The 2010 Winter Olympics are coming to Vancouver. For some folks that’s reason to celebrate but for most of us out here on Canada’s Left Coast it’s a disaster. The contemporary Olympic movement has strayed catastrophically from its origins and is now a monumentally arrogant corporate greed fest, intent on smarmy spectacle and maximum profit generation. More than that, the Olympics are a blunt neo-liberal force for transforming cities, going end-around on civic democracy and remaking public space as hyper-securitized surveillance zones.
The 2010 Olympics are transforming Vancouver despite real resistance, and the full effects are only now becoming clear. This city’s experience has to be an unambiguous warning to every other city that has designs on inviting these corporate thugs into their home. Vancouver is a city with the highest cost of living in the country, Canada’s lowest minimum wage, highest housing prices, the nation’s highest rates of child poverty and billions spent on this circus.
We’re unapologetic sports fans, and especially unapologetic hockey fans, so we should be loving Olympic hockey right in our hometown. But we’re going to be yelling at our televisions come February (because we sure as hell can’t afford a ticket) – and it’s mostly going to be cussing. Here’s why:
- Massive security apparatus – Where do you start with this? With a $900 million dollar budget, the use of selective ticketing of inner-city residents, a massive expansion of closed circuit television cameras, new crowd control equipment for policing including armoured personnel carriers and a new ‘sound cannon’ to add to the arsenal of crowd control weaponry, this is a case of keystone cops on steroids. More than 15,000 on the ground police and military personnel plus uncounted undercover agents and undisclosed border, air and marine operations will be keeping our city “safe.”
- Constriction of civil liberties – In order to protect the Olympic brand and corporate sponsors, unprecedented heavy-handed legislation has been passed by Vancouver City Council which restricts signs, megaphones and distribution of literature and creates free-speech zones and safe assembly areas where dissent will be permitted, well out of sight of the world’s media. Signage that is not ‘celebratory’ in nature will be severely restricted. Even journalist Amy Goodman was detained at the Canadian border and had her computer and speaking notes leafed through while she was repeatedly asked if she was coming to the country to ‘criticize the Olympics’. The Orwellian atmosphere is alarming by any democratic standard. Welcome to Canada!
- Massive expenditures on the wrong things – The municipal budgetary bloodbath started months ago. The idea that the Olympics will generate a profit is simply not true. All of the infrastructure spending – $1 billion on a trade and convention centre, $600 million for the Sea-to-Sky highway, $125 million for a speed-skating oval and scores of millions more for curling rinks and luge tracks – is being borne by the public. All this while homelessness in Metro Vancouver has more than doubled since the Olympics were awarded to Vancouver.
- Destruction of housing – The real estate speculation that followed Vancouver winning the Olympic bid has meant that inner-city neighbourhoods have had property increases that doubled, tripled and even quadrupled in value. Huge numbers of low-rent hotel rooms have been converted to other uses or rented at rates higher than social assistance is set at. Since the Olympic bid process began, about 1,150 units are no longer available to the low-income community of the Downtown Eastside, a ten-minute walk from where the opening ceremonies will take place.
- Contributing to the displacement of native people – Though some of the First Nations bands supported the Olympics, many of their membership and off reserve First Nations have actively opposed it. Urban First Nations have not been consulted, will receive little benefits and have the greatest impacts from security forces in the inner city. Beyond that the Olympics have ushered in a new era of development on unceded native territory.
- Legacy of private profit and public debt – The Olympics is basically a franchise that is bought with public money from a closed, corrupt organization based in Switzerland. It amounts to a giant subsidy for developers, tourism interests and the construction trades. This is who is represented on the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC), and why there is no civil society representation, though all the costs will be carried by the public.
- Humongous corporatization – Every single piece of the Olympics is designed to maximize corporate exposure and profit – tents, sponsors, official partners: McDonald’s, Coke, Visa, Acer, GE, etc. The Olympics have created an absolute avalanche of corporate advertising in every corner of the city.
- Greenwash – The number of airline flights alone from visitors make the Olympics an environmental disaster. The building of highways destroyed the fragile eco-system of Eagleridge bluffs, and several Olympic venues have been dropped into environmentally sensitive areas. The term ‘sustainability’ and the Olympics should never be used together.
- Union Busting – A recent paramedics strike was legislated back to work by the government after pressure from Olympic organizers. During early venue construction, migrant labourers were paid below the minimum wage but were afraid to speak out for fear of being sent home. The government brought in temporary foreign employment programs that were meant to put a downward pressure on wages.
- A new era of neo-liberalism – The Olympics accelerate very specific development paths and commit the city to a new course of economic and social relationships – it forces us into the deep end where we can’t get out. It puts the economy on steroids: artificial, unsustainable and ultimately embarrassing.
There really is good and thoughtful resistance here, but it is getting buried under the billions of dollars of corporate hype and armies of security thugs. Do what you can to contribute to it, to resist the Olympic insanity and the very least keep these jackasses out of your city.
For a couple of solid links see:
Matt Hern is a radical urbanist who lives in East Vancouver. He is the author of the forthcoming book Common Ground in a Liquid City: Essays in Defense of an Urban Future (AK Press, January 2010).
Am Johal is a social activist in Vancouver and founding Board member of the Impact on Communities Coalition, initiator of the 2010 Homelessness Hunger Strike Relay and an organizer with Vancouver Flying University.