A Critical History of the Olympics


The 2014 Winter Olympics are set to open on February 7 in Sochi, Russia. In the lead up to this Olympics there has been 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 very 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 it toes the line for Washington by documenting the human rights abuses associated with only two Olympic games: these are 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 reps when U.S. allies host the games is instructive.

The Olympics serve the interests of the global wealthy in a number of important ways. To better understand the Olympics one should understand the organization behind the Olympics and take a critical look at some of the recent impacts the games have had on host cities.

The organization in charge of the Olympics is called the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The organization, with all the humility of a North Korean leader, 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 personal. If these savory characters aren’t enough for you, they even have the war criminal Henry Kissinger as a member of honor. The organization’s members had until recently served life terms, and no women were included in the organization until 1981.

The IOC bears some resemblance to other transnational organizations like the G8, IMF, and OECD. In fact, the IMF’s Finance and Development takes a page from the Thomas Friedman book of phony economics by promoting the idea of the “Olympic trade effect”. Here the IMF explicitly pairs the Olympics and neoliberal free trade.

The stated goal of the IOC, like all unelected, transnational organizations, is to build “a peaceful and better world”. Casting aside this predictable rhetoric and examining the effects that the Olympics have had on host cities shows exactly what the IOC means by this statement.

The cost of hosting the Olympic games routinely runs over budget with no real way to determine the true cost. The total cost of the 2010 Vancouver Olympics is estimated to be 7 billion dollars, and analysis done last August shows Vancouver taxpayers are taking a 300 million dollar loss on just the Olympic village project alone.  The estimates of the London Olympics’ cost 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.

Both Canada and the UK have been in the midst of austerity budgets with significant cuts being made to social services at the same time these governments were throwing around untold amounts of taxpayer’s money.

All this taxpayer money went to developers, resort and hotel owners, real estate industry, transnational corporations, T.V. 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 1st 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 will foot the bill.

The Olympics sponsors (a who’s who of criminal corporations) are given monopoly rights to vend (so much for Olympic competition), and in the true to the spirit of neoliberalism London’s Olympic bid even included tax haven status for Olympic sponsor corporations.

The Olympics have taken a page from the corporate playbook by forcing countries and host cities to wage battle with one another. They offer miniscule taxes, meager wages, and lax environmental regulations, all to see who will have the honor of being exploited by the Olympic industry.

The politicians and organizing committees that plan the Olympics write on 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%, were never available to the public, but 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.

Some of the most devastating impacts that the Olympics have on host cities are 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.

The militarization of the Olympics perhaps reached its height during the 2010 London Olympics. During the 2010 games Britain underwent the largest military build up in London since World War II. The UK had more troops in London than in Afghanistan during the Olympics.

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 stand by. Should World War III break out during the games Britain would be prepared.

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, in the year before the London Olympics UK terrorism arrests increased by 60%.

As militarized Olympics became more common, so too did “street sweeps” where homeless and sex workers are seen as vermin, which must be cleansed from the street.

In the run up to 1996 Olympics in Atlanta 9,000 arrest citations were given to mostly African-American homeless men. Stories of homeless forced out of Olympic cities are common.

According to the Center on Human Rights and Evictions the Olympic games alone have displaced more than two million people in the last 20 years, 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 as part of the Olympic redevelopment 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.), can be resisted through the creation of a strong grassroots movement. A number of the recent Olympic host cities were home to many devoted activists working on anti-Olympic actions. But hopefully if more people are aware of the similarities between the IOC and the G8/IMF visions of a “better world”, they may be called to work for an actual better world, one which benefits all the inhabitants of a city, not just the wealthy.

Paul Gottinger is a writer from Madison, WI. He edits whiterosereader.org and can be reached at paul.gottinger@gmail.com

Paul Gottinger is a journalist based in Madison, WI whose work focuses on the Middle East. He can be reached via Twitter @paulgottinger or email: paul.gottinger@gmail.com

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