Amid the hyper-competitiveness and commercialism of today’s Olympic Games, ad agencies have dredged up images that harken back to a wholesome image of dedicated parents driving their kids to hockey practice, and the sacrifice and hard work embodied by Bobby Orr’s surgery-knit knee.
Indeed, it’s the honest purity of these kinds of sports ideals that makes the Olympics so popular. Watching athletes at the peak of their abilities, distilling all of their effort and skill into one moment, is undeniably compelling.
The honest purity of sport is also what makes sport such a powerful political tool. It can be used to legitimize whatever agenda those in power might want to push forward. Roman Emperors knew this when they built the Coliseum, just as the Olympics’ corporate sponsors realize this today.
The rhetorical power of sports is notable in the measures taken to prevent athletes from using their ability to call attention to political causes not supported by the sponsors. In 1968, African-American athletes, John Carlos and Tommy Smith, raised their black-gloved fists after winning Gold and Bronze in the 200m dash. They were stripped of their medals, banned from the Olympic village, and kicked off the US Olympic team.
During the Games in Vancouver, Richmond and Whistler, possession of anti-Olympic signage can earn you a $10,000 fine, and police are allowed to search your home without prior warning.
When athletes say that they want to keep politics and sports separate, it is self-preservation first, and purity second.
And for those who are informed, it is disingenuous. The Olympics are providing cover for an array of actions that would be politically unpalatable under normal circumstances including taxpayers having the wool pulled over their eyes, increases in surveillance and militarization, land theft, the setting of new precedents in rolling back civil liberties, and the large-scale implementation of societal whitewashing.
In another sense, the Olympics represent a high-stakes bet that the province of British Columbia can sell a big lie to a global audience. The province has never signed treaties for the use of the vast majority of land it today claims. Many First Nations live in third world conditions, with funding for schools and services often at a fraction of their non-native counterparts. Realizing this, the Vancouver Organizing Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games doubled down, incorporating Indigenous imagery into all aspects of its marketing. So thorough has this exercise been, that it prompted the Globe and Mail to declare, “The Canadian aesthetic has become aboriginal.”
In the lead-up to the Olympics, the province unsuccessfully attempted to push “Rights and Reconciliation” legislation onto the Indigenous nations of BC. Grassroots resistance killed it off.
As billions of viewers turn their gaze towards Vancouver between February 12 and 28, 2010, what will they see? Will it be the commercialized veneer of the “Aboriginal aesthetic”? Or will they see the ongoing land theft, enforced poverty and the repressive measures that are used to maintain the current state of affairs?
Canada’s political and corporate elite are spending billions to ensure that the odds are stacked in their favour. Others, less funded, will attempt to expose the big lie.
Who wins depends, to a large extent, on Canadians’ willingness to believe the lie.