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Grift in the Name of Zeus and Pelops

Amazon’s recent sweepstakes for subsidies was a grave and divisive corporate affair. It owes much of its style to the Olympic Games.


Long Island City, the newly-consecrated site for Amazon’s next headquarters, is about nine miles from both Yankee Stadium and Citi Field. A decade prior, these two pro baseball stadiums were squeezed into New York through a familiar melange of tax-free bonds and rent breaks. A city infested by underfunded pensions and segregated schools (and, yes, the non-zero chance of catching a goddamn flaming subway) spent $1.8 billion on ballpark upgrades. That’s depressing, but right in line with a tradition of laundering public funds for private gain that has persisted since Reaganism.

It’s not surprising that such a tradition has made its way to technocrats like Jeff Bezos and monoliths like Amazon. It can be performed with manufactured chic, and sold using hip buzzwords. Amazon can argue, however insincerely, that in shoving its way into your community, it’s bringing innovation, and competitive salaries; in holding your downtown hostage for a new stadium, a sports franchise is still stimulating local economies, and reminding you how wanted it is by its fans, that it’s something that’s ours.

How is an antiquated, crusty, old-school grift like the Olympics still going, then? Amazon announced its search in September 2017; the Olympics publicizes its arrival more than a decade in advance. Amazon also was deeply desirable, with mayors feverishly courting victory; Los Angeles was the sole candidate for the 2028 Games, after unpopular bids were withdrawn in Boston, Budapest, Hamburg and Rome. Hell, even stadiums and tech headquarters have the courtesy to continue functioning and existing, rather than pack up and leave town after closing ceremonies. The last installment of the Summer Olympics, Rio’s 2016 Games, ran up a taxpayer tab equivalent to $11.6 billion, about six times the public incentivization used to land HQ2 in November. Seriously, how is this still happening? How does this grift still deliver?

Perhaps the answer is embedded somewhere in what we collectively want the Olympics to be. The Amazon embezzlement can leave a bitter taste because its benefactors are discriminate, and its raison d’être is commercial business. The Olympic Games hint at a richer, more profound meaning, and at their purest, that’s genuine. Until 550 BC, the event was stationary and rural in setting, held in the exact Olympia sanctuary said to have been struck by Zeus’ thunderbolt. Equal parts sporting competition and religious ritual, the Olympics honored Zeus, Greek god of sky and thunder, but they also honored Pelops, the king of Pisa who was venerated in Olympia. The 1896 revival of the event was hosted in Greece, and featured participants from 14 different nations or territories; that figure’s now up to 204.

There’s no doubting the immense, visceral power afforded by such global competition, or the richness of its mythos. Certainly not for 203 of the participating nations. But the contemporary Olympics have polished and repurposed this veneer to inflict lasting damages on host countries. Brazilians were evicted to make way for an Olympic Village that would be deconstructed after 2016. More than two million people around the world were forcibly removed by Olympic projects from Seoul ’88 to Beijing ’08. Los Angeles, amid a homelessness crisis that’s nearing 60 thousand people, is a cruel landing spot for a vehicle of rapid gentrification and displacement.

Of course, these aren’t the wills of the heavens, or some unholy sacrifice made to improve the universal spirit. There are Jeff Bezoses and Amazons in the Olympic process, too. Big winners. They appear, without much less subtlety, as the luxury hotel developers collecting massive tax incentives around Olympic renovations. They are the zealous law enforcement officials looking for beefed up federal cooperation and funding — it was LAPD Chief Daryl Gates when Los Angeles last hosted the Olympics in 1984, and it’ll be the faces of border patrol and immigration restriction come 2028. Reaganite reptilian Peter Ueberroth was named TIME’s Man of the Year for bringing the Games in 84. Current mayor of LA Eric Garcetti is just about crafting an entire presidential campaign around it all. There are greedy, brutish winners of this thing, and they don’t play sports.

Right now, Los Angeles is worlds away from the better future it deserves. There is still quite a lot of time to do something before the surgical grifting device comes clamoring through. Members of the community are taking notice of that, too. Polling conducted through the NOlympics coalition found that 47 percent of Californians are opposed to the 2028 bid, compared to 26 percent in support. Within LA County, nearly twice as many people expressed neutrality (24 percent) as those who indicated strong support (13). Calgary, a city that was flirting with upcoming Olympics after hosting them in the 80s, just voted overwhelmingly to not get fooled twice and axed its 2026 bid in referendum. The world is rank with ever-evolving con-jobs, charlatans and institutional swindles; the oldest one in the book might start to read thin.

Pelops won his title (and also, his wife Hippodamia…) by beating King Oenomaus of Pisa in a chariot race. It came with a caveat: Pelops had bribed Myrtilus, Oenomaus’ chariot driver, to throw the competition. With victory secured, Pelops drowned Myrtilus into the sea. As the myth goes, Myrtilus spent his dying breath cursing the new king’s house, leaving a line of tragedies for the progeny born long after Pelops was inscribed in the temple of Zeus. The fates we endure.