Imperial Sports: An Interview With Dave Zirin

2014 626 zirin stDave Zirin (Photo: Michele Bollinger)As the World Cup in Brazil garners massive international attention, leftist sports writer Dave Zirin offers up a riveting book that details how neoliberal economic gain for the few has come to dominate world sporting events. In particular, in Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, Zirin explores the negative impact of this year’s World Cup and the 2016 summer Olympics on the majority of Brazilian citizens. Get Zirin’s timely book now with a contribution to Truthout. Click here

An interview with political sports writer, Dave Zirin, about his latest book explores the unfolding of the World Cup and the Olympics in Brazil, and what we can expect and hope for in the future.

In his latest book, Brazil’s Dance With the Devil, Dave Zirin, sports editor at The Nation magazine and author of numerous books, ties together the many histories that inform the current juncture between FIFA (international soccer association) the International Olympic Committee and Brazil – a country with a population of 200 million that possesses the fifth largest economy in the world.

Through on-the-ground reporting and extensive historical review, Zirin demonstrates how “mega” sporting events – such as the World Cup – have worked for decades to prop up dictatorships and fast-track the militarization and neoliberalization of host countries. Zirin makes sense of this vast terrain in a book that is highly engaging and infused with his famous good humor. Reading Brazil’s Dance with the Devil, one is struck and compelled by Dave Zirin’s deep love for humanity and sport, even while he remains a relentless and incisive critic of those who exploit them.

The violence and displacement inflicted on the people of Brazil in the run up to this month’s World Cup and the 2016 Olympics, began soon after the country was awarded the distinction of hosting both mega sporting events. When Zirin’s book went to print in May, 20,000 homes in Rio had been demolished to make room for parking lots, stadiums and other spaces in which most Brazilians would never be able to step foot, yet must pay for with their money and blood: These massive construction projects are estimated to cost the public nearly $15 billion and have led to the deaths of nine Brazilian workers.

Just a few days after he returned from covering the World Cup matches in Rio, Dave Zirin spoke to Truthout in Oakland, California. We talked about what makes Brazil’s encounter with the imperial institutions of FIFA and the International Olympic Committee unique, who’s profiting from the country’s upheaval, class identity in Brazil, Palestinian soccer and what we can hope for in the future.

Charlotte Silver for Truthout: Welcome back. Let’s talk about your recent trip to Rio, the first time you’ve been back since 2012. What is the feeling there during the World Cup, and what has progressed in the last two years?

Dave Zirin: I would use the word regress, not progress, because the main differences between the last time I was there and this one were huge changes in the very urban terrain of Rio.

First of all, I would go back to the favelas I visited: More homes had been destroyed than two years ago; there was more rubble than two years ago. Places where I had sat, and eaten and talked to families, are now gone. And I mean mercilessly gone, like piles of rubble – just remnants of toys, knick-knacks – the things that make up your life as a family. So that was one big difference, just seeing the erosion of what makes the favelas the favelas, the erosion of the humanity that populated these communities.

The second big difference I saw was the presence of military on the streets; because it is in World Cup mode; all the frightening hardware and big weapons-grade stuff gets rolled out.

There’s an interesting paradox that emerges in your book about FIFA and the World Cup. On the one hand, winning the bid to host was seen as this crowning achievement of Brazil’s “capitalist success story,” and yet, as your book makes clear, these events really demonstrate a country’s subservience and vulnerability to imperial institutions like the World Bank and the IMF. How have global sporting events such as The World Cup and the Olympics become vehicles of neoliberal enrichment?

When the World Cup and the Olympics come to a country – and it doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Brazil or China or the United States – you see advancements of three different things: displacement, debt and the militarization of public space.

And what I’ve seen with my own eyes in these countries is that once these spaces get militarized, it’s very difficult to pour that wine back in the bottle. I remember what a police officer in London, during the 2012 Olympics, told me when I asked what was going to happen to the high-tech goods he was using at the time: “Well, it’s not like we’re going to put them back in the box, are we?”

So that’s one of the things that these mega-events allow for, the increase in the surveillance state and the normalization of police presence.

“So the issue of displacements becomes paramount in the objectives of the Brazilian state and in terms of a very critical, longstanding civil right that . . . Brazil people are trying desperately to hold onto.”

The second thing is debt, and this is very important because debt allows for the collectivization of costs and the privatization of profit. All the stadiums get built for the benefit of certain industries in the countries, particularly for construction and real estate. And yet the cost of construction is placed on the people themselves, the bill is on the people themselves, which of course erodes their power in a country and makes them more subservient, as debt always does.

