Every other year, the Olympics bring inspirational stories and a good deal of spectacle to the living rooms of just about everyone who has a TV or Internet access. Even though the coverage often reinforces gender roles, it at least gives women athletes an opportunity to have the cameras focus on their abilities and thus provides role models for girls and young women. Behind the pageantry, however, lies quite another kind of story.
The latest example of this is that the UN Environment Program is criticising construction in Sochi for its impact on local wildlife and other aspects of the ecosystem. Remember, it isn’t just wild animals who will face the consequences of heavy metal pollution; the local people will have to deal with it too.
Of course, the Olympics are rarely good for the places they are held; they bring a certain amount of pride for the privileged, and income for certain kinds of businesses but too often they end up perpetuating oppression. Despite promises made by the Chinese government to the International Olympic Committee, the Olympics in Beijing actually led to more human rights abuses. According to Human Rights Watch:
the run-up to the Beijing Olympics [was] marred by a well-documented surge in violations of the rights of free expression and association, as well as media freedom. In addition, abuses of migrant construction workers who were pivotal to Beijing’s infrastructure improvements have increased, as have evictions of Beijing residents whose homes were demolished to make way for that infrastructure.
The need to maintain appearances also led to the arrest of potential protesters.
The Vancouver games were pitched as the first sustainable games, but they didn’t meet their promises about homelessness. Moreover, the opening ceremony at the Vancouver games appropriately honored the First Nations of the land on which the games were being held, but as is noted at Restructure! (h/t):
while the symbolism of the opening ceremonies was socially advanced in terms of portraying Canadian identity, it was completely incongruent with the realities of systemic discrimination and racism against indigenous people in Canada. For example, Unicef reports that in almost any measure of health and well-being, indigenous children are at least two or three times worse off than other Canadian children. Amnesty International reports that young Indigenous women are five times more likely than other women of the same age to die from violence. The Canadian corrections system incarcerates Aboriginal Canadians nine times more than the national average and continues to discriminate against them inside prisons.
Basically, the opening ceremony ended up hiding the realities of oppression.
The London Games are two years away and already there have been complaints about inadequate compensation for properties that owners have been forced to sell. The tenants of the Clays Lane Estate unsuccessfully protested its destruction. Arts Council funding was cut to benefit the Olympics.
Can big events like the Olympics be run in a genuinely sustainable and socially just way? For it to even begin to be possible requires a shift in values: from oooohing and ahhhing over flashing lights and inflatable beavers to being most impressed by the way structures and events include people who have been excluded and work to protect rather than to destroy ecosystems and communities (which isn’t to say that there can’t be any flash at all).
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- Aboriginal Leaders Say: Olympic Training Site Is Our Indigenous Land (angryindian.blogspot.com)
- Olympic legacy for Canada’s native tribes (theworld.org)
- Tuberculosis rate more than 30 times higher for aboriginal Canadians: Report (canada.com)
- Protesters block Olympic torch relay (thestar.com)
- Winter 2010 masks indigenous discontent | Coel Kirkby (guardian.co.uk)