Book Review: Power Games- A Political History of the Olympics

Power Games front cover

Power Games by Jules Boykoff.

Jules Boykoff. Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics. London: Verso, 2016. RRP £11.99 paperback.

I have had Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics sitting on my bookshelf for a while, but with the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics until 2021 – the Games have only been cancelled three times since they started in 1896 – it felt like an appropriate time to actually read it. Power Games is an engaging and insightful history of the modern Olympics, from their conception by Baron Pierre de Coubertin in the late 1800s, to their current incarnation. Jules Boykoff, an Olympic athlete turned academic, brings a unique perspective to the topic as someone who has both participated in and studied the Olympics.

Power Games is arranged chronologically. Some games are discussed in depth, whilst others are barely mentioned. Boykoff focuses on several themes throughout however, particularly the downsides of the games. The issues he discusses include a lack of accountability, greenwashing, extensive and long-term public debt, profit going to private companies, displacement of residents, and increased policing powers. Boykoff discusses the resistance movements that have grown up in host cities including Vancouver, London, and Rio de Janeiro. In some cases, activists have even managed to prevent cities bidding to host the games, including Boston, Hamburg, Rome, and Budapest.

The Olympic movement has descended into a slow-motion crisis. Fewer and fewer cities are game for the Games. For too long host cities have worked in service of the Olympics. It’s time for the Olympics to start working in service of host cities. A serious rethink is long overdue.

Boykoff, 2016; p.241

Power Games is an excellent example of how powerful the appearance of being apolitical can be. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has worked hard to portray the Olympic Games as above politics; they refuse to take a public stance on conflicts or disputes, and athletes who use the Games to make a political statement have been punished harshly. I am a strong believer in the argument that there is no such thing as apolitical however; even refusing to take a side has an impact. If you can convince people that something is apolitical however, then it becomes much harder to critique. In Power Games, Boykoff explores how this process works, and just how effective it can be.

I really enjoyed reading Power Games, it is well-paced and well-written. I knew a little bit about the mounting critiques of the Olympic Games before reading it, but my understanding is much better now. Boykoff also references quite a few geographers in his analysis, which is pretty much a guaranteed way to make me like an author! There are a few things that I think would have made the narrative easier to follow, such as a list of host cities and IOC Presidents, and maps of host cities and Olympic sites. I think pretty much every book would be better with more maps though, so perhaps I’m being overly critical.

As a former athlete, Boykoff clearly has a strong affection for the Olympic Games, and he would like to see them reformed rather than abolished; he provides a clear and comprehensive list of the changes he believes need to be made in order for the Games to survive in a more sustainable and ethical way. If I was the IOC, I would pay attention.

Protest Stickers: Hull 2

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An Extinction Rebellion poster at the main entrance to the University of Hull (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 16/03/20).

I have been living in Hull for just over a year now. Over that time I have come to appreciate and love this city. The nature of the academic job market means that I will have to move on soon, but I will miss it. One of my favourite things about Hull is that there is always something interesting to see when you’re out and about, whether it’s an interesting historic building, a piece of street art, or a new protest sticker. I have written about protest stickers in Hull before, on this blog and elsewhere, but new and intriguing stickers continue to appear.

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There is a relatively active branch of Extinction Rebellion in Hull, who periodically put up posters and stickers around the city. The aesthetic style of Extinction Rebellion has quickly become familiar, but this is a design that I haven’t seen before (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 16/03/20).

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This sticker, and others like it, began appearing in several cities a few months before the UK left the EU. The stickers promote the positive elements of the EU. They are produced by North East for Europe, a grassroots campaign group (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 09/09/19).

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A lot of stickers in Hull relate to international politics. Stickers such as this one became much more common after the start of the European refugee crisis in 2015. This sticker was produced by Active Distribution, a radical publishers and shop which produces and sells more than 200 sticker designs (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 03/10/20).

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This sticker refers to the protests in Hong Kong that took place throughout 2019 over the perceived increase in the control of Hong Kong by mainland China. The protesters called for support from the rest of the world, and whilst governments did little, there was clearly some international solidarity (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 15/10/19).

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Whilst a lot of protest stickers are about international politics, some relate to local issues and groups. Football Lads and Lasses against Fascism (FLAF) was created to counter the increase of far-right politics among football fans. It is not tied to any particular team, but this sticker is connecting the group to the Hull Tigers, who play in the second tier of English football (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 19/09/19).

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The Democratic Football Lads Alliance is an example of the kind of group that FLAF aims to counter. Set up in 2017 after a series of terror attacks in the UK, it is strongly associated with far-right politics and has been described as anti-Muslim by the Premier League (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 03/02/19).

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Putting stickers up in public space is something that football fans and activists have in common. This sticker combines the two, combining support for Bristol City with an anti-police message (ACAB stands for All Cops Are Bastards). This image is a play on a popular Banksy work which shows a teddy bear throwing a petrol bomb at riot police. Banksy is strongly associated with Bristol (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 30/06/19).

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This sticker was produced by the Hundred Handers, a far-right white supremacist group that prizes anonymity. The group’s members are expected to print and disseminate stickers around their local area. This sticker and several others appeared overnight on Newland Avenue, but most were quickly taken down or covered up (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 31/10/19).

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Protest stickers range from the elaborately designed and printed to the hand made. This example is firmly in the latter category. I can’t be sure what the top half of the message said, but I’m fairly certain it was “white”. Stickers with a particularly offensive or controversial message often don’t last long before they are covered up or (partially) removed (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 02/09/19).

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Whilst there are some right wing and xenophobic protest stickers in Hull, there are more from an anti-fascist/anti-racist perspective. This sticker is comparing UKIP to the Nazi Party. The text on the red background is hard to make out, but it says: “Fascists are greedy racists pretending to be innocent patriots” (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 05/03/20).

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The roll out of 5G mobile network is proving controversial in several respects, including claims that it damages health, and fears over the potential implications of allowing Chinese firm Huawei a role in building the infrastructure. Anti-5G stickers are becoming increasingly common (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 30/06/19).

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A few weeks ago, I was wondering how long it would take for the coronavirus to come up in a protest sticker. Not long apparently. This sticker is homemade, but is very well made compared to the White Power sticker above. It was removed the same day I took this photo, so I was lucky to catch it (Photo: Hannah Awcock, 16/03/20).