And then the last element is displacement, which is a question of urban justice from the San Francisco Bay Area to South Africa to Brazil. The idea of who’s going to live in the cities. It’s the same patterns are everywhere: Will poverty be suburbanized? Or, in other words, will the poor be pushed to the margins, while the cities become playgrounds for the wealthy?

This is true for all the countries I’m talking about: Each country has debt, displacement and the militarization of public space.

What makes Brazil different, though, is that you have some of the strongest squatter rights. So the issue of displacements becomes paramount in the objectives of the Brazilian state and in terms of a very critical, longstanding civil right that we know nothing of in this country and that in Brazil people are trying desperately to hold onto.

So it’s provided an opportunity for the wealthy of Brazil to make money off of land that wasn’t available before?

No question, which means both real estate speculation and construction. Which means cement and all sorts of ancillary industries that are very powerful in the country.

Who else is profiting from these events? And how are global sporting events branded by corporations to become vehicles for their profit making?

First of all, you have to separate Brazilian capital from multinational corporations. Multinational corporations in these mega events are an entirely separate issue, it’s about brand enhancement for them, and it’s about entering new markets. It’s about what I’ve called, in the past, “corporate sin-washing,” because there’s a lot of studies that show that if you’re a sponsor of these events – the Olympics and the World Cup – the public is more likely to see you in a positive eye.

So companies like British Petroleum, Bechtel, Dow Chemicals, all companies with very ugly histories, all rushed to sponsor 2012 Olympics in London. And the list of World Cup sponsors is long.

In your book you emphasize that in order to understand how these mega-sporting events are unfolding in Brazil, you need to know the country and its history. What is the story that you are seeing emerge in the media that you think your book serves to complicate and complement?

I do a whole chapter in the book about Brazilian history; it’s a big thumbnail, not dense, and that history helps to explain why the protests last year were so big and why they’re enduring right now in the face of terrible repression.

We could talk all day about these issues we started to discuss – debt, displacement, militarization of space – but that has occurred everywhere. But the question is why are there protests in Brazil and not these other places? I think you have to know some Brazilian history to understand that.

A couple parts of Brazilian history that complicate the present narrative is, first of all, the talk of Brazil being a soccer-mad country, and soccer being like a “religion.” In reality, there’s rage at the World Cup and a lot of alienation from soccer itself. A lot of that alienation is born from the ways in which players are sent off to other countries – they become a commodity for export for leagues in other countries.

The second thing that complicates the media image is the realities of race in Brazil. Brazil is a country that is incredibly diverse, it’s got the largest number of people of African descent of anywhere outside Nigeria, and it’s got the largest number of people of Japanese descent outside of Japan, and yet you look at that opening round match with 70,000 people in Sao Paulo, and it’s entirely white. Brazil is worse about talking about race and racism than the United States, which is saying something – but a lot of that has to do with the fact that the US had a civil rights movement, and a black arts movement, a black consciousness movement, and a black power movement. Even though there were people who promoted these ideas throughout Brazil’s history, you would never talk about it like it was talked about in the US.

Under President Dilma Rousseff, Brazil is supposed to be one of the new leftist governments in South America. What did the nationwide protests, including by the middle class, against how the government facilitated the two sporting events signify?

Couple of things about that: The phrase middle class is thrown around way too much when we’re talking about Brazil and the protesters last year. “Middle-class” is an income designation; it doesn’t describe their jobs or their relationship to power. I would describe it more as a confident working class, much more confident than previous generations and much more stable than other generations. It also has much higher expectations and hopes than previous generations. These hopes were built on the economic miracles of the 2000s, which have slowed down dramatically. This is what drove so many people into the streets – that sense of dashed expectations.

I think that Brazil is at a very interesting crossroads: the elections are in October, and while most observers expect Dilma to win, she is really going to win because the alternatives are not exactly appealing, and there’s no left alternative that has yet emerged. Every radical institution, from the radical left to the hard right, are trying to take advantage of people’s anger over how the World Cup is being organized. But in terms of electoral possibilities, there’s just very little to the left of Dilma.

I don’t see the right winning this October because their whole argument is compromised because they’re trying to reduce people’s anger to be just about corruption – meanwhile, they have no critique of neoliberalism and are courting the same real estate backers.

