Refugees and the absence of fun make for Olympian sadness, with a hint of anger

As we near the end of the first week of that biennial orgy of corporate delight known b(u)y many as the Olympic Games I’m left wondering, as so often happens around this time, about how it seems to go so wrong. It may be my over-reliance on a specific international group of socially networked, like-minded people, but so far I have seen agonising hard work and seriousness, broken bones, homophobic abuse and dullards-cum-sexists in media commentary, thuggery and contempt shored up by pseudo-science directed at Caster Semenya (yet close-to-silence about Dutee Chand – perhaps because she won her case at the CAS, or perhaps the ‘well-informed’ commentariat doesn’t recognise her or thinks their audiences won’t), some spectacular failures (the names Williams and Djokovic come to mind) and moments of absurdity in image/brand self-defence.

There has been some lightness, such as the picture of the really (I mean REALLY) bored looking lifeguard at the pool. There has also been the occasional moment of delight – consider Ibtihaj Muhammad stepping out in a US uniform complete with hijab and Majlinda Kelmendi winning Kosovo’s first Olympic gold medal, or those Brazilians who manage to smuggle their anti-government #Fora Temer signs into events (including written on athlete hands during the opening ceremony). This is just inside the venues:tear gas games outside I’m seeing the expected discontent, street protests, over-reaction by one of the world’s most militarised police forces and citizen fury all made more poignant by the empty seats at venues, absence of top flight male golfers and athletes in and on dangerously polluted waters.

Amid all of this, though, I’m struck by an overwhelming sense of sadness about these games, prompted principally by two things. The first is the Refugee Olympic Team (ROT). Don’t get me wrong: I love it that ROT exists – that is, I love that stateless high performance athletes have been able to achieve their ‘Olympic Dream’. I’m more than a little in awe that many of them, given their back stories and the turmoil in their home countries that made them stateless, have been achieve those personal goals. So why the sadness?

I’m saddened (with a garnish of anger) that there is all manner of delight over and praise for ROT from people and media outlets who seem in every other way to hate refugees, who seem to go out of their way to ensure that these displaced people remain consigned to the margins of existence in tents or ramshackle buildings in inhospitable environments, unable to legally work or relegated to sending their kids out to work illegally because the authorities turn a blind eye to kids working and families need incomes. Then, to top it off, it’s the power élite of the IOC, allied to the global élite of major states and drawn from the same class group as make up the leaders of those states, who’ve allowed the ROT to participate and now seem to be patting themselves on the back for the humanitarianism over an avoidable situation that is the direct result of the actions of many of those powerful states (the USA, UK and other EU members, Russia, China and the like). This is where the anger comes in: that same humanitarian spirit seems to have been absent when this power élite was engineering a global political environment that made those athletes into refugees, and is ignoring the environmental and climate crisis that will make millions more. Much as I love the ROT, it exists only because the global élite have opted to apply a smug band-aid to a gaping wound on the carcass of humanity.

The second cause of my sadness is Usain Bolt, or rather that only Usain Bolt seems to be allowed to have fun. Again, don’t get me wrong – it is great that Bolt so obviously enjoys himself. It’s even better that Bolt seems to undermine the ideology of Citius Altius Fortius when he eases off the speed when it is clear he’s going to win, much to the chagrin of some sports journalists. It’s the overall lack of fun (and the slightly disapproving tone of these comments on it – remember Croatian high jumper Blanka Vlasic who also obviously enjoyed herself and the snide, highly sexualised mediation of her image) that bundles up many of the things that the IOC and their corporate festival get wrong. Those athletes who are left may have their ‘fun’ at the closing ceremony, but until then it is all grim grind and tight sphincters on their way to not making the semi-final.

Unlike most Games since 2000, there has been precious little rhetoric of ‘legacy’ in Rio (or it might all have been in Portuguese so I didn’t hear it, or that the legacy is a blatant rather than slightly discrete transfer of wealth and resources to private hands/pockets), but there is always the quieter discourse of the athlete as role model, as inspiration; of the hope that golden gains in the Games will bring participation gains at home; of the need to secure those victories at home and away in order to keep that funding stream flowing. So, even when we don’t talk of ‘legacy’, in the UK at least it has become always already present as we look not only for the new Tom Daley or Laura Trott, but also for that expected growth in post-Olympic participation numbers to be more than a spike.

Yet even the most serious of athletes talk of enjoyment (perhaps not fun) in their sport, although it may be wrapped up in the language of the ‘euphoria of the endorphin rush’. We also know that kids stay involved in their sport because they enjoy themselves, often despite the best efforts of their Physical Education teachers or coaches. Increasingly, where it still exists and the playing fields have not been hocked off for a new identikit housing estate or server farm, PE and school sport is regulated by a dully instrumentalist curriculum, and despite the efforts of many PE has remained the purview of the modern inheritors of the spirit of the Games Master: all ball games, clip boards, whistles and blokishness. Despite PE teacher’s training, many of their intentions and some of their actions, the British education system seems intent on reproducing Kes-lite.

We know, because if we look closely we can see it, that athletes find those tiny gaps in the dominant order of sport where they can have fun, where the rules don’t quite reach, where pleasure and enjoyment can be enacted and where the discipline of achievement can be quietly avoided or for some subverted (Imara Felkers, Ellen Mulder and I have recently explored this in an essay in Philosophical Perspectives on Play that Wendy Russell, Emily Ryall and I edited). We also know that kids find fun where we don’t expect it, or more importantly where we don’t plan for them to find it. Ian Wellard in his recent Sport, Fun and Enjoyment presents compelling evidence that ‘fun’ includes doing new things, being part of a group of peers trying out the unexpected or just getting out of the class room and away from the regular disciplines of PE. These spaces of fun are both absent from how we are shown and encouraged to see these Games.

Strangely, however, we have a view of a ‘participation legacy’ where we seem to think that kids will be inspired to take up something new by a brow-beaten, humourless athlete who appears to be worn down by the relentless grind of staying part of the global sporting élite. What’s more, if kids do get inspired we seem to think that they’ll stay involved in something new of we keep treating them like those athletes – destined for glory…. or that ‘fun’ happens in club activities not in the playing arena. All the while, only one freakishly tall, freakishly fast Jamaican is allowed to be seen to have fun and enjoy himself while doing his Olympic sport.

The self-congratulatory attitude about the ROT is cynicism at its worst, where the athletes are exploited to humanise and redeem corporate goals. My sadness/anger is because those athletes cannot even keep their success for themselves or for the millions of others dispossessed like them: it is stolen from them by those who are in large part responsible for their dispossession. The absence of fun shows not the cynicism of the élite but their stupidity where the claims to legacy and inspiration have been shown to be utterly false and yet nothing changes, the IOC and its national allies/agents keep doing the same old thing in the same sports model: isn’t keeping doing the same failing thing while expecting different results a sign of madness? Unless, of course if the real goal isn’t to stimulate participation but to encourage us to use our small plastic rectangle to buy more sports shoes, high fat salty fast food or brown carbonated sugar drinks.

About author
Malcolm MacLean is Reader in the Culture & History of Sport in the Faculty of Applied Sciences where he is co-lead of the Exercise & Sport Research Centre and Associate Dean Quality & Standards at the University of Gloucestershire in England. He is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and currently Council member of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport.
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