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How Many Lives Is A Gold Medal Worth?

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Military Police officer patrols one of Rio’s biggest favelas. (image from Global Construction Review)

Since the 2009 announcement of the XXXI Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, over 22,000 families–upwards of 77,000 humans–have been relocated out of their communities in the name of redevelopment and good ole’ fashioned competition.

Communities were torn down to build Olympic Village, but after the excitement of the Olympics has died down and the games are finished, these new developments will be used to increase property values and gain profits. And the people who used to call these spaces home sweet home will be long forgotten by Olympic spectators.

The cycle of displacement is a story as old as time. We push undesirable people out to make room for the shiny and new, for something bigger and better. We marginalize humans deemed unworthy to the periphery of central spaces because then, we can keep pretending they are invisible.

It’s easy to relocate people when we view their communities as poor, dilapidated and ridden with crime. We shove people into places we wouldn’t want to occupy ourselves, and then we name it the ghetto. Or in Rio, favelas. Yet favela residents aren’t even safe to exist there anymore either, because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has torn down their “shantytowns”. There’s no doubt that the IOC is fraught with corruption and greed. The cost of the Rio Olympic Games is projected at $15 billion, in a city where almost 1.5 million people live in favelas, and 30% of those are not connected to formal running water.

We see it all the time with so-called urban “blight” and neighborhood redevelopment projects that reinvest in formerly dis-invested spaces in the name of “progress”. We see not-so-mysterious mass fires in the Mission District that have displaced hundreds of low-income Latinos, mass evictions that have displaced thousands of seniors and people with disabilities under the Ellis Act, and we all hear stories from people in the streets every day about the woes of gentrification and the “techie takeover”.

So what’s the difference? And why are the same people complaining about San Francisco displacement some of the same people heralding Olympic athletes?


Two boys looking at the Olympic Stadium from their favela (image from NY Post)

There are people who support the building of stadiums, whether it’s privately or publicly funded. They celebrate the revenue that sports events claim to bring to local economies. Building infrastructure for sporting events “fixes” underdeveloped areas, they say. “It trickles down”, they say. But when exactly does it trickle down? And to who, exactly?

People are forever waiting, and as thirsty as ever.

From the thousands of slave-workers who have already died building stadiums for the World Cup in Qatar in 2022, to the leniency given to millionaire football players who commit domestic violence, to the 22,000 families whose homes and communities have been destroyed in Rio, to the children whose futures have been cut short for sport. Yeah, it’s hard for me to see the value in the sports-industrial complex. And it’s hard for me to see any participating athlete as a hero.

But, this isn’t an attack on athletes. This isn’t an attack on people who enjoy sports or the thrill of the game. I’m not against entertainment. And I’m not saying the Olympics produce nothing good for humanity. It’s fantastic that African American athletes are finally getting the recognition they deserve–it’s long past due–but what does that really solve in terms of domestic or international race relations? Especially when the media barely covers their achievements.

I am amazed at the physical feats the human body is capable of. Lord knows I can barely hold my breath under water or run a few miles without wanting to die. I certainly can’t do a triple-axel-double-backflip-whatever on the ice in a sparkly little dress. I do not deny the hard work and dedication that Olympic athletes put into their craft, but they are not heroes, and especially not moral ones. Good for you Michael Phelps, but what will you do with all those gold medals? Because I just scoured your foundation’s website, and I see no projects being funded in Rio.


People watching the opening ceremony for the Olympics from the rooftop in their favela (image from Boston Globe).

And this isn’t just about displacement either. It’s not just about Rio or the Olympics either. This is about global inequality and inequity. This is about rampant human rights violations and our inability to value human lives. This is about the continual oppression of the Global South, and our nation’s continual refusal to acknowledge our role in it. And this is about the insidious evils of complicity. Your participation in a morally corrupt enterprise like the Olympics means you are complicit to the violence and devastation it causes. The status quo remains the same because the public buys in. That’s how hegemony works–power is reproduced through the media and cultural institutions, which subtly manufacture public consent. Antonio Gramsci knew that, even writing from inside his prison cell.

Is entertainment worth a human life? Or do you just not care? If it doesn’t happen in your neighborhood, if it’s not your family or your peers losing the home they’ve lived in for generations, does it not matter? As long as you can still live your spoiled San Francisco lifestyle, does it matter if another’s way of life is demolished?

When we live in a capitalist system that puts some before others, quantity before quality, and dollars before human lives, we can never hope to live in a just world where people are given equal opportunity to thrive. When we continue to fund infrastructure projects that kill people, we forget that humanity works best when we love and support each other, when we learn compassion and how to just be together, when we promote humanity instead of nationalistic pride.

In a world where Donald Trump could be our next president, maybe you’ll say there’s bigger fish to fry. In a world where black men and women are killed by American police nearly every day, maybe I need to lighten up and play some Pokemon Go and let people have their shits and giggles over the Olympics. Don’t we already have enough to worry about? Isn’t the world fucked up enough without something else to be outraged over? Don’t we deserve a little peace? Maybe. But maybe not. Because it matters. Because it all matters and it’s all connected. Because this isn’t the kind of world I want to live in. Because, how many lives is a gold medal worth?

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Neek Carmella

Neek Carmella

I'm in a Love/Hate relationship with words.

1 Comment

  1. Aaron Roco
    August 15, 2016 at 5:59 pm

    An unpopular opinion but a necessary one, thanks for this.