Golden Scam: Fantasy and Reality in the Olympics

By Christopher A. Shaw

The artificial frenzy of the Athens Summer Olympics are now safely behind us and the media have returned to covering real news. Those locked to their TVs for the seventeen days of saturation advertising during the summer were probably unaware that the war in Iraq was still raging, that missile defense (Star Wars) was still a hot issue in Canada and that over 250,000 people filled the streets of New York City to protest the war and the presidential nomination of George Bush. Perhaps most Canadians are not back from never-never land yet since the debate of the moment seems to be how to increase Olympic funding so that Canadian athletes can bring home more baubles next time. The Canadian minister responsible for sports noted that cutbacks by various levels of government had crippled school athletics; here in British Columbia the provincial winter and summer games that used to occur annually are now held only biannually. The minister’s modest proposal was that funding should go to restore school sports, a notion that met with denunciation, if not outright ridicule, by Olympics boosters.

The frenzy for more medals typifies the glaring disconnect between the stated goals of the Olympic movement—peaceful competition, athletic excellence for its own sake, etc.—versus the crass reality that at every level controlled by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) the Olympics are driven by the prime directive of greed. Instead the Olympics are an overly commericalized venture that consistently fails to deliver on its promises of economic development, leaving the host cities and nations with enormous debts and a set of sports facilities that do little to address local needs. In the end, cities are left with Olympic debts that mean that they are even further from the goals of justice and excellence than they were when they started along the Olympic route.

It takes media and government acquiescence, if not outright connivance, to convince the public that the IOC is really a charity and that the local franchisers are acting in the public’s best interests. Yet they do this time and time again and most people fall for it. In contrast, it is worth noting that the true spirit of the original Olympic movement survives in the Paralympics, which draw practically no media attention and are widely ignored, surviving as a stark testament to what the Olympic movement once may have been but is no longer.

The IOC and its supporters have been extravagantly successful at making the Olympics the sports equivalent to Santa Claus. The head of Vancouver’s organizing committee once remarked on a radio program that “the five [Olympic] rings could be used to sell anything to anyone.” In the following, I highlight some of the myths that surround the Olympics, using Vancouver’s 2010 organization and planning as key examples juxtaposed against the recent Athens Games.

The first myth is that the IOC is a benevolent organization only concerned with promoting elite amateur sports. In fact, the IOC is a mega-multinational corporation whose tentacles touch nearly every country on the planet. Its vast revenues come from selling TV rights, sponsorships and product lines, in essence no different than Wal-Mart’s except that its products are athletes rather than kitchen gizmos. The IOC cleared nearly a billion dollars on the Athens games in TV rights alone, all of it tax-free. In fact, the IOC always enjoys tax-free status, yet is not a charity, a religion or a non-profit organization. IOC representatives and their families get accommodation in five-star hotels, meals, transportation and all other expenses paid for by the local Games committee, costs that are in turn passed on to local taxpayers. IOC members have diplomatic immunity. They are, by all measures, a new royalty above any petty national or local laws.

The IOC promotes sports much like McDonalds promotes good nutrition and health. In television coverage from Athens, the actual events were cleverly segued into commercials featuring Ronald McDonald to create the impression that Ronald was part of the competition. Such marketing is typical, highlighting the fact that the IOC sees sports and elite athletes as mere commercial backdrops. IOC President Jacques Rogge’s latest admonition to Canada to increase funding for Olympic athletes may be less a goodwill gesture for these athletes than the action of a corporate CEO concerned that part of his product line is not up to market standards. It did not escape notice that he didn’t offer any of the IOC’s money for this purpose.

Local IOC organizing committees and business boosters mouth the platitudes but know precisely what this is all about: lots of public money for their pet projects, usually free land to build these projects on, and fire sales of Olympic venues after the Games depart. Vancouver’s organizing group remains a who’s who of corporate and real estate tycoons whose companies are ready and able to take advantage of public funding for Olympic venue construction and land sales. The money to be made by the IOC and the local boosters can be huge, hence every Games in memory have featured IOC officials and local Olympic organizers caught up in sleazy financial scandals.

