors of Montreal, 6,981 were found to be “uninhabitable” and 20,612 “substandard.” For even further instance, Montreal’s air is “past danger limits” (according to the commission), the city dumps 300 million gallons of raw sewage into the St. Lawrence every day and scores of Quebec municipalities have polluted drinking water. Yet the amount being spent on these problems — remember now that the Montreal Olympic costs are already estimated at $600 million — is typified by Quebec province’s entire 1971-72 budget for the environment: $12.3 million. Or, comparatively, Montreal spent less than one quarter as much as Metro Toronto for sewage treatment and the removal of solid waste during the fiscal year 1969.

As one becomes aware of all these things, it gets more and more difficult to still in oneself a rise of savage indignation. But the story isn’t finished. One has to ask how this grotesque inversion of priorities could possibly happen, ask who could possibly want it to happen. It would be a mistake to think that it springs from some mere social perversity of our citizens. After all, the games enterprise was not initiated by Canadians generally. No, it’s been brought to Canada by an interested few, though all Canadians through their federal taxes are going to have to pay a good part of its more than $600-million tab; nothing indicates that Montreal is in anything like the financial position to raise that kind of money (an amount, one suddenly realizes, that would cover our notorious Unemployment Insurance deficit for the first six months of ’72 more than twice over). Since the games seem so obviously against the interests of the general population, who stand to lose a great deal from them and gain almost nothing, one must press the question. Who does stand to benefit from the Montreal Olympics of 1976? Who owns the real interest in having them here?

On the surface, there’s the simple glory that is captured by the politicians who promote and figurehead a great world event. Recall how — before the bills came in — Drapeau was being touted as a national hero and possible future prime minister for his role in bringing Expo to Montreal.

Then there’s the different sort of glory of the few athletes who come out on top. Not to mention the future pocket-filling they may secure by their performances, such as the $500,000 Ice Follies contract offered skater Peggy Fleming, the Mars bars and auto ad rewards of Nancy Greene Raine and the lucrative Hollywood offers for Mark Spitz.

Then, of course, there’s the first-class free rides for thousands of people who control, coach, officiate and ballyhoo the games. The Canadian Olympic Association, for example, is pressing for a massive infusion of federal government money for its $10-million-a-year plan to train about 300 athletes over the next four years (at a time when 85% of our adult population has been classified as sedentary by a 1971 Department of Health and Welfare survey).

And then, too, there’s the wonderful advertising context the games provide for the mass marketing of merchandise: in the last Olympics, it was fast and powerful cars — and deodorants — that were made out to look like gold medal surrogates for consumer television watchers.

But only a part of the hundreds of millions of dollars to be spent on the Montreal Olympics will go to these people. The real bulk expenditures of the games are earmarked for others, namely, big business builders. Consider the construction costs: $50 to $70 million for the stadium alone, another $120 million for the Olympic Village, and hundreds of millions more for such things as better transportation routes to and from the games and a lavish media centre to house the expected 4,000 newsmen from around the world. As we all know, these building enterprises — worthwhile or not — will make money for, most of all, building enterprisers. Perhaps this is the reason why civic politicians everywhere seem so anxious to get the Olympic Games into their cities. Not only can they ingratiate themselves thereby with hometown building magnates but with powerful merchants, too, who stand to make a good deal from stepped-up sales at stepped-up prices. It’s enough to cause the big-business members of the city’s Chamber of Commerce to come to their feet in excitement. And, as politicians recognize well, local big businessmen are valuable allies in paying for elections.

Of course, it’s not hard to figure out that, given the chance, ambitious builders and merchants — who are among our society’s most powerful and influential members — are going to press hard to encourage a tax-supported project that can bring them millions in windfall contracts and sales. It’s a local pork barrel beyond parallel. (However, one profession within the building industry, the architects, are not going to get their fair share out of it; Drapeau bypassed all the talent in the country and hired Roger Taillebert, from France, to design the stadium complex.)

