The history of the Olympic Games is inextricably tied to the global housing crisis. Beneath layers of economic value and tourism are the often-forgotten costs that unhoused populations and marginalized communities pay when a city hosts the Olympics. While much buzz has been generated surrounding the sustainability efforts of the Paris 2024 games, little has been reported in regard to Paris’s ongoing housing crisis and the detrimental impacts that Olympic preparations are having on the city’s unhoused population.
In March 2023, France began moving the unhoused population out of the capital ahead of its hosting the current Rugby World Cup and the upcoming summer Olympic Games. Prior to the displacement, Paris had been putting up a portion of its unhoused population in low-end hotels as part of its emergency housing plan. However, massive sporting events draw millions of spectators, and hotels are eager to hike up accommodation costs and book at capacity for the duration of the games. The French government – motivated by the economic tourism of hosting the Olympics – has asked other cities and regions around the country to take over the housing responsibilities for Paris’s unhoused population in preparation for these two major sporting events.
The government is asking French officials to create “temporary regional accommodation facilities” for Paris’s unhoused population, yet it remains extremely unclear what these housing facilities will actually look like. Concerns regarding cleanliness, location, and capacity are being largely ignored by the government, which is instead choosing to focus on the financial advantages of the displacement. The regions to which the unhoused population are being relocated have also voiced concerns over not having sufficient empty housing for those facing forcible eviction from their temporary housing.
Those who support the removal argue that it is a step in the direction of finding permanent housing for Paris’s unhoused population. However, bouncing people from one temporary shelter to another does not constitute permanent housing. With the French government remaining vague in regard to the specific details of these new shelters, the unhoused population has been put in a precarious position. The grey area that comes with forcible evictions by such powerful institutions as the French government is enormous when promises are made to deliver housing alternatives but there is no higher governing body to determine whether those alternatives are safe and adequate replacements.
Paris is not the first city willing to displace a portion of its population for the Olympics. Historically, displacement has always followed major sporting events, including the Olympics. Beijing in 2008 and Rio in 2016 employed the same methods to secure extra accommodation space that could be rented out for elevated prices during the games.
The 2020 Tokyo Games are the most recent example of the direct harm that is caused by relocation and the loss that is currently threatening the livelihood of many Parisians. In the leadup to the games, the Tokyo Metropolitan Government conducted a “sudden and violent” raid on Meiji Park, forcing out dozens of unhoused people without providing an alternative housing plan. The events that took place in Meiji are strikingly similar to the struggles unhoused people are currently facing in Paris, with forcible evictions from their buildings and even removal from the city itself. This pattern of displacement that haunts Olympics host cities has become so common that it has even been given a name: the “Olympic Legacy”.
Despite the need for additional accommodations during the Olympics, it remains the government of the host country’s duty to protect and serve its residents first and foremost, including the unhoused population. When governments begin backing marginalized communities into a corner, they violate the fundamental human right to housing that countries like France made a commitment to. It is easy for government officials, the media, and the public to sweep these rights infringements under the rug when doing so benefits major sporting events that are so widely publicized and celebrated.
In addition to the negative impacts of government policies, a recent Airbnb deal with the International Olympics Committee has exacerbated the problems facing unhoused people during these major sporting events. In 2019, Airbnb signed a $500 million-dollar contract with the Olympics to promote housing and urban development for the games. This contract strengthened the international sporting community through its economic investment in the games, but it also increased the need for housing and fan accommodation. Looking forward to the 2028 Olympic Games, many Los Angeles residents find themselves in a similar position as Airbnb’s contract with the Olympics has resulted in rent spikes and eviction threats of residents living near the Olympic venues.
In addition to the displacement of some of society’s most vulnerable members, the Olympic Games are also complicit in gentrification. Sporting events that are broadcast worldwide and that require host cities allow governments to use these competitions as rationale for urbanization and the development of poorer areas. This gentrification occurs when host cities tear down poorer neighbourhoods to build infrastructure for the games, resulting in the removal of entire communities from the cities they were once part of. Back in 2005, the UK Foreign Secretary Jack Straw famously called the 2012 London Olympics a “force for regeneration” as the city incorporated the development of many of East London’s poorer neighbourhoods into the Olympic planning phase.
Paris is now using the same disguise of development to hide the gentrification that the neighbourhood of Saint-Denis is undergoing. Saint-Denis is set to house the Olympic Village and the primary Olympic infrastructure, which has resulted in the area becoming more expensive than residents can afford. It has also become increasingly frustrating for those who live in the area to see an Olympic pool and gymnasium being built when Paris has yet to implement more community pools and gymnasiums for the actual residents of the neighbourhood. An opposition group questioning Paris’s decision to host the 2024 Olympics has called the city “undemocratic” and “oppressive” for not calling a referendum and giving the citizens of Saint-Denis the chance to vote on such a threatening event.
The debate over how to handle the housing needs of the Olympic games is a critical juncture in how governments treat their most vulnerable citizens and reveals the extent to which they value all parts of a city, including its less “desirable” neighbourhoods. Ignoring the costs to some of society’s most vulnerable members creates a slippery slope for further encroachment – whether intentional or passive – onto the standard of living that many have fought to prioritize on government agendas. Moreover, the gentrification that occurs with large-scale sporting events opens the door for a wider discussion of privilege and the costs of nationalism. There is, at present, no clear-cut solution that will satisfy all parties involved. Housing is a sensitive and extremely polarizing issue, but it is clear that Olympic host cities need to first fulfill their duties to residents before turning to sports and international affairs.