For years, the occasional Cassandra has tried alerting the world to the true nature, purpose and “legacy” of the Olympic Games – yet their warnings have fallen on deaf ears, muted by the cacophony of corporate advertising, saccharine network TV coverage and “patriotic” celebration.
All that may be about to change – thanks to the grave challenges facing two Games in development: Russia’s Sochi 2014 and Brazil’s Rio 2016. Their respective problems look like those of previous Games on steroids.
Projected costs for Sochi, still over half a year off, now top a record $51 Billion! In Brazil, runaway Olympic spending is a key grievance of protesters now marching in the streets. What began as a reaction to escalating bus fares has grown into a heated conversation about the government’s spending priorities. What Brazilians need now is better health care, schools and public transit, not shiny, new stadiums for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, they declare.
While Vladimir Putin is unlikely to lose his grip on power over the preposterous bill for Sochi, according to Time, Brazil’s nationwide protests “could threaten President Dilma Rousseff’s re-election hopes next year” That would be a first. The Olympics playing a direct part in the ouster of a national leader.
It’s about time the Olympic Games are seen for what they really are – a multibillion-dollar racket designed to fleece taxpayers for infrastructure spending that benefits developers, while providing a global platform for corporate advertisers, supported by draconian, often unconstitutional protection from trademark violations.
Of course, the International Olympic Committee, though clearly a “for-profit” operation, pays no taxes. It exists, on many levels, outside the laws of the countries in which it operates. A pretty sweet deal they’ve enjoyed all these years.
Olympic critics have long been dismissed as unpatriotic Debbie Downers. The Olympics, after all, are about the triumph of the human spirit, the celebration of amateur athletic achievement, those precious moments like the one when Canada’s son scored against the Americans in overtime of the Gold Medal hockey game. I was in Whistler Village, watching Sid the Kid on the big screen when it happened, surrounded by 5,000 rejoicing compatriots, covered from head to toe in red and white. It was electric, unforgettable.
But that is not what the Olympics are about – at least not anymore.
Let us not forget the role Greece’s $11 Billion Olympic folly played in its present-day financial woes. It’s been all downhill for the country since it hosted the Athens Games in 2004. As this Bloomberg story notes:
With public debt totaling €168 billion in 2004, it’s clear that the Olympics alone did not bring about an economic collapse. Yet the Athens Games epitomized the structural problems that bedeviled the country for decades. It’s not just a question of how much money was spent on the Olympics, it’s also how it was spent and where it came from. After a period of austerity to tighten up its finances and qualify for euro entry in 2001, the Greek government loosened the purse strings once it entered the single currency. The games were just one of several areas where public spending was unchecked and funded by unsustainable borrowing.
Canada has been no stranger to Olympic-related fiscal issues. It took Montreal three decades to pay off its debt from the Games.
In BC, we’ve cleverly hidden much of the true infrastructure costs of the 2010 Games as public-private-partnership contracts – along with other assorted expenses the government is loathe to publicize – in a $100 Billion secret debt category, euphemistically labelled “contingencies and contractual liabilities”.
The intellectual leader of the anti-Olympic movement in Vancouver, Dr. Chris Shaw, wrote a fine book on the subject, aptly titled Five Ring Circus – which filmmaker Conrad Schmidt followed up with a companion documentary.
In his book, Shaw catalogues and foresees the gentrifying effects of the Games on social housing in Vancouver and the diversion of tax dollars toward otherwise unjustifiable infrastructure projects to open up real estate opportunities for developers. He describes a symbiotic relationship between local property and construction magnates hungry for taxpayer-subsidized infrastructure and IOC “vultures endlessly circling the globe, waiting for local developers in the various countries to bring down the prey, the local citizenry.”
The IOC gets its tax-free profits, corporate sponsors get their global audience, media get their ratings, and the developers get the long-lasting prize: new roads and bridges to open up previously inaccessible or low-value land to development – plus billions of dollars of government construction contracts. “Tying the Games to such projects,” Shaw writes, “suddenly imbues them with a different aura, and all previous rationality about real costs versus potential benefits goes out the window.”
Shaw also predicted the unconstitutional creation and application of laws designed to sweep trademark infringement and unseemly vagrants off Vancouver’s streets, lest our image be tarnished or the IOC and its corporate partners offended. For their efforts, Shaw and his colleagues were harassed at their homes and places of work by overzealous Games security forces.
The 2002 Salt Lake City Games brought the corruption of the bidding process into full view, as lead organizers admitted to bribing the IOC’s selection committee, forcing the resignation of key Salt Lake organizers. As subsequent investigations would reveal, this was far from the exception, rather the rule in the Olympic bidding process. In the wake of the Salt Lake Scandal, a senior Swiss IOC official, Marc Hodler, alleged that bribery has featured extensively in Games votes since at least 1990 – including the selection of Nagano 1998 and Sydney 2000.
According to a 2004 BBC story, “IOC vice-president Kim Un-Yong was sentenced to two-and-a-half years in jail on corruption charges. He was found guilty by a South Korean court of embezzling more than $3m from sports organizations he controlled, and accepting $700,000 in bribes.”
This systemic bribery and corruption appear to extend to corporate partners as well. According to Bloomberg, the world’s largest mining company, BHP Billiton, is currently under investigation in its native Australia, regarding its “dealings with foreign officials, including Chinese dignitaries, under a multimillion-dollar hospitality and sponsorship program at the 2008 Olympics.”
Will the excesses of Sochi and the social unrest spawned in part by Rio lead to major changes on the Olympic front? Hard to say; the IOC has demonstrated a teflon-like ability to deflect all manner of controversy in the past – from bribery and corruption to a litany of high-profile doping scandals.
Maybe this time is different. Perhaps the broader civil uprisings the Olympics are now getting roped into in Greece, Brazil – and, who knows?, one day maybe Russia – will finally change the Games.