The Olympic Games and Creative Activism


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Today's talk at the British Library seemed to go down well. Some very nice people came and bought books and said how much they enjoyed it. It was my first proper post-London 2012 Games talk, focused more on looking forward (and back) to other creative expressions at the Games than London specifically. However, other talks reminded me that now is the key time for UK Olympic experts to 'sell their knowledge' about the London Model. I'll give that some thought.

I wrote a manuscript for the talk on the train down to London. It's a bit rough, but a good overview of most of what I covered and is preceded by the slides for the day.

The Olympic Games and Creative Activism

By Professor Andy Miah

When considering how the Olympic Games responds to issues of social change, there are a series of established subject areas, many of which form the basis of recently implemented ‘legacy’ programmes. Thus, Games organizers will highlight the importance of sustainability, both as an agenda for a city and a series of targets for the organization of the Games.

Alternatively, making a difference or impact is seen as an increasingly necessary aspect of any publicly funded scheme or event. In some cases, the difference may be something with a long term, almost intangible legacy, such as is described by the London 2012 slogan ‘inspire a generation’, while others are more immediate and neatly defined, such as the number of people who participated in new experiences around the Cultural Olympiad. Yet, even in these areas, there are disputes over which evidence counts and problems over the capture of evidence at all.

These efforts to ensure positive and lasting social change are centrally overseen and managed by the organizing committee and city stakeholders. In this respect, an agenda for social change around the Games is often an inherent aspiration of Games developers, even if critics argue that they often fail to deliver. And they do often fail to deliver.

Thus, we know that that social change occurs around such Olympic hosting dimensions as housing policies, security, liberty, economy. Inclusion, participation, consumption, health. These indicators are often contested, but the subject matters are recognized by all as important to measure and understand.

Yet, I want to argue that a further indicator of social change and a crucial mechanism by which change takes place is through creative interventions. It is through the work of creative professionals and amateurs where often we witness the levers for social change or, more accurately, the indicators for what else may require monitoring around the Olympic Games hosting process.

However, this is not a talk just about the value of art within political society. Rather, creativity may be seen as a political economy that surrounds the Games. It encompasses moments when Chinese artist Ai Weiwei withdraws his association with the Beijing 2008 Bird’s Nest Olympic Stadium, or Mia Farrow’s ‘Genocide Olympics’ campaign.

I want to take you on a journey through the last 10 years of creative activism around the Olympic Games, which I hope will convey the potential they have to draw attention to important social issues that can serve as a basis for a more socially responsible mega-event hosting process.

Let’s start with a small competition: You have here images of the Olympic mascots – and one or two Paralympic mascots – but which of them is the odd one out? You could be forgiven for thinking it is this one, the one eyed alien from London 2012, forged by a drop of steel from the company whose steel was used within the Olympic stadium. However, it is his companion from Sochi who doesn’t fit here. Zoich or Z014 as he is known is an alternative Olympic mascot, put forward by artist Egor Zhgun.

Back in 2010, the Sochi 2014 OCOG created a public competition, driven by an online campaign, inviting suggestions for the mascot of their Games. Zhgun’s effort was one of the most popular choices, but it was meant as a work of satire. Our interpretations of this contribution may be read on numerous levels. Online, people asked questions about its association with a character from the Futurama series, while others asked why it had no hands. Did this say something political about the entire Olympic process, where something is also hidden behind the back of the organizers?

It was the latest artistic intervention within the Olympic programme, which stretched the limits of Olympic organizers’ commitment to democratic principles, while also drawing attention to the absurdity of the mascot contests and the mascots themselves. Why do Olympic Games have mascots? What is their function?

While their design intends to speak to the Olympic values of respect, excellence, and fair play, their value corresponds with what some would argue to be the more truthful Olympic values – money, money, money.

As for many artists and designers, Zhgun has left a lot to people’s imaginations when interpreting what it aims to say about Russia and the Olympics. Other creative professionals have responded to the Games in different ways and the last 12 years of Olympic creative initiatives portray a diverse cultural history of raising awareness about important social issues that may form a basis for social change.

