Olympic Considerations

I’m starting to notice a slow uptick in stories about preparations for the 2012 Olympics in London (paired with an equal uptick in stories about the 2012 election, of course), and it got me thinking about Olympic hosting and the politics behind the Olympics. Not just in the sense of who is chosen and how, but what actually happens on the ground for hosting nations; Beijing, for example, attracted a lot of controversy with neighbourhood cleanups in advance of the Olympics and the recent winter Olympics in Vancouver were protested by a number of First Nations groups. These stories weren’t widely covered because there seems to be a general belief that the Olympics get a free pass because spirit of cooperation and all.

Here’s what we know about hosting the Olympics: It is extremely expensive. Setting up venues and housing for athletes and dignitaries and so forth is a costly proposition. Spending also has to include funds on security and often requires infrastructure improvements too, to deal with things like traffic and having huge hordes of people descend on a city for a short period of time, only to vanish again. All that money has to come from somewhere. While Olympic hosts certainly won’t cop to it, undoubtedly one of the places it comes from is budgets for disadvantaged members of the community, because that is the way the world works. When you need a lot of money, take it from the people who need it most because they are the least likely to be able to make their voices of protest heard.

It also comes with a pretty significant sense of obligation. Hosts aren’t just representing themselves, but their entire nation. This means that they usually invest some time and significant money in tidying up around the edges. Usually that involves displacing marginalised members of the community. Homeless communities are harassed and informed they won’t be getting support any more, with the goal of making them go away. Buildings filled with low income housing are demolished to build Olympic housing or because they don’t look nice, and we certainly wouldn’t want that. Members of cities are usually given all kinds of directives about being nice to visitors, including abandoning cultural practices that visitors might not like (see the ban on cat and dog consumption in Beijing during the Olympics, for example).

Does it pay off? Hosts usually try to convince their communities that having the Olympics isn’t just an honour, but also a financial boon. There’s job creation leading up to the events and during the Olympics themselves. There’s also the fact that the community can use the athletic facilities after the event, providing an opportunity to create access to state of the art facilities, including facilities people can use for Olympic training, naturally. Allegedly, cities usually end up with a surplus after the Olympics.

But, as NPR points out, that surplus usually doesn’t account for some hidden and less direct costs, which means it’s not actually that accurate. If you take the time to look at all of the costs involved, the story isn’t nearly so rosy. Especially when you consider the long term impacts of displacing populations of people with limited resources who may experience an increased need for government assistance after the Olympics, sometimes long after the event is over.

Cost-benefit analysis usually doesn’t include human beings, which is a significant problem. Even if hosts can honestly account for costs and earnings and still come out on top, which sounds dubious, the paper accounting doesn’t adequately encompass the real-world accounting and the impact of such events on people in the community. The Olympics are a significant disruption, and not just in the sense of there being a lot of traffic and busyness and it being hard for people to go around to take care of business. Inevitably communities are displaced and further marginalised when the goal is for a city to ‘put its best foot forward’ because no city wants to showcase its oppressed citizens for visitors to look at.

Who is being displaced in London right now? London is a large city with a big immigrant population. Britain is facing record benefits cuts right now, putting many poor people on the edge. London is also a very cramped and crowded place; things must move and in some cases go away to make space for the Olympics. That sets alarm bells ringing in my head.

I worry about this too with planning for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, a city notorious for having a very large population of very poor people. What is going to happen to the favelas of Rio? I sincerely doubt that they are going to be left intact, not in a city that is trying to prove a point by hosting the Olympics. Not in the first South American city (finally!) to host the Olympics; Rio is contending with a complex and very loaded reputation as it prepares for the Olympics, and somehow I suspect the rights of the dispossessed are going to fall very low on the priority list.

What do you do with a massive population of homeless people, on a volume far larger than that shoved off the streets of Vancouver? The government has struggled with the favelas in the past, often taking a policy of ‘removal,’ which is every bit as ominous as it sounds. Rio is a city dealing with the judgment of a number of white, wealthy nations, considerable pressure from sponsors, and a legacy of colonialism and I am a little bit afraid about the collision of these factors.

I don’t think that the solution is to stop holding the Olympics or to only rotate them through established venues. The Olympics are important and every nation deserves the right to bid to host them. But I do think there needs to be a better mechanism for accounting for human costs, and that human rights should be more of a consideration when preparing to host the Olympics every bit as much as housing for athletes, hotels for visitors, and venues for events.