Ah, the pure beauty of elite sports! In our hearts we know that the Games have less noble motivations. Those in doubt of this should contemplate the near hysteria that the Canadian media and much of the public exhibited when Team Canada only won twelve medals. If the Games were truly about the notional ideals, we wouldn’t care. Yet, clearly, we very much care about medal counts and our “national pride.”

One of the greatest Olympic myths is that the Games are an economic miracle in the making. This would be funny if it didn’t have such dire economic consequences. Athens’ initial cost estimates were pegged at about $7 billion, but came in somewhere between $15 and $20 billion according to the Los Angeles Times, all without counting many of the infrastructure costs. The overall costs to Greece were so extreme and so far over budget that international lending institutions have downgraded Greece’s credit rating.

Even worse, if past Games are any indication, the Greeks may never see the real bill. A mysterious fire destroyed the local organizing committee’s books in Nagano; Australian and US auditors are still trying to figure out where all the money in their countries went. In this regard, Vancouver is off to a running start since the Bid Corporation (now Vancouver Olympic Committee or VANOC) never fully accounted for the $34 million of mostly taxpayer money that they spent competing for the 2010 Games. The godfather of Vancouver’s Bid Corporation, Jack Poole, previously lost investors nearly $1 billion while CEO of a failed real estate company.

As part of the “economic miracle” myth, Games boosters make extravagant claims about vast increases in jobs and tourism, yet the former are transitory and the latter illusory. Athens has just been down this path, desperately hoping that jobs and tourism will rescue them from the yoke of Olympic debt. Even the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), however, an ardent Games supporter (they usually get the television rights and CBC’s president sits on various corporate boards with members of VANOC), noted that the jobs in Athens have now largely vanished. As for tourism, Athens and Vancouver might want to examine what happened to Sydney and Salt Lake City after their Games: Tourism actually went down.

Many of those in Vancouver who thought they were on the inside track are finding out the hard way who really calls the shots when it comes to the various mega-projects for 2010. The most recent case concerns the future Olympic skating oval, suddenly snatched away from Simon Fraser University (SFU) in the city of Burnaby by the neighboring city of Richmond. Before the Games were awarded, VANOC’s head, John Furlong, had gone to a skittish Burnaby City Council to convince them to get on board and support Vancouver’s bid. The “goodie” offered to them was the skating oval, which he promoted as a legacy item for future generations of SFU students. Burnaby City Council and Mayor Derek Corrigan signed on to this manna from heaven deal, oblivious to what dealing with the privateers who run the Games can be like. Behind the scenes, Richmond came up with a far more extravagant proposal for the venue linked to unspecified city funding and a major casino. VANOC proceeded to manipulate facts to justify the new Richmond plan, all without public consultation. To the dismay of Corrigan and SFU, “their” skating oval was suddenly Olympic history. Richmond’s Mayor and Council, along with the press, justified this cutthroat approach as being in the “Olympic spirit” of competition, as indeed it was.

It is notable that Corrigan led the challenge to the most massive of the 2010 mega-projects, the Rapid Airport Vancouver subway, or RAV. It took three tries, but RAV supporters managed to get the local transportation authority’s approval and the billions of dollars needed to build the subway following a series of backroom deals and political skullduggery at all levels of government. Shifting the skating oval to Richmond was not only a case of VANOC helping its friends, but also a public whipping for Corrigan to let other uppity officials know the fate that awaits those who get in the way.

One of the most enduring myths about the Games is that the IOC respects the environment, which it calls the “third pillar of Olympianism,” but oddly, other priorities often get in the way. Athens, like previous Olympic cities, claimed to be the “greenest” ever, but the reality was far different. Greenpeace and the World Wildlife Fund reported major problems with the Athens Games. Greenpeace gave the city a score of only 1 out of 10: Instead of planning development to avoid wildlife habitat and to be powered by renewable energy, the opposite occurred. Prized countryside was spoiled to make way for the table tennis hall, the rowing lake was built on an endangered coastal ecosystem and the easily available Mediterranean solar energy was never tapped.

