At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the underlying structure of surveillance has not only governed the competition of a small group of athletes at play, but has also extended deeply into both personal lives and into the actions of athletes off the field and in the urban landscape. Tamar Shafrir of Het Nieuwe Instituut on two examples of how this played out at the Rio Games.
The Olympics is an event ruled by people observing and being observed. The act of winning is verified through observation at several levels — by spectators, by trained officials, and by technological instruments like the electric body cord in fencing, photofinish technology for running, and high-precision timekeeping for a variety of sports including archery, basketball, cycling, swimming, sailing, and tennis. If these observations are absent or conflict with one another, controversy tends to arise.
However, at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, the underlying structure of surveillance has not only governed the competition of a small group of athletes at play, but has also extended deeply into both personal lives and into the actions of athletes off the field and in the urban landscape of Rio de Janeiro — a condition that echoes the increasing surveillance of the entire city through the Centro de Operações Rio (COR), the subject of the exhibition Control Syntax Rio.
Two stories in particular demonstrate the seamless extension of surveillance from the Olympic body to both molecular and city-wide levels.
The first story concerns a group of female runners, primarily the South African Caster Semenya. Semenya’s achievements as a female athlete have been called into question because of recent changes in officially sanctioned methods of sex verification. Women have competed in the Olympics since 1900, but their sex has been subject to various forms of testing, including physical examinations from 1936 to 1964, chromosomal testing from 1968 to 1996, and, since 2012, checks for elevated testosterone levels. Unexpectedly high testosterone is assumed to be an indicator of either doping or an innate medical condition called hyperandrogenism, where the body produces an excess of steroid hormones that stimulate typically male physical characteristics — although there is no proof that it leads to faster running.
Since 2012, female athletes with high testosterone levels have been indirectly encouraged to artificially lower them through various methods, including medication to lower testosterone or surgery to remove naturally-occurring internal testes that produce testosterone. Furthermore, at the 2012 London Olympics, at least four female athletes reportedly had genital surgery and estrogen replacement therapy to reduce the suspicion of sexual ambiguity. Still, in 2015, the Indian sprinter Dutee Chand successfully appealed her ban to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, who suspended the practice of hormone-based disqualification until 2017. That decision allowed Semenya to compete in — and win — the women’s 800 metres on Saturday, 20 August. That did not prevent mixed reactions from Polish runner Joanna Jozwik and British runner Lynsey Sharp, who came in fifth and sixth place respectively, that they had been unfairly matched.
The second story is about a group of American male swimmers, in particular the six-time gold medalist Ryan Lochte. On Sunday, 14 August 2016, Lochte told the international press that early that morning, he and three fellow swimmers were on their way home from a party at the Casa França when they were forced out of their taxi and mugged at gunpoint by people with a police badge. Doubts began to arise immediately about his claims, and were quickly corroborated by international media outlets and civil police.
On Tuesday, 16 August, the Daily Mail published video footage of the security checkpoint at the Olympic Village, showing the athletes returning in high spirits, about two hours later than they initially claimed, and taking out their mobile phones and wallets when walking through the scanner. Later, on Thursday, 18 August, the Rio civil police released video footage from a Shell gas station on the Avenida das Américas in Barra da Tijuca, showing the swimmers pulling a metal panel to the ground before being confronted by the station’s security guards. The swimmers also urinated outside the station and paid 100 reais and 20 American dollars for the acts of vandalism. One of the guards reportedly pulled out his gun when Lochte became aggressive during the encounter. While Lochte had already left Brazil by the time the controversy unfolded, Jack Conger and Gunnar Bentz were temporarily detained from their flight, and Jimmy Feigen was ordered to remain in Rio after a judge claimed his 35,000 reais fine was insufficient — but he, like Lochte, had already flown back to the United States, out of reach of the Brazilian jurisdiction. These events reflect back to the questions of surveillance, strategic preparedness, and authority explored in Control Syntax Rio.
The exhibition looks at the consequences and reactions to potential disasters or emergencies in the urban context of Rio, tracing a 25-kilometre path between Copacabana Stadium and Maracanã Stadium.
The infrastructure of COR attempts to map sites of risk and instability within that territory, and thereby prevent their intensification and growth. While the scenarios shown in the exhibition show large-scale, possibly catastrophic situations — buildings collapsing, large gatherings of people on the streets, huge blocks in traffic — the implicit assumption is that the more information that can be gathered under systems like COR, and the smaller and smaller scale their data, the better the state can be at defusing and solving crises.
However, the stories of the runners and the swimmers reveal the ethical and political complexities embedded in the power of surveillance. In Ryan Lochte’s case, surveillance was able to factually counteract a narrative of white, male, American privilege; however, the mere existence of the footage has not proved sufficient to pose any real legal punishment, in or out of the water. Meanwhile, in the case of Caster Semenya and other female runners, invasive medical testing was not only ordered by official sports federations but also leaked to the media for a trial of public opinion. Both Semenya and Dutee Chand were barred from running while their test results were being debated, while at least four runners from developing countries had surgical interventions without any medical necessity. Notably, these decisions have disproportionately affected African and Asian women. While Semenya can rejoice in her victory, the debate has not been concluded, but only postponed. In the meantime, an open debate about the reaches of official and state surveillance — over the city, into our blood, and across national borders — is increasingly urgent. Equally urgent, as well, is the interaction of supposedly “neutral” technologies and bureaucracies with the systemic racism and sexism that continue to shape our contemporary society.