SHUT DOWN

The Olympics allow democracies to behave like dictatorships—if only for a short time

Obsession
Rio 2016
Obsession
Rio 2016

This week, Rio will make way for more than 10,000 athletes and half a million visitors. But not everyone gets to participate in the glitz and glamour of the Olympics when it arrives in their city.

Brazil’s poorest have reportedly been subject to widespread human-rights abuses. A report compiled by academics and nongovernmental organizations labelled the event the “Exclusion Games.” It claims that 4,120 families have lost their homes and another 2,486 are threatened with removal as a result of the 2014 World Cup and the Olympic Games.

And it’s not just Rio.

There’s a long history of host cities, most of which operate in democracies, temporarily enforcing far-reaching measures to ensure the Olympic Games go ahead without a glitch. Host cities do everything they can to achieve the most coveted goal—the claim to have hosted “the best Olympic Games ever.” But this label comes at a heavy price.

So much so that Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, professor emerita of sociology at the University of Toronto, remarks—rather tongue in cheek—that “the best places to hold the Olympics are in totalitarian regimes. They can make sure everything goes absolutely smoothly.”

She is not referring to the Nazi regime, which used the 1936 Berlin Olympics as a propaganda coup. She means governments of today.

A longtime critic of the quadrennial event, Lenskyj tells Quartz that cities brush aside signs of social problems—such as the homeless, decrepit housing, and protestors—to protect the growing corporate interests that are now so deeply intertwined with the host city’s success.”They want to present this problem-free Olympics,” Lenskyj says, adding host cities put “draconian legislation in place to hide all these social problems and to suppress non-violent protest.”

Four years ago

Put another way: if you lived in government housing, would you like anti-terror missiles on your roof?

Six sites were picked during the 2012 London Olympics as spots to place surface-to-air missiles, including residential tower blocks in Bow and Leytonstone, by the British army as a terror deterrent. Local residents were not happy.

This was just one of the ways highlighted by critics that the London Games crossed a line. There were also several clauses in the London Olympic Games and Games Act 2006 that allowed authorities to not only clamp down on protests during the 2012 Olympics, but give private contractors the right to forcibly enter people’s homes and seize materials.

Some rules of the road are suspended under the Games legislation—special Olympic lanes or “zil lanes” are introduced for the period of the Games, which can only be used by Games officials and dignitaries. In 2012, 30 miles were forced upon London’s main routes. Anyone else that attempts to use them is fined. In theory, it makes sense. In practice, it feels like a foreign occupation.

There are many anecdotes throughout the London Games of the measures taken to protect corporate sponsors; a Pepsi logo on a T-shirt could result in a visitor being turned away because Coca-Cola was the official sponsor.

The last Olympics in London were meant to be the catalyst to regenerate the city’s infamous East End but there were marred by accusations of social cleansing in the run-up to the event. Months before the Games kicked off, the poor London borough of Newham—where the Olympic Stadium is based—attempted to move 500 families claiming housing benefit to Stoke-on-Trent, 135 miles away.

Newham also introduced so-called “dispersal zones” in the run up to the Olympics, which allowed them to order anyone they consider to be engaging in anti-social behavior—whether it be hanging out in hoodies, begging, or soliciting—to leave the area. It could ban people from returning for up to 24 hours at a time.

Another report accused the city of cleansing the street of sex workers. There were more than 10 times the numbers of brothel raids in five Olympic boroughs—Newham, Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Greenwich, and Waltham Forest—compared with other areas of London. A total of 80 brothels were closed in these five boroughs in 2012. Extra bail conditions were given to prostitutes, which included curfews and orders to move out of particular areas.

That said, they can have a positive effect on countries that are not democracies. When the Games came to Beijing in 2008, the city was forced to introduced special “protest zones,” as has been the case at every Games since Sydney in 2000. Not bad for a country intolerant of legalized political dissident.

In Beijing’s case, though, the protest zones were seven miles from the Olympic sites and all would-be protestors needed to apply to the feared Public Security Bureau—in Chinese—with their reasons and protest slogans.

Beholden to corporate interests?

A spokesperson for the IOC tells Quartz that British reports of heavy-handedness in brand protection were not in line with their policy or intention. “Corporate sponsorship provides essential support for competing athletes and contributes to the overall success of the Games,” the spokesperson explains. “Put simply, without the support of our official commercial partners, the Games would not be able to happen.”

How did it get to this? You have to go back 32 years. “The commercial watershed for the Olympics was Los Angeles in 1984,” Stephen Wagg, professor of school of sports at Leeds Beckett University, tells Quartz.

There wasn’t much enthusiasm to host the 1984 Olympics, as a result of the political and financial disasters of its predecessors. In fact, only two cities officially bid to host the summer Games: New York and Los Angeles. In the end, the US chose Los Angeles and it became the host city by default.

Peter Ueberroth, recently the chairman of the US Olympic Committee, was the architect behind the 1984 Olympics, driving through some of the biggest changes in the Olympics’ financial history. The 1984 Games were the first not to be entirely sponsored by the government, giving room for Ueberroth to meld public money with corporate sponsors. The unprecedented corporate sponsorship and private fundraising earned Ueberroth a spot on Time’s Man of the Year list.

In fact, according to The Games: A Global History of the Olympics, the LA Games are only one of the 17 Olympic tournaments held between WWII and 2012 to make a profit (paywall). Athens spent $16 billion to host the 2004 Games—which helped contribute to its sovereign debt crisis—and this is what it looks like today. No wonder Boston wanted nothing to do with the 2024 Games.

Unsurprisingly, others were keen to follow LA’s blueprint, which went on to establish a pattern, according to Wagg, where the Olympic games could only proceed with elaborate corporate sponsorship. With the cost of staging the Olympics steadily rising since the early 1970s (pdf), the need for corporate sponsorship is higher than it’s ever been. But this growth in corporate sponsorship has been matched with the “curtailment of civil liberties,” Wagg says. “The people putting money in would want protection for their investment.”

Strangely enough, while most people would be up in arms over the militarization of public space in everyday life, many hold on to the rationale that it’s all worth it in the end to be part of hosting the best Olympics ever.

And now it’s Rio’s turn to see if it’s all worth it.

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