Play nice, Olympic Games

As the Vancouver 2010 Olympics begin this Friday, the public’s eye will be focused on the athletes and the celebrations around the Games. While we will all enjoy the thrill of the world’s best athletes competing, we shouldn’t forget that behind this carefully choreographed coverage is the mass movement of people and money that allows something as huge as the Olympics to take place.

It seems that undertakings like the Olympics project this kind of image for themselves and then take any measures necessary to realize it – even if it means the displacement and repression of those who don’t fit and prioritizing security and development above all else. The emphasis on security has led to a spiralling cost of the security budget – from the original estimate of $175 million to the nearly billion dollars now allotted.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Vancouver are in a mutualistic relationship that both hope to benefit from. The IOC wants Vancouver – as the stage for the Olympic brand – to look squeaky clean, and Vancouver wants the prestige and funds associated with hosting the Olympics.

The Games are bringing a lot of money and attention to Vancouver, and the city is using much of this money to build infrastructure. But just as the Games themselves are crafting an image suitable for an international TV audience, Vancouver’s new infrastructure aims to create a city suitable for international capital – and development that marginalizes local communities.

Greater Vancouver and the Whistler area have developed transportation and tourism infrastructure in order to accommodate the Games, as business and government hope that this infrastructure will spur even greater development in the area.

For many native peoples living in these areas, the demolition of mountain ecosystems for highways, ski resorts, townhouses, and even mines is especially offensive, as their land was never ceded to the Canadian government. And though the Vancouver Olympics Organizing Committee (VANOC) is more than happy to drape itself with aboriginal imagery – often working in conjunction with indigenous artists – it’s unwilling to address the deep-rooted grievances of these communities.

Though the Four Host First Nations Society has worked with VANOC and received promises of economic development and direct funding for native projects, the recent history of native struggles against expansion and development of highways and resorts – such as the protests against the Sun Peaks Resort, where around 70 indigenous activists were arrested – should give us pause.

The problem with this is that the desires of wealthy actors in society, like the corporations standing behind VANOC, trump the needs of the poor. While much of the widespread evictions and arrests that went on prior to Vancouver’s Expo 86 have been avoided (with some exceptions), the run-up to the Games has accelerated more passive processes of securing and gentrifying vulnerable neighbourhoods – particularly the Downtown Eastside.

Vancouver’s skyrocketing rate of homelessness will only be exacerbated by the removal of the homeless from the Olympic security perimeter, rising rents, and the increased security presence.

Vancouver’s sex workers hoped that the Olympics would bring a boost in business and safer working conditions. Instead, they have been ushered away from profitable neighbourhoods near the Olympics headquarters and cut off from clientele by security measures.

In light of Vancouver’s implementation of the Olympic brand and its long-term effects, there has been much organized opposition to both specific changes and the Games themselves. This activism has prompted the Integrated Security Unit, a special unit of the RCMP responsible for overseeing security and policing during the games, to employ harassment and intimidation tactics against anti-Olympic activists.

The Olympic brand, however, also creates an opportunity for activists, as furor over some of these negative moves creates bad publicity. This spotlight on Vancouver also creates a platform for activists to present their message to an international audience. Activism like the outcry over the eviction of some Eastside tenants has managed to mitigate at least some of the negative effects. Other activists have capitalized on the games to organize the Poverty Games, a yearly demonstration calling for Olympics funding to be routed to ending poverty and homelessness.

The Olympics mirror where our society stands. Moves towards a “green” Olympics and more consideration for marginalized communities are encouraging. But it should be possible to have an Olympics that builds infrastructure for fair and sustainable development, one where governments will respect low-income tenants without activists having to step in, an Olympics that doesn’t destroy native lands and ecosystems for ski resorts that will benefit only a select few. The athletes of the world should be able to gather and compete in a Games that helps more than it hurts.