Today I’d like to invite you along for a ‘red pill’ reflection on values and legitimacy. The American president marketed his candidacy as one of hope and change, concepts that many Americans – and citizens of the world – embraced with wild abandon. Nonetheless, it’s no secret that I’ve been thoroughly skeptical of his honesty, and I’d like to share an example of why you should be skeptical too. Although there are many different examples I could choose from (e.g., illegal detentions, fiscal policy, wars of aggression, health care reform etc), today I’m going to highlight one that’s so covertly insidious that few people even recognize it as a problem: the Olympics.
The International Olympics Committee [IOC] has already “gifted” Olympics to Vancouver in 2010, London 2012, and Sochi, Russia, in 2014. President Obama thinks it would be a Great Thing if Chicago were to “win” the Olympics in 2016. Here’s his appeal to the IOC, putting his weight behind Chicago’s bid:
President-elect Barack Obama made a personal appeal Friday to bring the 2016 Summer Olympics to his home city of Chicago. Obama appeared in a taped video message played to the general assembly of European Olympic Committees. (Nov. 21, 2008)
During his appeal, Obama cites the “Olympic Mission™”, but what is that? He suggests that our shared values of difference bring us together, and are “at the heart of the Olympic Movement™”; but, rhetorical flourishes aside, what does that really mean? “Friendship, excellence and mutual respect”? Is there much of this guiding the principles of the IOC? Obama talks about “bringing a fresh perspective on America’s role and responsibilities around the world”, but is hosting the Olympics a responsible agenda? Further, he suggests that the Olympics bring us together for “peaceful achievement” and romanticizes over “serving the Olympic Movement™”, but is that synonymous with serving the needs of We The People?
More recently, his pleas to the IOC have used the White House lawn as a proxy for Chicago. Admittedly, the president has a demanding job and it may be quite difficult for him to jet around, but is a president who brandishes a toy lightsaber while pandering to the IOC from the White House lawn in alignment with the needs of the country? How would hosting the Olympics help America? Chicago? Is there historical evidence indicating that hosting the Olympics might be ‘good for the economy’? What is the Olympics? Think back to the first Olympics you watched/experienced. How do modern Olympics compare?
Just to jog your memory, here’s the who’s and where’s of the modern era: 1968 Mexico City, Mexico; 1972 Munich, West Germany; 1976 Montreal, Canada; 1980 Moscow, USSR; 1984 Los Angeles, USA; 1988 Seoul, South Corea; 1992 Barcelona, Spain; 1994(W) Lillehammer, Norway; 1996 Atlanta, USA; 1998(W) Nagano, Japan; 2000 Sydney, Australia; 2002(W) Salt Lake City, USA; 2004 Athens, Greece; 2006(W) Turin, Italy; 2008 Beijing, China; 2010 Vancouver, Canada.
Looking a little deeper and remembering a bit more context, Mexico City’s 1968 Olympics were ushered in by the “Massacre of Tlatelolco“, in which 200-325 students were murdered. Munich’s 1972 Olympics were preceded by the “Munich massacre“, in which 11 Israelis (and one cop) were murdered. For Montreal’s 1976 Olympics, Mayor Jean Drapeau assured locals that the Olympics “could no more lose money than a man can have a baby”. Irregardless of his assurances, Montreal’s games finished over $2,000,000,000 in debt, and was just payed off by taxpayers in 2006. Charges of conspiracy for falsifying Olympic construction costs were dropped after the key witnesses ‘died’ before they could testify.1 Just prior to Moscow’s 1980 Olympics, the USSR invaded Afghanistan and 61 countries boycotted in protest.
As for Los Angeles’ 1984 Olympics:
“The Soviets, in retaliation for the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, boycotted the 1984 Olympics. Along with the Soviet Union, East Germany, and Cuba, fourteen other countries boycotted the Games.
Though these countries boycotted, there was a newcomer to the 1984 Olympics – China participated in the Games for the first time since 1932.
