The Olympic (shell) games

By ANNE ELIZABETH MOORE  |  September 25, 2009

The invisible fourth pillar
Secrecy forms an invisible fourth pillar to complement the Olympic movement’s stated three: sports, culture, and the environment. It might be the one that actually holds up the podium. How cities are convinced to take on the Olympic Games, given the potential massive debt, involves the suppression of information — and the dissemination of misinformation.

Economic-impact statements by bid committees are often the only ones conducted. They’re widely quoted, but riddled with problems. For example, they tend to count both the indirect and direct costs of construction projects — counting, say, a $37 million velodrome facility as one benefit, and then counting materials and building contracts as another $37 million benefit. On paper, this looks like $74 million in benefits to a city that is actually out $37 million. (But now has a really fast bike track!) These statements also presume that all money spent locally stays local — when in fact the preponderance of multinational corporations associated with mega-sports events means most of it actually doesn’t.

Speaking out against such falsehoods isn’t easy. As early as January, Chicagoans have seen rights to free speech trampled in the blazing-hot trail for the torch. (One stipulation in the host-city agreement essentially states that nothing to detract from the allure of the Games may take place immediately before, during, or after the events. And yes, it can be read to apply to politically dissenting organizations.)

One local group, the not-in-my-backyard-fueled No Games Chicago, had planned a January 2009 event called “Why Chicago should say ‘No’ to the Olympic Games.” When Chicago 2016 got wind of it, they sent an e-mail blast to their volunteer corps to pack the forum with pro-Olympics bodies, thus stifling any opposition.

A few weeks later, Chicago 2016, the mayor’s office, and the Chicago Park District were caught in a campaign to silence a coalition of boat clubs working out of Monroe Harbor, upset that they’d be displaced by the Games. A memo obtained by the Tribune threatened members by suggesting that, should they continue to raise protest, retribution could come in the form of lease non-renewals.

Of course, this took place slightly before both major daily newspapers (the Tribune and the Sun-Times) declared themselves in support of the Olympic bid. Their announcement coincided with the IOC’s April visit to the potential host site, but neither paper had ever reported on public objections to the bid that went back as far as October 2008.

The mainstream media blackout often extends to the physical impact of the Games on citizenry — which in low-income areas tends to be enormous. The Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) — which proclaims itself “the leading international human-rights organization campaigning for the protection of housing rights and the prevention of forced evictions” — has found that more than two million folks worldwide have lost homes during the 20 years of Games leading up to 2008, with approximately 1.5 million more displaced in Beijing alone. Most egregious in US history was 1996 Atlanta, where the Olympics allowed for rampant displacement and the criminalization of homelessness through legislation still on the books today. Displacement is already occurring in London in anticipation of Games that are still three years away.

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