A Critical History of the Olympics: Beyond Sochi

clipolymIn the run up to this Olympics there was no shortage of criticism in the U.S. media for Russia’s human rights abuses in Chechnya and Dagestan, the country’s crackdown on civil society, and, most visibly, Russia’s recent laws criminalizing gays and lesbians.

While the U.S. media is right to criticize these serious human rights abuses, it has continually failed to scrutinize the Olympics when the games take place in a Western country or in a country of a U.S. ally.

Human Rights Watch shows once again that the media toes the line for Washington by documenting the human rights abuses associated with only two Olympic games—the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2014 Sochi Olympics. The U.S. media’s fierce criticism of official state rivals isn’t surprising, but the major media’s metamorphosis into PR representatives when U.S. allies host the games is instructive. The Olympics serve the interests of the global wealthy in a number of important ways. The organization in charge is called the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The organization refers to itself as the “supreme authority of the Olympic movement.”

The members of this unelected, multi-billion dollar, transnational organization include royalty, corporate executives, politicians, and retired military personnel. Former IOC president, Jacques Rogge, has repeatedly appeared on Forbes’ list of The World’s Most Powerful People.

olym-gunsThe IOC bears some resemblance to other transnational organizations like the G8, IMF, and OECD. In fact, the IMF’s Finance and Development promotes the idea of the “Olympic trade effect.” Here, the IMF explicitly pairs the Olympics and neoliberal free trade. In fact, the ideas of “development” and international trade have long been associated with the Olympics.   

 The stated goal of the IOC, like all unelected, transnational organizations, is to build “a peaceful and better world.” When one casts aside the rhetoric and the charity for PR purposes, the effects the Olympics have on host cities becomes clear.

The cost of hosting the Olympics routinely runs over budget with no real way to determine the actual cost. The total cost of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics is estimated to be $7 billion and an analysis done last August shows Vancouver taxpayers are taking a $300 million loss on just the Olympic village project alone.  The estimates of the London Olympics’ costs are between £13 and £24 billion. This incredible price tag demonstrates how serious David Cameron really was about the “age of austerity” and his commitment to cut excess government spending. While Canada and Britain have been in the midst of austerity budgets, with significant cuts being made to social services, these governments threw around untold amounts of taxpayer’s money. All this taxpayer money went to developers, resort and hotel owners, the real estate industry, transnational corporations, TV networks, and private security firms. The Olympics play an integral role in actualizing economic policies where wealth is transferred from the poor and middle class to the rich.

Just like the IMF’s structural adjustment policies, which were prescribed to ailing economies in the developing world, the Olympics leaves host cities, usually in the First World, with huge debts, potential cuts in social services, and privatization.

Since the Olympics nearly always run over budget, the IOC developed a rule which states that the financial responsibility for the games must be assumed by the host city and the organizing committee. This assures taxpayers foot the bill.

olym-extraThe Olympic sponsors (some of which are responsible for serious corporate crimes) are given monopoly rights to vend, or operate, and as a result make untold amounts of money. As if that wasn’t enough to ensure enormous profits for corporate sponsors, London’s Olympic bid included tax haven status for them.

The Olympics have taken a page from the corporate playbook. They force countries and host cities to wage battle with one another. Host cities offer miniscule taxes, meager wages, and lax environmental regulations, the same way cities and states attempt to attract business investment. The politicians and organizing committees that plan the Olympics explain how the games are for “the public.” But it’s clear from the policies implemented that the games are actually for the wealthy.

A recent report on the 2012 London Olympics lists the average price for a ticket to medal events was about $375. What’s worse is that the study shows that significant amounts of tickets for some events—over 50 percent—were never available to the public. Instead they were reserved for VIPs, sponsors, officials, and the media. According to the Office of National Statistics in the UK, the average visitor to the Olympics dropped over $2,000, or twice as much as the average tourist to Britain.

olym-putinThe most devastating impact that the Olympics can have on host cities is the militarization and privatization of urban space. Because of the murder of Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics in 1972, and Canada’s fear of FLQ (Front de libération du Québec) terror, the 1976 Olympics in Montreal were heavily militarized. Thousands of Canadian forces provided security for the games. During the 2010 games, Britain underwent the largest military buildup in London since World War II. The UK had more troops in London during the Olympics than in Afghanistan. There was an 11 mile electrified fence, 55 teams of attacks dogs, a Royal Navy ship anchored in the Thames, drones flying overhead, surface to air missiles on the roofs of apartments, and air force jets on standby. Modern Olympics more resemble a fortified border than a spirit of international cooperation and peace. Along with the militarization of the Olympics came increased police powers. These powers were predictably used to arrest hundreds of protestors and to trump up terrorism charges. In fact, the year before the London Olympics, UK terrorism arrests increased by 60 percent.

As militarized Olympics became more common, so too did “street sweeps” where homeless and sex workers are seen as vermin to be cleansed from the street. In the run up to the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, 9,000 arrest citations were given to mostly African-American homeless men. According to the Center on Human Rights and Evictions, the Olympic games alone have displaced more than 2 million people in the last 20 years. Those displaced have been mostly the homeless, the poor, and minorities such as Roma and African-Americans.

Olympic redevelopment projects commonly target low-income areas, which result in increased rents and destruction of low-income communities. Though promises of low-income housing are common, few ever become a reality.

Though the major media prefer to criticize the human rights record of the Olympic hosts only when they take place in Russia or China, there are significant problems with all Olympic games. The policies of the IOC, like those of other transnational organizations (G8, IMF, ect.), should be recognized as a serious destructive force. While gatherings of the G8, the IMF, and the World Economic Forum often take place surrounded by large protests, this has seldom happened at the Olympics until recently when a number of host cities have been home to anti-Olympic movements resisting the damaging polices the Olympics bring with them.

We have a choice. We can remain passive spectators, cheering on the Olympic industry’s vision of a world only for the rich, or we can decide that First World countries should take democracy and human rights seriously.



Paul Gottinger is a writer from Madison, WI. He edits whiterosereader.org .