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The Olympics: celebrating or denigrating our common humanity?

Taraneh Ghajar Jerven’s recent article in the Christian Science Monitor, “2010 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony: What about Vancouver’s homeless?” highlights the injustices perpetrated in the run-up to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.(1) Jerven discusses the expensive development costs associated with the 2010 Olympic Games, where the original budget of $660 million was revised to over $5 billion.(2)

The astronomical increase in costs for the Vancouver Olympics is especially egregious when considering that the city’s homeless population has doubled since 2003 – the same year that the city secured its Olympic bid. This rise in homelessness leaves one wondering: how can an international event that claims to celebrate peace, unity and global harmony so callously ignore the needs of the most vulnerable populations? What kind of priorities is the international community embracing in such an outright rejection of the human right to housing?

Violations of the human right to housing are not specific to the 2010 Vancouver Games, and are unfortunately indicative of a growing trend in these types of mega-sporting events. One key example is the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where violations of the human right to housing displaced approximately 1.5 million residents. This trend can be followed to other host cities, such as Seoul, where 720,000 people were displaced to make way for the 1988 Olympic Games. Additionally here in the United States, in the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Games, 30,000 people were displaced and 2,000 units of public housing were destroyed.(3)

When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was selecting a host city for the 2016 Olympics, the Chicago Coalition to Protect Public Housing (CCPPH), a local resident-led advocacy group, recognized the threat that Chicago’s bid for the games posed to the human right to housing. Community concerns specifically focused on the dangers Chicago’s public housing would face in the top-down, pro-development approach other cities adopted in their preparations for the Olympics.

Consequently, CCPPH along with allies developed a campaign to ensure that the IOC knew that the people of Chicago would not accept mass displacement. CCPPH and its allies organized rallies outside of IOC meetings, facilitated community education about displacement around past Olympic Games, and conducted meetings with IOC members.

Ultimately these and other direct actions helped steer the games away from Chicago. Given that public housing in Chicago has been under siege for some time, through demolitions and subsequent displacement, residents could simply not afford the damaging impact that the Olympics would have wrought upon their communities. Unfortunately others across the globe, particularly the poor and marginalized, have not been as successful at thwarting these mega-sporting events.

Raquel Rolnik, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, has outlined the myriad of violations to the human right to housing in circumstances surrounding mega-sporting events, namely the Olympic Games and the FIFA World Cup Soccer Tournament. Development in the run-up to the 2010 FIFA World Cup Tournament in South Africa, for instance, intends to displace 20,000 residents from the Joe Slovo settlement in Cape Town.(4) This mass displacement would resettle the community to the periphery of the city, leaving them with little access to job and education opportunities.

The Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign & the South African Shack Dwellers Movement have aggressively advocated in the court system and actively mobilized in grassroots communities to fight this massive displacement. This direct action, organized by the Shack Dwellers Movement, mirrors the steps taken by the CCPPH and its allies in Chicago, and shows the breadth of the international struggle and solidarity for the human right to housing.

Yet, again we beg the question, why must development policies around these mega-sporting events target poor, marginalized communities for displacement? As the stated objective of these events is to foster international peace and goodwill, isn’t there a better use for these funds that is in line with the universal belief in the human right to housing for all?

While the efforts of the CCPPH and its allies have helped steer the Olympic Games away from Chicago, concerns about displacement due to the Olympic Games still persist. Rio de Janeiro won the bid for the 2016 games, which calls for continued vigilance by all of us who advocate for the human right to housing. Given the class and racial disparities already present in Brazilian society, it is imperative that a portion of the $14.4 billion currently allotted for the 2016 games be used to help alleviate the existing human rights concerns of the city’s most marginalized.

No one sums up the feelings of those whose communities and homes are at risk more than Willie J.R. Fleming of CCPPH:

“The Olympics would have been a distraction for our city. We need our leaders to focus their time, energy and resources on the real needs and concerns of the community, including housing and other vital services. Instead of investing in the Olympics, which seem to only profit private developers, we should invest in our real future, the well-being and security of our children.”

1 In addition to the homelessness crisis, there have been several concerns around indigenous issues and the Vancouver Games. Read more here.
2 Given the massive spending that accompanies mega-sporting events, many cities hosting such games are often left in debt. Hence, these games are not the financial wind-fall they are sometimes presented to be. The Athens Olympic Games, for instance, left the city with $17 billion in debt.
Read more here.
3
See this link.
4
See this link.

Chris Famighetti is an intern for NESRI’s Human Right to Housing program. He is working on policy research and organizing around housing issues in the United States. He just completed his first semester as an Urban Leaders Scholar at the New School’s Urban Policy Program. He has a BA from Bard College, where he studied Literature and Russian.

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2 thoughts on “The Olympics: celebrating or denigrating our common humanity?

  1. Thank you so much for publishing this!

    I want to make one correction: the Western Cape Anti-Eviction Campaign and the South African Shack Dwellers Movement are two separate movements that often work in solidarity. One is not an umbrella group of the other.

  2. Pingback: A Ringing Critique… | Xenia Institute

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