After the serious economic problems caused by the 1976 Olympics in Montreal, the 1984 Olympic Games saw, for the first time ever, corporate sponsors for the Games. In this first year, the Games had 43 companies who were licensed to sell “official” Olympic products. Allowing corporate sponsors caused the 1984 Olympic Games to be the first Games to turn a profit ($225 million) since 1932.” – (About.com)
The profitability of the Los Angeles Olympics derived from the fact that the city already had most of the necessary infrastructure in place and needed minimal funding for additional facilities. Moreover, the massive amounts of money behind TV broadcast rights and corporate sponsorships reaped windfall profits, and became indelibly linked with modern sports. The Los Angeles Olympics diverged substantially from previous Games, as corporate sponsors relentlessly encouraged sports nationalism and capitalized on consumers’ idolization of athleticism. Using psychological techniques ushered in by Edward Bernays and professional propagandists (a.k.a. “public relations experts”), they helped create a culture where sports heroes are held with more acclaim than warranted, and did so explicitly to help corporate sponsors.
Seoul’s 1988 Olympics included a public imaging campaign that challenges president Obama’s version of reality: spitting on the sidewalk could get you 29 days in prison, the world of boxing was shocked by corrupt officiating, and gentrification devastated Seoul’s heritage:
“Like many hallmark events, the 1988 Olympics provided the impetus for major urban redevelopment in Seoul. Traditional communities of wooden and tile-roofed houses were replaced with middle=class high-rise residential areas. The trend, common in Third World cities, began in the 1960s with Korea’s transformation from an agrarian to an industrial economy. The Asian Coalition for Housing Rights (1989) documented multiple forced evictions numbering in the millions, and claimed that these were amend the most extensive of any city in the world during the 1970s and 1980s.
The neighbourhood of Sang Kye Dong, for example, was home to people who had been evicted from other areas in the 1960s to make way for redevelopment. In 1986, with this area slated for Olympic redevelopment, residents organized resistance to the Olympic project and the threatened evictions. Riot police and men hired by private construction companies attacked protesters, young and old, burned down tents used as community centres, and cut off the water and electricity supply.
A few months later, the remaining 380 residents and their belongings were removed by a force of more than three thousand men. […] Between 1984 and 1988, more than one million people were ‘relocated’ in this brutal manner. On the matter of street sweeps, it is important to note that, in the case of Seoul, some officials appeared to view prostitution as an asset rather than a liability. The government engaged in ‘shameless’ selling of sex tourism in their marketing of Korea to the outside world[.]“2
There’s a similar story with Barcelona’s 1992 Olympics, where more than 600 families were displaced, housing prices and rent increased 139 and 149%, respectively, and the lack of affordable housing forced “low-income earners” out of the city.
In 1994 the IOC staggered the Winter and Summer Olympics – effectively doubling their market saturation. The next Winter Olympics host city, Lillehammer, lost wetlands, forest and public green space, and damaged lynx and bird habitats irrevocably.3
Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Movement™ wouldn’t be burdened with delusions of social justice or blighted by homelessness: 9,000 homeless people were arrested between May 1995 and May 1996, “four times greater than [...] recorded in other years.”
“In another official ‘cleanup’ initiative in 1995 and 1996, Atlanta police implemented the city’s goal of driving homeless people out of town. Hundreds were taken by truck to the outskirts of the city and threatened with six months jail if they returned. In a sinister cooptation of community groups, Project Homeward Bound provided between $500,000 and $750,000 to nonprofit organizations to bus homeless people out of town if they certified that they would not return. As Beaty explained, the official ‘euphemistic’ rationale was ‘to return homeless people to their original support systems’.”4
Additionally, the stench of racism suffused Atlanta’s Olympics:
“Police in Atlanta were revealed to be mass-producing arrest citations with the following information pre-printed: African-American, Male, Homeless. The citations were left blank for the charge and the date and the arresting officer’s name.“5
Nagano’s 1998 games were followed by investigations into “gifts” bought for visiting IOC delegates. Apparently, within the $24 million Nagano officially spent marketing itself to the IOC, “gifts” averaging $22,000 were unofficially distributed to 62 different IOC delegates. Unfortunately, citing a lack of storage space, about 90 boxes of financial records were burned, and justice was delayed.
