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Public Displays of Affectation: Dave Zirin on the Olympics

Dave Zirin in full animated flight at Simon Fraser Unversity.

Dave Zirin is a rare animal indeed, and a bit of a shit disturber. He's a "political" sports writer who isn't willing to let sports off the hook for it's potential leadership role in bringing social issues into the spotlight. What excites him about the Vancouver Olympics is that it's the first time there will be a 'convergence' of protesters, a la WTO in Seattle.

People who want to avoid any uncomfortable displays of protestation at sports events usually invoke "The purity of sport," making it sound as if sports is the sole bastion of the Aryan nation. One thing is for sure about the Winter Olympics - it's definitely a white affair. And in the history of protest at the Olympics, he reminded the audience of what was perhaps the pinnacle moment: Tommy Smith and John Carlos raising their fists in the Black Power salute on the podium to receive their Gold and Bronze medals at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City.

"What everyone thinks about that image," said Zirin, "is they see it as a moment - but it was actually a movement that was going on for two years called the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR). They were trying to organize a boycott of the Olympics by African American athletes."

One reason that this is significant is that we often think of boycotts at the Olympics as something that only nations do. Athletes are reluctant to take such a stand today because even an obscure biathlete could have a corporate dump truck full of money pull up to their house if they win gold.

On the famous image of Smith and Carlos: "If you look closely at the picture they're not wearing shoes because they're protesting poverty; they're wearing beads around their necks to protest lynching. And if you look at the third guy on the podium, people just think he's the white guy. He was an Australian runner named Peter Norman and he's wearing a solidarity button that says Olympic Project for Human rights."

So Zirin sees the Convergence at the Vancouver Olympics as the logical and exciting evolution of the protests that have gone on at all Olympics. "The main point here, and the reason for coming to Vancouver, is to say it's absolutely a living history. I mean sports is not just about selling us stuff, it's not just about taking over your town and turning it into a festival that adds gentrification and police repression and the rest of it. Sports can also be about struggle and resistance.“

Zirin pointed out that every single Olympics that has ever happened, “including under horrifying oppressive circumstances in Beijing” - every single Olympics has had protests. In China a man was jailed for ten years for passing out a petition that said please don't tear down my house to make way for facilities. “There have been protests everywhere, but there has never been an open call for people to come and say 'the Olympics are bringing evil along with it, the Olympics are bringing gentrification, police repression...please come to Vancouver and help us make a stand against the worst that sports can be and the worst of what sports can bring.

“The fact that billions are going in the Olympic games, and from what I've learned just today, that access to sports among young people has been drastically cut in Vancouver, says to me that what the Olympics are bringing is an absolute obscenity and is against the message brought forth by Jackie Robinson, Muhammad Ali, Tommy Smith, John Carlos and Billy Jean king. They fought for the notion that the playing field should be open to all of us. The Olympics are about exclusion so people should come to the convergence because it will send the message to the world that sports do not belong to the few, they belong to all of us.”

Seems to me like things around here are going to get interesting.

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