Despite objective evidence that hosting international sports events does not bring money into a metropolis, cities continue to battle each other for the ability to host such events. The Olympics, World Cup, and smaller extravaganzas are the cause of much courting of executives and extravagant promises. The city that wins usually spends several times more than expected, creates numerous edifices that are rarely used again, and taxes the local citizens above and beyond most can afford. In addition, there are the not-so-obvious expenses. These range from the neglect of normal infrastructure costs associated with day to day existence; roads, schools, and shelter to name just three. On top of that are the extraordinary security measures put in place for such events today. Whether or not these measures are all necessary is a matter of serious debate, but the fact is those who run the shows insist that they are. So, they are put into place.
Why do cities want to host these events, then? The reasons they tell their residents (who ultimately pay the price) are lies about prestige and receipts. Hosting an international sporting event puts a city on the map, so to speak. Furthermore, residents are told, the local merchants make money. According to sportswriter Dave Zirin, however, the truth is far different. Local merchants do not make money unless they get the licensing rights from the corporate-driven boards that run these events. The likelihood of that happening grows more remote with each round of games. Instead, it is the giant corporations that get the licensing and get the profits. Furthermore, any business or individual who attempts to profit from these events without permission faces legal (often criminal) action. Why? Because the event administrators work hand in hand with the corporations they grant the licenses to. In doing so, local laws are overridden and multinationals become the law.
This is but one example, writes Zirin, of how international sport has distanced itself from the spirit of sport. His new book, titled Brazil’s Dance with the Devil: The World Cup, the Olympics, and the Fight for Democracy, is a devastating expose of how this dynamic is playing out in Brazil in 2014. The area of sports and neo-liberal capitalism is an area Zirin has explored before—quite well I might add. If he had not written a book about Brazil hosting not only the 2016 Olympics but also the 2104 World Cup, I would have been concerned for his writing health. Fortunately for those who read this new text, not only has Zirin written about this unusual conflagration of events, but he has surpassed his previous writing on the subject.
Brazil’s Dance With the Devil begins with Zirin describing his visit (with research assistant Zack Zill) to the Michael Jackson statue in one Rio’s Santa Marta favela, one of the multitude of such unofficial “slum” neighborhoods built in Rio as capitalism does its dirty work there. From there, the text just takes off. The reader is presented with a history of Brazil’s colonization, legacy of slavery and recent history; a summary of Brazilian soccer and its contribution to the game; the tale of the favelas in Rio; and several pages exploring the corruption and cronyism typical of neo-liberal capitalism that goes into warpspeed whenever some type of shock occurs. Indeed, one idea Zirin refers to regularly to describe the phenomenon is Naomi Klein’s shock doctrine. The difference between Klein’s “shocks” and the ones Zirin discusses is simple but important. Klein’s reference is most often to natural events like hurricanes or earthquakes which are then used as reasons to gentrify the stricken regions and turn them into zones for profit, while Zirin’s “shocking” events are completely man-made. In other words, Zirin’s shocks are created by humans to gentrify cities and expel unprofitable humans from the areas where arenas and lodgings for athletes and visitors are to be built. Like the aftermath of natural shocks, the shock caused by mega sporting events involves a massive transference of public wealth into private hands. As noted above, this is a topic Zirin has written about extensively, especially in relation to the building of sports arenas and fields for professional sports franchises.
Brazil’s Dance With the Devil is more than a well-written and researched piece of journalism. Zirin’s hard-hitting approach is always informed by a radical understanding of how modern day capitalism really works. That understanding helps turn this book into some of the most in-depth reporting one is likely to read about this year’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics. There are those in the sports world of corporate media who might say that Zirin’s writing is too political, does not belong in the world of sportswriting, and is proof that his interest isn’t in the games. I have to disagree. It is precisely because Dave Zirin loves sports that his writing says what it says. If ever there were a person who believes that sports matter in the world, it would be Dave Zirin. His latest book Brazil’s Dance With the Devil is but the most recent proof of this.