Sports, spectacle, and … socialism? A conversation with Roger Keil

Roger Keil is director of the City Institute at York University and member of the International Network for Urban Research and Action. He is the author of Los Angeles: Globalization, Urbanization, and Social Struggles (John Wiley & Sons Ltd) and co-author with Julie-Anne Boudreau and Douglas Young of Changing Toronto: Governing Urban Neoliberalism (University of Toronto Press). I spoke with him at the City Institute in Toronto.

Simon Black: Cities worldwide, often with the support of higher levels of governments, are competing intensely to host sporting spectacles like the Olympics or Pan-Am Games. Such events can leave cities with significant amounts of debt in addition to other social and ecological costs. What’s the logic driving this competition? What does this tell us about the nature of global capitalism today and the role of cities within it?

Roger Keil: This is not really a new development but I think the composition of the capital outlays and the purpose of the investment has changed. The great nationalist or Fordist Olympics that came to an end in Munich 1972 and couldn’t be resuscitated in Montreal (after the global crisis of 1973) actually did have a return on public investment. In Munich, the infrastructure advanced for 1972 is still a visible part of everyday life in that city today. We know what happened in Montreal and that disaster set off the new neoliberal Olympics of Los Angeles where the public paid and private corporations have the benefits.

As is typical for the differentiations of post-Fordist, neoliberal capitalism, every Olympics has a specific genius loci. What might be beneficial in Barcelona or Lillehammer where social democratic redistribution worked to a degree, may be catastrophic in places like Seoul, Athens or Atlanta. Where does Vancouver sit in this mosaic of global possibilities? Where would Toronto sit vis-à-vis the Pan-Am Games? This will still depend on what the regional compromise will allow the public to claw back in terms of housing, infrastructure and other amenities brought in for the Games. What we do know is that the Los Angeles model (where private entrepreneurship under Peter Ueberroth organized the Games but general corporate sponsorship was still rather underdeveloped) was in total overdrive in Vancouver where RBC, Coke and a few others didn’t just manage the Games themselves but started to reorganize and rebrand the entire urban fabric, public space and even the narratives which were constructed about the games.

SB: How successful have activists been in resisting this logic? What type of urban coalitions have activists formed and with what strength?

RK: Again, this is quite different in different places. Toronto has had a very successful history of resistance but this also has to be measured against the incompetence of the regional elites to sell their brand. But after former Mayor Mel Lastman made his comments about cannibals in Africa in a Barcelona hotel room, there was not too much left activists had to do to derail the project. Berlin is another good example for successful resistance. In London, things are slightly different as resistance has turned into other forms of engagement with the process of urban restructuring that the Olympics have set into train.

SB: What can activists do to turn these events to progressive ends?

RK: There are probably two things that can be done. First, one can use the Olympics as a platform for internationally recognized street action. This was done very successfully at the Olympics in Vancouver. The foreign press was full of stories about anti-poverty activism in the Downtown Eastside. Second, you can use the sports event to produce leverage for social and environmental gains. At a time when governments are sensitive to international scrutiny over their behaviour, it may be possible to collect some progressive rent from the mega-event as the organizers don’t want to look as if they were just out to make a profit. Whether such a strategy can offset the displacement and gentrification created by the event in the first place, is debatable, of course.

SB: Thanks for sharing these insights with Canadian Dimension Roger.

Published in Canadian Dimension Vol 44 (3), May/June 2010

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