The Olympics: The Acceptance of Devastation to What Degree?

Greer Brodie-Hall

October, 2017

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With less than 80 days left until the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics, the legitimacy and repercussions of this illustrious global ritual is sure once again to come under question.

For most people, the Olympics are a mega-event that boosts morale, rekindles the human spirit and encourages comradery on the international level. The iconic emblem of five interconnecting rings is one of the most recognized symbols in the world. Citizens of every participating country root for their athletes and revel in their victories. The Olympic flame symbolizes human striving for excellence and the value of friendly competition.  Cities around the world compete for the opportunity to host the games in order to improve their reputation on a global scale and promote economic growth in the form of jobs, revenue and infrastructure.

Looking at previous Olympic games, media tends to portray an improved image and degree of success for many countries. For instance, Torino, host of the 2006 Winter Olympics, wanted to diminish their uninspiring, auto-manufacturing reputation. Since hosting the Olympics, Torino has been deemed a tourist destination. Athens hosted the Olympics in 2004 hoping to gain similar prestige, and now the ancient city is a modern international city metropolis. Sydney was named an eco-city after their hosting of the summer games in 2000. The recent 2016 Olympic host, Rio de Janeiro, was coined an ‘economic legacy’.

With over 11,238 athletes from 207 countries, Rio was credited for increasing employment opportunities, tourism figures, and growth of 29.3% in income for the poorest 5% of the citizenry. These statistics cast a positive image for the abbreviated version of a two-week long period in Brazil’s history. However, what is gravely misrepresented, and may be invisible to the public eye, is the excruciating destruction that permeated the country leading up to this overly priced monumentally gentrifying project.

A much-overlooked form of civic destruction that follows the Olympic Games is the pattern of eviction and displacement of those who happen to live in the host city’s desired areas for new infrastructure. As of 2007, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions announced that in the previous 20 years of Olympic Games, nearly two million people have suffered displacement; 720,000 citizens were evicted from their homes in Seoul, South Korea in 1988. 30,000 poor residents were displaced in Atlanta for their hosting in 1996.

Leading up to the recent games in Brazil, nearly 77,000 people were evicted or threatened with eviction. The many impoverished Brazilians living in “favelas” were ignored as the Olympic committee deemed the land necessary for the Olympic Park, high-speed bus lanes and other Games-related construction projects. These victims of the modern Olympics movement were given little to no notice of eviction, they received meager compensation, and they saw increased homelessness and extreme poverty. To make matters worse, areas like the Rio Media Center, Maracana Stadium, the aquatics facility, the Olympic Village apartments, the Olympic Park, and other Olympic sites have barely been used again, and have become white elephants, a needless waste of space and money.

An Olympic city’s efforts to improve its image and thereby become a world class city becomes an accepted form of legitimation to force people from their homes and disrupt innumerable lives. Citizens of Rio who faced these notices described the Olympics as an ‘exclusion game’ created by the rich exclusively for the benefit of the rich. The $13 billion spent hosting the games could have been allocated to education, health care, “real” infrastructure or security improvements. Instead, these vast resources devastated thousands of lives for little more than the rulings class’ ambition to increase business revenue and advance its global reputation.

The true costs of the Olympics Games are too often ignored and too often masked by Olympic ideology. It is essential to consider these costs when we consider future hosting cities. Tokyo’s preparations for the 2020 games are well under way and so are demands of eviction. A dreadful sense of déjà vu saw Kohei Jinno preparing to leave his home for the second time in pursuit of the Japanese Olympic dream. His family was removed from their housing complex in 1964, for the Tokyo Games and have now received another notice for the country’s second hosting. This is just one of numerous stories that depict the merciless realities people have faced in the pursuit of the two-week long international sport franchise.

Exactly 30 years after their first hosting of the games, South Korea has taken the opportunity to hold the next winter Olympics. South Korea’s record of displacing 720,000 people and nearly 16,000 people being picked up off the streets in an attempt to purify the city’s image is looked at in despair and should not be ignored. The Rio Olympics’ tale of substantial destruction and disregard for the poorer citizens requires that South Korea’s second attempt to achieve global success should be highly scrutinized.

As soon as we account for the hidden misfortunes that the Olympic Games create, the global relationship between economic desire and disregard for human rights comes into clear focus. The generally positive image of the Olympics must be balanced against the consequences that in the past have been largely pushed aside. Those who lived in areas coveted for infrastructure deserve representation and acknowledgment that have been denied. As you sit down to watch your favorite event and root for your country in PyeongChang, consider the implications of the stadia and Olympic village. Try to imagine how many have lost their homes in pursuit of this global spectacle. This is the true personality of the Olympic spirit.