VANOC has made similar green promises, yet slightly more than a year into the process, environmental concerns seem to be headed for oblivion. Examples include a four-lane highway that will run through a protected environmental area in West Vancouver, rammed through despite strong objections of local residents. The Nordic venues will be built in the Callaghan Valley adjacent to Whistler, then turned into an all-season resort with golf courses and hotels. Many of the proposed developments are slated for unceded land of First Nations. Even more insidious is the avalanche of spin-offs linked to the Games—massive resort development plans that span the province. Not only are many of these proposals designated for lands that belong to native people, the sites are often considered sacred. Yet First Nations concerns are like green concerns, easily ignored if they stand in the way of profits.

Accountability and transparency in the preparations for the Games are often trumpeted by Games organizers, yet, as in Athens, reality is quite different. Vancouver’s original Bid Society was dissolved by a previous provincial government for failing to account for its expenditures of public money. The Bid Corporation that won the Games with taxpayers’ money has yet to provide those same taxpayers with detailed financial records. The city of Vancouver continues to hide the actual cost of the Games, notwithstanding Mayor Larry Campbell’s oft-quoted claim that the Games won’t cost Vancouver “one penny.” The hidden costs are well over $138 million, according to documents released to No Games 2010 by the city of Vancouver after an Access to Information request filed by Phil Legood, a radio journalist on Vancouver COOP radio. The costs are sure to increase. It may be only coincidence, but the provincial government cut the budget to the Auditor General and denied him a major role in monitoring Games costs. Even the method by which VANOC appointed John Furlong was shrouded in secrecy: Other candidates for this top position were never named and reporters who tried to ask questions at a hotel where VANOC was meeting were frog marched out of the hotel by security staff, as reported on global TV and in local media.

Another myth is that the Games bring people together and promote human liberty, notwithstanding that each Games locks down the host city as security concerns, real or imagined, arise. Police and the military rule the streets, using increased surveillance of all citizens and often newly enacted laws that ban anti-Olympic protests. Athens spent nearly US$2 billion on security, yet couldn’t protect the marathon or swimming venues from disruptive spectators in tutus and clown suits. Athens also poisoned thousands of stray dogs, many of which were pets, and displaced hundreds of Roma (Gypsy) people, often without compensation. According to many sources, including the Centre for Housing Rights and Evictions, Beijing is doing the same to thousands of its citizens as it prepares for 2008. Atlanta arrested or bussed thousands of homeless out of the city so that they wouldn’t spoil the Olympic ambience. Thousands of homeless and poor in Vancouver’s downtown eastside might easily discover that they are just as dispensable as the environment or First Nations’ land if human rights stand in the way of the mighty Olympic dollar competition. Aside from such abuses, security costs are likely to become key issues as 2010 approaches. A virtual guarantee is that VANOC’s piddling $177 million security budget will mushroom to match Athens’ since security costs have their own internal logic: It’s hard to invite the world to visit, then gamble that all will be fine with security on a shoestring.

The IOC presents itself as an organization that exists to serve humanity, ever the good shepherd promoting peaceful collaboration amongst nations and athletes—maybe not so humble but still the Santa Claus of sports. It’s a fine illusion and one that has endured for over a hundred years.

But the Games represent a loss—the loss of opportunity. The billions spent, the human resources wasted and the rights squandered can never be recovered and, like a Greek tragedy, are totally predictable. When the Games have come and gone, those in the host city wake up to a massive financial hangover and begin to ponder what might have been. They could have dreamt of social justice for their fellow citizens and fiscal prudence for their children. Instead they fell for the Olympic’s golden myths. As for the IOC, it moved on: there’s a sucker born every minute and another city ready to believe the dream. Its days, however, may be numbered: There is a growing international anti-Olympic movement, one that will be heard from in years to come. The IOC’s free ride may be coming to an end.

Chris Shaw is an associate professor at the Research Pavilion of the Vancouver General Hospital. He was also a spokesperson for NO GAMES 2010.

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