Do you think the political identity of the confident working class has shifted as a result of the rollout of these events?

The people who came to the streets last year are people who would describe themselves as not even having a political identity. People who are very much unaligned, which is why all of these political parties are trying to take advantage of people’s anger and mobilization.

This also explains why the protests are smaller right now. Because you would have to be hardened political activists with serious experience in street protests to go into the streets there right now. It’s not for newbies; it’s hard to imagine how someone would want to go to a protest if they’re new to this. It’s like saying, yeah, I want to get beat up.

You’ve been writing about the intersection of sports and politics for years, and for so many people, you really are this messenger from another world – the sports world. I imagine it goes both ways. How has sports writing changed since you started writing. Is sports writing getting better?

Very much so. I’ve been doing this for almost 12 years, and the biggest change has to do with the fact that there’s an amazing young generation of sports writers, writing for websites like The Classical, SportsonEarth, Deadspin. There’s a start-up for another one called The Allrounder – which I think could be really amazing – where a lot of these terrific sports academics are going to try to put their research into more popular writing. It’s just much less lonely than it was 12 years ago.

I see a real connection between the people doing this online writing and ESPN feeling compelled to do reports on Qatar. I see a connection between that and challenges to the Washington football team’s name, and people protesting in the streets with a heightened knowledge about what these mega events mean. I think all of this is about building the energy and politics to look at sports as connected with society.

I’ve heard a lot of people say that before this World Cup they had no idea what went into the World Cup.

And that is everything: I dedicate the book to the people of Brazil, and that’s not just some cheesy tip of the cap. It’s because we wouldn’t be doing this interview; we wouldn’t be having this discussion – and people wouldn’t be saying that, if it wasn’t for the protests themselves.

Because all the same things that we’re talking about in Brazil happened in South Africa, but there’s no discussion of that because the protests in South Africa took place in the aftermath of the World Cup.

Having these protests in advance of the World Cup is historic: It has never happened before, and it has shifted the game.

So it’s an important distinction to not give the media too much credit, but the protesters?

Oh yeah, the media follows the people, no question.

I want to talk about Palestine: a lot of people are hoping that FIFA will come through and censure Israel for their treatment of Palestinians athletes. Do you think this is a possibility and what would it signify?

I think people should have no expectation that FIFA will do anything to censure the Israeli government or the Israeli athletic complex. I really hope I’m wrong about that. Part of the problem is that it is very difficult to have any sense of why FIFA does anything it does – so who knows how this particular sausage is going to get made. One thing is clear: Israel’s record, which is really about inhibiting the actual growth and development of Palestinian soccer – which would give FIFA the right to censure it – that record is black and white. To argue that Israel hasn’t done anything to hurt the development of Palestinian soccer is like arguing that the sky is purple; you’re arguing something that is factually invalid. It’s like arguing that the Washington football team name isn’t racist.

I think it’s important and overdue that Palestine raised this. I think it’s important that they see it through. There’s a lot of confidence right now in the Palestinian soccer community right now because they made the Asia Cup, which is the first time they made a international tournament in their 86-year history.

“To argue that Israel hasn’t done anything to hurt the development of Palestinian soccer is like arguing that the sky is purple.”

However, if FIFA did censure Israel, it would be less about how devastating it would be for Israel and more about the way it would legitimize the reality of what Palestinian people – particularly in the Gaza Strip – have to go through.

One thing people don’t know: If you’re a Palestinian living in Israel, and you choose to play for the Palestinian team, you renounce your Israeli citizenship. No one has done it yet, as far as I can tell. It’s a profound disincentive. Meanwhile, there are a lot of Palestinians in the diaspora, like Chile, for example, who come and play for Palestine.

You’ve advocated for the dismantling of FIFA and made an argument that these globalized sporting events are irredeemably destructive to hosting countries. But you also speak of of the unparalleled thrill of the sport and these matches. Can you talk about your vision for the future of global soccer?

I hope that as more people are drawn into these games, they’re also drawn into a serious discussion about what the World Cup brings to a country. I don’t think this is an impossible thing to have happen, and I don’t think it’s a pipe dream, because I’ve seen it with my own eyes. The great thing about soccer is that you keep your eyes glued on the games, but there are real down periods between explosions of excitement, and during those down periods are really great opportunities to talk to people about what’s happening – for example, Qatar hosting the 2022 World Cup.

So, I think being connected to the sport is a crucial component of being able to engage in a critical discourse about it.