Gordon Campbell on the Rio Olympics

Were you pretty excited earlier this week when Vietnam won its first ever Olympic gold medal?

Hanoi, reportedly, went wild. In the men’s 10-metre air pistol event on Day One in Rio, Vietnam’s Houang Xuan Vinh managed to beat a Brazilian competitor into second place. (As we all no doubt recall, Vietnam had previously won silver in Taekwondo in Sydney in 2000 and silver again in the men’s 56kg weightlifting in Beijing Games in 2008.)

Hmmm. Perhaps we should keep Vietnam’s golden moment in mind as we gear up for saturation media coverage of New Zealand’s medal achievements in Rio. Given that there are now 42 separate codes and 300 events, an Olympic medal is starting to feel less like a reward for ruthless competitive excellence, and more like one of those school competitions where everyone goes home with a prize.

And wait, there’s more in store. As Nate Silver’s 538 site has recently pointed out, the array of sports recognised by the Olympics just got bigger.

Last week, the IOC announced that baseball, softball, karate, surfing, skateboarding (!) and climbing (!!) will be on the medals agenda at the 2020 summer Olympics in Tokyo, in an attempt to make Olympic sport ‘relevant to young people.’

And relevant too, to the people who market the products aimed at those young people. As 538 went on:

But concern trolling over the fidelity of the Olympics’ roster of sports overlooks just how capricious the traditional selection process has been. …..Rugby and golf were part of the 1900 Olympics in Paris — the second modern summer games — but by 1908 golf was out and rugby followed shortly thereafter. Other sports like basketball and boxing were added in subsequent years, but by the 1988 games in Seoul, South Korea, far more obscure sports like synchronized swimming, taekwondo and rhythmic gymnastics were on the Olympic docket, decades before golf and rugby would return.

Each Olympic cycle the executive board of the International Olympic Committee votes to add sports that have petitioned to be included based on criteria like “TV ratings, ticket sales, anti-doping policy and global participation and popularity,” according to ESPN.

It reminds me a little of the annual journalism awards. As in other occupations where the social standing of the practitioners is suspect – actors are another good example – journalists are more than happy to be give each other awards that boost the value of their CVs, while (for similar marketing reasons) their employers make the most of the bragging rights within their own publications.

Olympic medals have become a lot like that. Often the winning country cares only about what its own athletes have managed to win and brags accordingly – and it is this process that sustains the television ratings of keen interest (a) to advertising agencies, and (b) to the people peddling the exclusive broadcast rights to Olympic coverage.

Point being, these outbursts of commercially-driven nationalism are in direct opposition to the spirit of internationalism that Olympic sport is meant to foster. And that’s before you begin to calculate the grotesque misallocation of resources within the host country, this time around.

If the world is intent on going hog wild with the roster of Olympic sports (in order to maximise those opportunities for bragging rights), I’d like to see the re-instatement of the gold medals for Art, last awarded in Amsterdam in 1928. The full list of the winning Art medallists at the ’28 Games (Olympic medals were given for architecture, sculpture, paintings, drawings & watercolours and even one to “Twelve Branches of Sport Carved in Wood”) can be found here.

Oddly enough, the gold medal for drawing that year was a depiction (by a Frenchman!) of two rugby players, even though rugby had just been dropped from the Olympic schedule. Rugby didn’t return to the Olympics for another 92 years, until this year in Rio. Wow. Having the rugby sevens lining up in Rio (alongside judo, badminton, dressage, trap shooting etc etc etc ) has to be almost as exciting as the result of this year’s 10-metre air pistol competition.

TPP, Again,

‘I’ll stand over your grave ’til I’m sure that you’re dead’ – Bob Dylan

Sorry if you’re sick to death of this, but here’s a brief update on the Trans Pacific Partnership. the zombie trade deal that refuses to lie down and expire. US President Barack Obama, as Foreign Policy magazine recently described him, could well be the last lonely free trader left on earth.

As things stand, Obama still seems hellbent ion taking the TPP deal up to Capitol Hill for a vote during the ‘lame duck’ session of Congress due to held after the November 8 election. Everyone is telling him he won’t have the votes to pass it. Everyone is also telling him that Hillary Clinton, his likely successor, is against the deal in its current form. So is her running mate, Tim Kaine. By then though, what will Obama have to lose? Why wouldn’t the by-then zombie President try one last time to pass his zombie trade deal?

Well, reality check: what is now screamingly obvious is that the US Congress is not going to pass the TPP in the form signed in Auckland last February. If the US Congress is to ratify the deal – as leading Republicans such as Ways and Means chair Orrin Hatch and House Speaker Paul Ryan have both separately made clear – is that there will need to be changes made to:

(a) The data localisation requirements for financial services data. The US is planning to supersede the TPP requirement to localise in-country the storing of financial data by inserting a contradictory exemption to that effect into the upcoming Trade in Services Agreement (TISA). This will “fix” the financial services “problem – in reality, it’s a privacy protection for consumers – for seven out of 11 TPP member countries. What does New Zealand think of this gambit?

