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A Critical History Of The Olympics: Beyond Sochi

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By Paul Gottinger *

It's 2014 and once again the Olympics are underway. This time around Sochi, Russia is the host location for the games. In the run 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. The former IOC president, Jacques Rogge, has  repeatedly  appeared on  Forbes list of “The World's Most Powerful People”.

The 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 Olympic games routinely runs over budget, and there's no real way to determine the actual 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.

While Canada and Britain have been 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, 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 1 st  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.

The Olympics  sponsors  (some of which are responsible for serious  corporate crimes ) are given monopoly rights to vend, or operate (so much for Olympic competition), and as a result make untold amounts of money.  As if that wasn't enough to ensure enormous profits for Olympic corporate sponsors, London's Olympic bid even 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 about how the games are for “the public”. But it's clear from the policies implemented that the games are actually for the wealthy.

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. 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.

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.

Modern Olympics more resemble the fortified Israel/Gaza 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, 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. 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 times take place surrounded by large protests, this seldom happens with the Olympics.

A number of the recent Olympic host cities have been home to  anti-Olympic movements , which have worked to resist 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 1 st  world countries should take democracy and human rights seriously.

* Paul Gottinger is an independent journalist from Madison, WI.
He edits , and can be reached at  This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. '; document.write(''); document.write(addy_text66189); document.write('<\/a>'); //-->\n This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  or @paulgottinger


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