The Summer Olympics of 2000 were hosted by Sydney, where “cute” aboriginals were persuaded to serve as “representatives” for the Olympics or coerced into giving up land for Olympic-related development.6 Although the federal government managed to find the necessary $4.8+ billion to pay for the Games, Sydney’s homeless population tripled during the bid process and lead-up to the Games and federal funding for health, education, welfare and transportation were substantially reduced.7 Significantly, the Sydney Olympics also championed a new era of “de-politicized sports”:
The Sydney Olympics is the first where all participants have been forced to sign a legally binding agreement banning them from selling their image for advertising. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has the power to disqualify athletes who ‘promote a political or religious message’ and requires them to sign an agreement prohibiting them from ‘recording their thoughts’ of their Games experiences, which according to the IOC would amount to ‘an athlete acting as a journalist.’ – (WSWS)
In order to buttress Sydney’s Olympic bid, John Coates, the president of the Australian Olympic Committee, bought votes from Kenyan and Ugandan IOC members. Retired Auditor General Tom Sheridan independently examined Sydney’s bid and found grievous excess at every turn. He suggested that previous Olympic scandals were not isolated examples of “impropriety, but part of a complex system of relationships among bid committees in the United States, Canada and Australia, and links between members of bid committees and the IOC.”9
If it were an officially-sanctioned category, Salt Lake City 2002 clearly deserves a gold medal for its scandal-ridden Winter Games. Unwitting public aside, IOC members were offered “humanitarian aid” in the form of scholarships at local universities.8 Charges of corruption and bribery were well beyond IOC standards so paltry, transparently impotent reforms were promised. It was also during the Salt Lake Games that Canadian figure skaters Jamie Sale and David Pelletier “lost” the gold medal to the Russian team of Yelena Berezhanya and Anton Sikharulidze. Soon afterwords, the IOC found themselves in a difficult position when the US-backed Canadian team rejected the judges’ decision as well as the silver medal. After much harangue, the IOC’s decision was to grant the Canadians their own gold medals, and nothing more was done. One might ask how this encourages honesty in sports, but do not expect any reasoned answer from the IOC or Olympic boosters.
Athens’ 2004 Olympics cost somewhere between $10 and $20 billion,10 but less fiscal sympathy was available for the poor and margins of society (e.g., immigrants, asylum-seekers, drug addicts, etc). A ruthless “street cleaning” campaign sadly reminiscent of Atlanta’s 1996 Games took people off the streets and locked them in psychiatric hospitals. In a devastating blow to the image of a “secure” Olympics, an investigation was launched following the discovery of hacked cellphones. Apparently, “the Vodafone network in Greece was compromised and software installed that allowed the phones of 106 people to be tapped. These included senior Government officials, senior army figures, journalists and human rights activists.”
Turin was the “proud host” of 2006′s Winter Olympics, but they were plagued by familiar allegations of corruption. “Fixed” construction contracts were followed by budget shortfalls, and the public was left to foot the bill.
Beijing took a page out of Nazi Germany’s 1936 propaganda playbook when they hosted the 2008 Summer Games:
“No nation since ancient Greece has displayed a more truly national public interest in the Olympic spirit than you find in Germany. We can learn much from Germany!” – Avery Brundage, President of US Olympic Committee and later IOC President, before the 1936 Olympics, hosted by Nazi Germany
Although concrete numbers are impossible to obtain, the Games are said to have cost China somewhere between $40 – 60 billion,11 but some put the total cost of all Olympic-related “imagineering” at over $39 trillion. More than 1.5 million Chinese were forcibly displaced to make way for the Olympics, the senseless deaths of construction workers was white-washed, and child labour – largely immigrants – were used to manufacture and produce Olympic souvenirs.
Obviously, Vancouver’s 2010 Games have yet to be held, but similarly corrupt agendas seem to be backing their bid. Homelessness has skyrocketed and been systematically criminalized. Endangered species’ native habitats have been paved over, old-growth forests already ancient when Columbus set sail have been clear-cut to make way for nordic ski resorts, and a handful of misguided First Nations groups have been subverted into acting as token cheerleaders for the whole charade. When it’s all said and done, Canada will have spent significantly more to host the Olympics – a 2 week frenzy of sports nationalism – than it spends on a years’ worth of medical research. Meanwhile, funding for schools, the arts and public services has slowed to a trickle. In order to further publicize this travesty, in 2007 the Work Less Party backed the production of a documentary exposé, Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, but Vancouver’s fate had long since been sealed. Eschewing any semblance of national dignity or impartiality, the Canadian mint even agreed to print the Olympics logo on several series of quarters. This is the equivalent of printing a Nike swoosh on a $5 bill. Benito Mussolini, a godfather of fascism, once suggested that “fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” Western audiences seem loathe to make these connections or recognize similarly uncomfortable truths, and until they do so the Olympics will undoubtedly remain the tool of despots.
