Rio may be end games for high-performance capitalism

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Ozymandias in Rio. In Copenhagen in 2009, when Brazil's successful bid for this year's Olympics was announced, Lula, then the country's president, leapt in the air and danced. So did most Brazilians back home. He said, extraordinarily, "I confess to you if I die right now my life would have been worth it."

What a testimony. His life had been spectacular: an uneducated labourer from an impoverished, broken family. He rose through the union movement, ran for president three times and got smacked down by Brazil's elites, then won and had a highly successful presidency. He raised 30 to 35 million people from poverty. Yet the ultimate achievement was -- an Olympics. What does it show? That people yearn to be more than their class or economic origins: the appeal of nationalism is enduring, comparable only to the appeal of religion -- and just as multifarious in its potential effects, for good and ill.

Now the day has come and Lula won't be there. Nor will his comrade and successor, Dilma Rousseff. She's been removed and is being impeached. He's the first president who has been criminally indicted. Most attacks on them are sleazy and opportunistic but the country is in such disarray that no one, including the stand-in president -- also indicted -- wants to attend.

So, Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair. At least Ozymandias had been gone for eons when his words turned ironic. Lula is still in the vicinity.

The Zika connection. In Brazillionaires, his recent, excellent book on the superrich in Brazil (and much else), journalist Alex Cuadras says, "Zika was not a curse from above. For decades, Brazil suffered from outbreaks of dengue, which is carried by the same mosquito…. [It] thrives on urban neglect." It was a question of priorities. He makes the same point about the death of a cyclist run down by the son of an iconic Brazillionaire, Eike Batista. Others had died on the same neglected stretch of road. (Eike, by the way, is so Trumpian it hurts -- including the mane. Cuadras may have solved the mystery of that "hair.")

What priorities were involved? In choosing poverty alleviation, Lula and Dilma chose not to confront Brazil's deep corruption and inequality; in fact they joined in those and utilized them to help pass their programs. Challenging those blemishes would've been hard and perhaps fatal to their agenda.

It's like Lesser Evil Voting (LEV); this is Lesser Evil Economic Policy (LEEP!). But, when things shifted -- oil and coffee prices collapsed, the global economy slowed -- there hadn't been basic structural changes put in place. The basic poverty measures stayed but other elements, like community policing in the favelas, got cut and the drug gangs began returning. The elites had retained all their power so they continued to benefit from Olympic spending but the underclasses felt betrayed and excluded. Then the elites -- loyalty not being their identifying traits -- turned on their previous leftist allies.

To be clear, I'm in favour of bread and circuses. I think both are essential, not just to well-being, but to human survival. But if the changes you make are only half-assed, they leave you vulnerable to counterattack by those who've always been at the top. I know no clear answer about what to do in such a situation; the answer is: you muddle through. In the 20th century numerous isms and their makers thought they had solutions to how to "fix" society. You just imbibed and applied. Now those are as gone as Ozymandias and his delusions.

The End Games? It's appealing to think technology will resolve intractable human dilemmas, and it sometimes does: not always pleasantly but -- resolutely. This may be the case with doping. Sometime soon, "genetic enhancement" may adjust for any testing and compensate. An "ethicist" told the Financial Times that in 50 years, natural athletes could seem "anachronistic." It sounds like Formula 1 racing: superb machines with humans inside. What then -- Formula 1 Olympics?

Sports wouldn't disappear, but high-performance sports as we know it, with its rewards and stakes, would. It's like intellectual property. For 400 years, copyright and patents seemed self-evident. Then the Internet made them start looking "anachronistic." That doesn't mean private property will disappear, or capitalism. But high-performance capitalism, as described, say, by Alex Cuadras, might start looking temporary -- as Lula and Dilma both once dreamed.

This column was first published in the Toronto Star.

Photo: Agência Brasil Fotografias/flickr

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