(b) The market exclusivity term for biologics medicines. This was a key victory that Australia and NZ thought they’d won during the actual negotiations. We thought we’d negotiated a five year patent term for these costly new medicines, and justified our other trade-offs on that premise. Instead, an eight or 12 year term for biologics is now on the cards, and Orrin Hatch is demanding that this concession must be attached to the TPP as a ‘side agreement.’ Japan has publically denounced this gambit:

Japan’s Deputy Chief of Missions Atsuyuki Oike said during a luncheon at the National Foreign Trade Council on July 15, [that Japan ] ruled out anything that could be construed as a renegotiation, especially with each of the 12 member nations focused on selling the existing deal to their own domestic audiences. This also means renegotiations will not happen when a new President is elected in the United States this fall, because too many compromises have been made to reach this current stage, he asserted.

What does New Zealand think?

(c) The carve-out for tobacco. The TPP exempted any health –related regulations on tobacco from being challenged under the investor-state dispute mechanisms. The Americans – the Republican politician Mitch McConnell has been very vocal on this point – want to scrap this anti-tobacco provision. For Malaysia, that exemption was a deal breaker. Again, what does New Zealand think?

All of these three initiatives constitute major changes to the TPP deal – and yet the Key government has not issued a peep of comment, publically. That aside, the TPP itself is clearly on life support. Last year, the House approved Trade Promotion Authority – the power Obama has to subject this deal to a straight yes or no vote – by only a slim 218 to 208 margin. That support seems to have eroded, significantly. Moves to counter China’s manipulation of its currency (for trade purposes) also seems to be back on the table, for some Republican TPP critics within Congress at least. They have argued that a lame duck vote this year would be inherently undemocratic.

“Americans deserve an opportunity to hold our President and their elected representatives in Congress accountable, and forcing this bad deal through a ‘lame duck’ would deny them that opportunity,” Rep Candace Miller said. This same point was echoed in the letter [from six House Republicans] sent to Obama.

“Some in your Administration reportedly believe passage of TPP should be attempted following November’s election. We respectfully, but strongly, disagree,” the letter said. “A ‘lame duck’ Congress should not vote on an agreement of this consequence — it would be an end-run around the American people immediately following an election. We urge you not to send TPP implementing legislation to Congress in 2016.”

Both major party presidential candidates have lambasted the TPP on the campaign trail, and said they do not support the deal. Yet the Clinton/Kaine opposition to the TPP doesn’t seem to be deterring Obama one iota. On August 5th, House Speaker Paul Ryan cast further doubt on whether the Obama administration has time to modify parts of the TPP sufficiently to garner enough Congressional support for Ryan to even consider bringing it up for a vote during a lame-duck session.

“We don’t have the votes. So long as we don’t have the votes I see no point in bringing up an agreement only to defeat it. I have my own problems with TPP. It is not ready,” Ryan said on Wisconsin Public Radio. “They have to fix this agreement and renegotiate some pieces of it if they have any hope, any chance of passing it. And I think that the sand is running through the hour glass pretty fast. I don’t see how they’ll get votes for it.”

Ryan has his own list of problem areas with the TPP.

The Speaker highlighted complaints with three areas of TPP: the protection required for biologic drugs under the agreement, unspecified rules relating to dairy, and a “a few other provisions relating to labour that I think [the administration] made a big mistake on.”

Did Vice-President Joe Biden communicate any of this to Key doing Biden’s recent visit – and if so, what was Key’s response? Do we stand with Japan in opposing side agreements being added to the TPP, or are we willing to rejig the deal signed in Auckland, to help the chances of passage by the outgoing Obama administration? Did Biden say anything to Key about what Hillary Clinton is likely to do about the TPP, once she’s elected?

This fog of secrecy about our TPP position is nothing new, of course.

Leonard Cohen & Marianne

Most of us have probably heard by now of the letter that Leonard Cohen wrote this week to Marianne Ihlen, the lover/muse who inspired “So Long Marianne” (and other great Cohen songs) and who died last week in Norway at the age of 81.

A friend called Jan Christian Mollestad had advised Cohen of her impending death, and within a couple of hours Cohen wrote back a letter, which Mollestad says he was able to read to Ihlen while she was still conscious. In case there’s still anyone unaware of this letter, here’s the gist of it:

Mollestad, a documentary maker, read Cohen’s letter to her before she died. “It said well Marianne it’s come to this time when we are really so old and our bodies are falling apart and I think I will follow you very soon. Know that I am so close behind you that if you stretch out your hand, I think you can reach mine.

“And you know that I’ve always loved you for your beauty and your wisdom, but I don’t need to say anything more about that because you know all about that. But now, I just want to wish you a very good journey. Goodbye old friend. Endless love, see you down the road.”
Mollestad told CBC that when he read the line “stretch out your hand,” Ihlen stretched out her hand. “Only two days later she lost consciousness and slipped into death.”

Here’s a live version of one of the other great songs that Cohen wrote for Marianne Ihlen.

3 Comments on Gordon Campbell on the Rio Olympics

  1. The ludicrous to have a “Fog of secrecy” in a contract/agreement!
    I am sorry to say it again but the tppa is not even a lawful or binding agreement.
    The Crown govt NZ( and its corporate partners) seems to really dig drafting and signing these unl-awful agreements.

  2. “Often the winning country cares only about what its own athletes have managed to win and brags accordingly…”

    I’m not so sure about this point. Athletes like Michael Phelps Usain Bolt tend to be celebrated internationally.

  3. I am happy to say that I couldn’t give a crap about the corporate Olympics.

    “Do you want fries with that?”

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