Builders and merchants, though, will not.be the only special benefactors from a tax-supported Olympics. One must note that Montreal’s privately owned Expos are presently required to provide a stadium seating more than 40,000 as a condition of their National Baseball League franchise. The Olympics will provide, by coincidence, just such a stadium, 80,000 seats at an estimated cost of $50 to $70 million. (Montreal’s ordinary sports budget, it’s worth mentioning, usually fluctuates between five and eight million dollars.) Perhaps, merely by further coincidence, Jerry Snyder, an ex-city councillor who was the main mover in bringing the Expos to Montreal, is in charge of Montreal’s Olympic preparations. Snyder, furthermore, talks a lot about a National Football League team for his city. So even apparently neutral multimillion-dollar expenditures for Montreal’s projected Olympics — such as the improved subways and roads which will go to and from the new stadium — seem to have a place in the scheme of it all.

At an Ottawa press conference last April, Prime Minister Trudeau remarked while answering questions about Montreal’s ’76 Olympics, “You smell a rat and so do I.” Some time earlier, a confidential memorandum to then Urban Affairs Minister Robert Andras from a special assistant in his department said: “Although strategies might be devised to minimize adverse reaction in the rest of the country, it would seem unavoidable that significant political costs [from federal support to a ’76 Olympics in Montreal] would be incurred. Within Quebec and Montreal, another Expo-type false boom would seem likely along with further distortion of social priorities and a further alienation of socially aware elements.”

Perhaps predictably, the memorandum, as disclosed in the Toronto Globe and Mail, goes on to say: “Our relationship with Drapeau and Bourassa would be reinforced,” a nice “image” could be generated and “significant employment” (here the earlier recognition of “false boom” disappears) would be created. Given that such political advantages as these are “imaginatively handled,” the memorandum concludes, the scheme is okay.

So it’s unclear, at this writing, whether the Liberals are going to ride along with the Olympic plan (or, for that matter, whether the opposition is going to let them). But if they do, those who matter will be happy — building businessmen, merchants, the Olympic hierarchy, sports barons, “progress” politicians and so on — except for the “socially aware” elements. But since the latter are likely to remain a small minority that can probably be brushed aside in the usual way as agitated misfits, and since it can be more or less counted on that most Canadian people will go along with almost anything (after all, they stood for the legal deprivation of their civil liberties by the War Measures Act after two political kidnappings), it’s reasonable to expect that there won’t be any trouble that can’t be handled. Even if there is trouble, Mexico and Munich have shown that the police and army can step in and “pacify” the situation with most people’s support. Modern citizens, Canadians as much as anybody, love sport spectacles and dislike rebels. So what have the established interests in the Montreal Olympics got to lose?

Let’s take an overview of it all. In an important sense, the projected ’76 Olympics represent, for me anyway, most of the problems of contemporary society in a pure-type form. Enormous rip-offs, personal and national glory hunger, luxury expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in the face of squalor, pollution and bad health, and an apathetic citizenry that has learned to spectate rather than express. In an important sense then, too, what Canadians do about these projected Olympics will represent whether or not we are going to continue to give in to all this, or are ready to do something about it. Inasmuch as all the world’s eyes will be on us — the Olympics may be the only visible global event there is — our response must indicate in some way where we human beings are at now. In the covering social game, the ball is here in our hands.

Perhaps the most valuable tradition Canada has is a cool horse sense. A cool horse sense that we are appropriately beginning to be proud of as we recognize the ravages of excess in our big brother to the south. Even there, Colorado voters, in a state referendum, cut off public funds to the 1976 winter games which had been awarded to Denver, and Denver had to give them up. There were, obviously, much more important things to do with the money.

I suggest, then, that we take the ball, the ball we’ve now got as the next Olympic promoters, and fire it into the air. And as it sits up there like a torch for all the world to see, let the voices grow from us that we’ve had enough. That we care more about the air and the water and the land we live in, about the poor and oppressed who live among us, and about the concord of the earth’s peoples than we do about glory-and-money circuses for the benefit of the few. Let us roll across our cities and prairies and northland and seacoasts a sound of common sense that blows a whistle on this greed contest for all the world to hear.

If we don’t, maybe no one ever will. ■