Let’s go all the way back to Sydney 2000 – in fact, just a year or so before. The ABC television company (not rights holding) produced a ground breaking series called ‘The Games’, written and starring some of Australia’s leading satirical comedians. Its mockumentary format portrayed the office of a fictional Organizing Committee for the Sydney 2000 Games. The scripts showed the team encountering a series of amusing, sometimes bizarre occurrences, such as the Olympic 100m track being built to only 96m, or the pursuit of silent tobacco sponsors, whose financial commitment would require employees of the organization to take up smoking and make sure they were seen publicly doing so. Yet it was an episode in the second series that secured its place in history as achieving more than just comedy. Known as ‘the apology’, the episode created a story line that responded to a key political issue surrounding both the politics of the Sydney 2000 Games and Australian civic society when it staged an apology to aboriginal communities. After months of controversy over the location of the Olympic park in homebush bay, a site of symbolic importance for local aboriginal communities, requests for the Australian Prime Minister to apologize to aboriginals and end decades of social exclusion were prominent, but one was never forthcoming. Instead, The Games made this happen. Here’s the clip.

Two years later, as Mitt Romney prepares for the Salt Lake Games, having waded through the IOC corruption scandals and the impact of the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York, which would change the Olympic Games ever since, the Olympic Opening Ceremony became the next example of where this form of social change is made visible within the Olympics. Organizers wanted the tattered flag from Ground Zero to have a presence in the ceremony, but the IOC considered this to be a political symbol, which had no place in the Olympic programme. A compromise was found and the flag appeared in a section designated as a ‘cultural section’. Here again the flexibility of culture allows certain messages to be written into history, where protocol prohibits.

In 2004, the Athens legacy was being shaped by their tardiness in finishing the venues. Yet, aside from just not being ready for sports, the hurriedness of their completions was considered to be at the expense of safety. 23 people died in the construction of the venues and this quiet demonstration in Syntagma square highlighted this problem. The seriousness of this was juxtaposed against the pre-show within the stadium that spectators saws before the ceremony feed went global. Here it is. I was told by someone in the stadium that it began with a spotlight on one section of the stadium, where a construction worker was hammering in a final nail. ‘We’re ready’ were the words to conclude this section. At this point, most Greek citizens – and certainly those within the stadium – will have suspended the anxieties about their Games, which had dominated the global headlines in recent months, as they sat back and enjoyed the show. Athens was ready.

Two years later, the Torino 2006 Games became the first where a total city occupation of Olympic sponsors occurred. The host city contract obliging the city to prevent ambush marketing meant that billboards were either filled with Olympic sponsors or were left blank. In Athens many were blank, in Torino, all were filled with sponsors, as the city became an Olympic Disneyland, suspending other financial obligations and individual freedoms for one month. In response, there was a rise of street art, graffiti, which became the billboards for creative activists. This image with the slogan ‘Repression Lives here’ responded to the ‘Passion Lives Here’ official slogan for the Games, drawing attention to the problems of Piemonte society.

Beijing 2008 was perhaps the most politically complicated since Seoul 1988. The world’s media arrived into China only to find the Great Chinese Firewall had not been lifted on the internet, requiring the IOC to intervene. Yet, it had also established temporary legislation for foreign journalists working in China, which provided more freedoms to report. Yet, Beijing’s Games were doomed to be the subject of creative activism from the moment they won. The focus on international criticisms about their human rights record brought together a range of creative activists, alongside interventions from agencies which employed creative professionals to visualize their anxieties. This set of images leaked onto the web portrayed an alternative Olympic sport poster campaign, in the name of Amnesty. It is not clear how they were leaked or why they were not used eventually, but they became part of Beijing’s tapestry.

The Vancouver 2010 Games were discussed by many as the first social media Olympics and, as a city, their creative media community is world leading. It is perhaps no surprise then that digital innovation formed a large part of the creative interventions around the Games. In fact, a feature length film was created about this, documenting how new media became a vehicle for social change within the city.

