An extremely hetero pageant to celebrate the upcoming Sochi Olympics. Image via Flickr
With the Sochi Winter Olympics only six months away, denizens of the internet, media pundits, and LGBTQ activists have engaged in a fiery debate over whether or not Western nations should boycott the games in protest of Russia’s new antigay legislation. While disagreeing on how to effectively send Russian lawmakers a message—whether through an all-out boycott, individual acts of protest at the games, or moving the event to a different country—both sides of the debate began by condemning Russia’s criminalization of homosexuality as the egregious assault on human rights that it is. But this conversation fails to consider the ways in which the Olympic Games violate human rights everywhere they are held.
Many of the loudest voices in this debate have argued that Russia’s antigay legislation is antithetical to the unifying and egalitarian spirit of Olympic competition. For example, Kristopher Wells wrote in the Edmonton Journal that: “The modern Olympic movement was founded on the principles of equality, fairness and respect for all. The Olympics are the moment when the world stops and all nations come together as one, regardless of gender, race, culture, class, heritage, age, or sexual orientation.” Similarly, Barack Obama told Jay Leno: “If Russia wants to uphold the Olympic spirit, then every judgement should be made on the track, or in the swimming pool, or on the balance beam. And people’s sexual orientation shouldn’t have anything to do with it.”
Although it’s nice to imagine the Olympics as a beacon of peace and equality in a world rife with discrimination, the history of the Games has proven statements like these to be problematic and hollow. So really, Olympic egalitarianism is a dumb, stupid myth. Here’s why.
A mob of anti-Olympics protesters in Vancouver. Photo via Flickr
Evictions and Displacement
A UN-funded study by the Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) found that from the 1988 games in Seoul to the Beijing Olympics of 2008, more than 2 million people have been displaced to make way for Olympic celebrations. These displacements disproportionately affect the poor and ethnic minorities, pushing people out of their homes and leaving behind high-cost real estate that most former residents cannot afford.
In the six years prior to the Seoul Olympics, 48,000 residential buildings were demolished, displacing 720,000 people, while more than 1.25 million people were displaced in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. In advance of the Atlanta games of 1996, 9,000 arrest citations were given out for the city’s homeless while 2,000 public housing units were demolished.
The years leading up to the Olympics in Barcelona saw the availability of public housing decrease more than 75 percent, and almost all of the Roma residents in surrounding communities were displaced. And currently, well in advance of the Brazil games of 2016, residents of Rio’s favelas are being targeted for eviction against their will. Consent is rarely a part of this process—while in 2012 London residents were told to suck it up when they objected to having missile defense systems installed on their roofs—the 2010 Olympics were held on unceded indigenous territory without the consent of 80 of the region’s indigenous bands.
The Olympics Gives Police New Powers
The official Olympic charter leaves little room for dissent or protest, stating in its rules, “No kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda is permitted in the Olympic areas.” Through a new law passed in time for the 2012 Olympics, 13,500 British troops, alongside more than 10,000 private-security personnel, were given the power to forcibly enter people’s homes and destroy or seize any material not sanctioned by the Olympics.
A similar law in Vancouver rendered any material that did not celebrate the Olympics illegal and similarly granted police the right to seize such materials from people’s homes. A public outcry saw this law amended in Vancouver, but British Columbia officials—following the model set by Olympic host cities like Seoul, Atlanta, Sydney, and Athens—passed a law allowing police to forcibly transfer the homeless to shelters in the event of extreme weather (like winter), or jail them temporarily if shelters are full.
Cleaning cities up for the arrival of global tourists also means proactive police operations to intimidate and clear the streets of “undesirables.” In addition to a crackdown on the homeless and Roma people prior to the London 2012 games, London police conducted a series of raids to intimidate sex workers in advance of the games. Even the LGBT community has been targeted by these proactive raids—in the year leading up to the Montreal games in 1976, the city saw a sharp increase in raids on bath houses and queer hotspots.
Photo via Flickr
Companies with Horrendous Human Rights Records Are Selected as Olympic Sponsors
Without a shred of irony, the London 2012 Olympics had BP Oil as its chief “sustainability partner,” a company with a questionable human rights record that is best known for the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill that continues to threaten the region’s seafood industry. Next year’s “sustainability partner” is DOW Chemical, a company which for over a decade has refused to take responsibility for its gas leak, which killed 25,000 people.
Profit and Debt
While the International Olympics Committee (IOC) generates massive profits ($383 million in 2008) from sponsorship deals and the sale of television rights, it leaves the residents of host cities to pay off enormous debts. The IOC host-city agreement stipulates that the Olympics, as a nonprofit organization, pay no taxes to host nations on money made during the Olympics. With the IOC left to self-audit, the salaries of IOC executives are unreported and nobody is certain where Olympic profits go.
In the past, board members have been implicated in bribery scandals, taking “gifts” in exchange for their vote on where the Olympics should be held. Meanwhile, with Olympic ceremonies often exceeding their projected budgets tenfold, host cities are left paying off the games for years. Montreal took 30 years to pay off the $2 billion debt it acquired by hosting the Olympics, while Vancouver got off easy with a debt of only $1 billion. Meanwhile, Olympic expenditures in Greece contributed €9 billion to its national deficit, fucking over the entire country for the foreseeable future.
And this is just a taste of what the Olympics has to offer. So while everyone in this debate is on point in arguing that human rights are under threat with the upcoming Sochi 2014 games, there are actually many reasons why this global celebration of athleticism causes a lot of seriously alarming societal issues.
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