London’s 2012 bid began with scandal, and there have been massive budget shortfalls.
“[The Olympics] is going to cost about 9 million pounds. That’s alot of money to watch some guy run around a track. I could go to some gym and see that for free.” – Ozzy Osborne, speaking about London’s 2012 bid
When host cities become contractually obligated, the IOC explicitly demands that all budgetary shortfalls get picked up by the government. They are not accountable. The IOC is a transnational corporation based in Switzerland that markets products to a global audience every two years, but they – and “relevant third parties” are EXEMPT from ALL taxes. Essentially, unlike president Obama, the IOC gets to jet around and live like royalty, and they are beholden to no one except themselves.
Although all modern Olympics have been branded “green”, the reality on the ground is anything but sustainable. Untold tens of billions of trees have been senselessly uprooted to make way for “necessary” infrastructure upgrades. Every two years more carbon is emitted as a result of the Olympics than most “developing” countries produce in a year – equal to that produced by a city of ten million in a year.12 Ignoring local protests and advocacy groups, sensitive wildlife habitats and pristine wilderness has repeatedly been sacrificed to line the pockets of corporations and scheming developers. Nonetheless, in spite of the clear ‘writing on the wall’, the illustrious David Suzuki Foundation – having been paid $10,000 by the Vancouver Olympic Committee – declared a “carbon neutral” 2010 Games plausible. Likewise, London is billing it’s games as “the greenest ever“, so the IOC is obviously banking on a forgetful, naive public.
Does culpability for all this scandalous history rest on the backs of a “few bad apples”? Maybe The Powers That Be are unaware of the social justice issues as well as the economic, social and environmental implications of hosting the Games?
“I really thought the American Olympic officials simply weren’t aware of the problem, and that once it was called to their attention they would do the right thing. Why would they care who’s on the one big team from South Africa? I mean, if they discovered it was an all-white team, and an 80% Black country, what’s the problem? But they cared because they realized that the whole Olympic thing was a club; a men’s club of wealthy racists. The whole notion of sports and sportsmanship was a scam. These guys were effectively using the Olympics to travel high on the hog, with international trips, and I’m sure they went very first class, I’m sure they brought their wives and girlfriends. Or both. I’m sure they lived it up, toasting with dictators and potentates.” – Jim Bouton of the NY Yankees, quoted in Dave Zirin’s Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics, and Promise of Sports
Furthermore, if there’s any lingering doubts about the legitimacy of the Olympic Games, it might help to know that several IOC presidents have had overtly fascist sympathies, Wiki has its own page for Olympic scandals, and any legitimate historical or sociological study of the Olympics must encompass numerous juicy scandals that were excluded from this essay. That being the case, why does Obama think Chicago should host 2016′s Games?
For what it’s worth, I think Obama and other officials know full well what the Olympics Movement™ really entails – gentrification. I think they’re confident in society’s ignorance and in the hypnotic draw of mega-sporting events. When the president of the United States of America whores himself to a profligate transnational corporation from the White House lawn, the American People should be outraged. Through this act alone he demonstrates whose interests he is beholden to and his unsuitability for public office. Some might argue that he’s the “best” option available, but I avidly disagree. We will not accidentally discover sustainable society – it will need to be pursued with diligence and integrity. In order for that to happen, the reign of despots must end. The Olympics embodies the worst qualities of wanton capitalism, and I invite you to consider actively resisting the Olympic Movement™ in any way you can.
1 Auf der Maur, N. The billion dollar game: Jean Drapeau and the 1976 Olympic Games. James Lorrimer, Halifax, NS, 1976.
2 Lenskyj, H. Inside the olympic industry: Power, politics, and activism. State University of New York Press, Albany, 2000.
3 Lenskyj, H. The best olympics ever? Social impacts of sydney 2000. State University of New York, Albany, 2002.
4 Lenskyj, H. Inside the olympic industry.
5 Fair Play for Housing Rights.
6 Shaw, C. Five ring circus: Myths and realities of the olympic games. New Society Publishers, British Columbia, 2008.
8 Sheridan, T. Report of the independent examiner for SOCOG, March 12, 1999.
9 Lenskyj, H. The best olympics ever?
10 Shaw, C. Five ring circus.
12 Schmidt, C. “Putting the earth in play: Environmental awareness and sports,” Environmental health perspectives, 2006, 114, A286-295.