As we approach London, the expectations for creative activism were high from the start. Numerous campaigns were launched attacking the Games organization. Within the cultural sector, attacks against BP as a Premier Presenting Partner were led by artists, staging guerilla style theatrical inteventions atBP sponsored events. As well, a campaign called ‘Fucking the future’, responding to BP’s ‘Fuelling the Future’ Olympic campaign involved defacing BP Olympic billboards with oil. The Deep Water Horizon disaster earlier in the year increased the pressure on orgnaizesr to consider the Olympic relationship, leading to a spoof website depicting - in a similar way to Sydney’s apology – the dissolution of their relationship. London’s previous year of summer rioting, along with the Occupy movement’s global presence, also became a context for creative interventions around the city. The London tent city occupation began to resemble Vancouver’s Olympic Tent City, set up for homeless people who had been negatively affected – or simiply not helped – by the city’s housing policies leading up to the Games.

Besides the alternative mascot campaign, Sochi has also found itself to creative activism around the Circassian Genocide campaign, which argues the Games are being held in an area that ought to be preserved because of the killing that took place. During the London 2012 Games, campaigners from Sochi joined a march, in London, while also Vancouver’s ‘Poverty Torch Relay’ came to the city, reminding people of the ongoing problems associated with and exacerbated by distracions such as the Olympics.

So, where does this leave us. Our event looks to Rio from London. Well, already, there is creative collaboration, which may be seen as a vehicle for positive social change. London 2012 is taking an exhibition to Rio. During the Games, the ‘Rio Occupation London’ project was a showcase for Rio’s cultural and creativity identity, beyond carnival and other more singular motifs.

If there is one message I think may be derived from all of these examples, it is that a history of the Olympic and social change written through them may provide a sound basis for understanding what is possible around a sporting mega-event, but ensuring that they are possible requires enabling a creative fringe and XX> If you visit arts festivals around the world, you quickly become aware of art’s role in revealing matters of pressing social importance. However, creativity is not just a messenger, but provides a new models for thinking about and organizing the world around us.

As Rio’s organizing committee begin to plan their efforts to make a difference to Rio via the Games, they should be mindful of how social change occurs, how it interfaces with creativity and culture, how radical designs require radical models of organization, and how attempts to create engaging cultural programmes should be balanced with attempts to let culture do its work without being managed. Some of the most accomplished works of the London 2012 programme – and of Olympic history – arise within organizations other than the OCOG. This is why I think the creative community cannot walk away from the Games, leave it to the sports fans, and disassociate themselves from it. The Olympics are so disruptive that everyone is implicated within their organization.

When an athlete stands on a podium, raising a black glove in support of civil rights, the capacity of the Olympics to generate powerful moments that ‘inspire a generation’ is made apparent. Any athlete that does this will be removed from the Olympic programme, but will be revered by historians.

Rio has it harder than most. As the first South American Games, it may foreground this transnational context within its creative activism. Their Games may also be said to have significance beyond Brazil’s borders.

Just 2 months after London, my seventh Olympic Games – Winter and Summer – and the one that I have been closest to, many people are asking questions about whether the Games brought about positive social change. Perhaps in cities like London, the scope to change is different from places like Rio. Yet, what holds me to this research agenda is how, despite the vast amount of criticism surrounding the Games leading up to it – an established pattern – people I know have been transformed by those 4 weeks of sport. This happens from one Games to the next. It is known. Documented. Evidenced. When people see the Olympic flame, they are overwhelmed. Holding the Olympic flame becomes a defining moment in someone’s life. Consider the young woman whose sightless father was destined to carry the flame, only to pass away on the year leading up to it. As a tribute, she ran with his torch in the 2012 relay, blindfolding herself in dedication to her father. These stories are powerful, moving, and are able to co-exist with the hyper-commercialism and corporate structures that this young woman may have encountered when passing the torch to a sponsor executive whose life is what allows him or her to have the same privilege.

In sum, it is the Olympics capacity to stage rituals, ceremonies, and symbolically important experiences – like the Queen making her first acting appearance, and in a Bond film – that makes it robust to activism, political resistance, and opposition. It is the marshaling of all global media power that secures its positive legacy at times when it matters. Furthermore, it is the seemingly limitless public budget it commands that makes it too big to fail.

Yet, what it really needs to deliver Coubertin’s vision is an organized, global, creative community. Something to rival the Sports Federations, which are the true organizers of the Olympic Games. Without an organized structure around cultural matters, social change is unlikely to have a lasting legacy. Without a commitment to the Olympic movement beyond delivering the Games, they will be left to act as political boosterism for the intellectual elite and passive participation for the masses. And this really won’t do.