5 Ways the Olympics Are Undermining Democracy and Exploiting Workers

Jonny Coleman

Fireworks go off during the opening ceremony of the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympic Games at the Pyeongchang Stadium on February 9, 2018. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP/Getty Images)

We’re almost halfway through 17 frigid days of Olympic Games in Pyeongchang, and U.S. media cov­er­age has been banal, pre­dictable and full of holes. Amer­i­can press out­lets, large­ly igno­rant of Kore­an his­to­ry and pol­i­tics, have demo­nized North Korea and Rus­sia while pump­ing out triv­ial sto­ries about the num­ber of con­doms at the Olympic Village.

What’s lost in most main­stream cov­er­age is the true human and eco­nom­ic cost of these mega-events. The car­toon­ish­ly ruth­less cap­i­tal­ists at the Inter­na­tion­al Olympic Com­mit­tee (IOC) shame­less­ly oper­ate above the law, and their only goal is to extract a deep prof­it from ath­letes. The IOC’s prac­tices are in direct oppo­si­tion to democ­ra­cy, yet sports pun­dits like Mike Tiri­co will have you believe the glob­al com­pe­ti­tion is a mag­i­cal event that can fix the world.

Unfor­tu­nate­ly, for adults out there who don’t believe in mag­ic, the Olympics are rot­ten from every con­ceiv­able angle.

1. The Olympics are an exploita­tion machine.

Every mod­ern Olympics event fea­tures work­er abus­es of all type, from mis­treat­ment in the youth sports leagues, to sub-liv­ing wages for U.S. Olympic ath­letes to the rou­tine theft of short-term and hos­pi­tal­i­ty work­ers’ wages.

Mean­while, the IOC, U.S. Olympic Com­mit­tee and gen­er­al pub­lic don’t appear to be very con­cerned with ath­letes’ safe­ty. On one of the first days of com­pe­ti­tion this year, snow­board­ers com­plained about the dan­ger­ous­ly windy con­di­tions they were forced to com­pete in. But noth­ing was done, even after six of the first sev­en runs result­ed in crashes.

What’s more, the Win­ter Olympics inher­ent­ly advan­tage ath­letes from rich­er, whiter colo­nial­ist coun­tries. Con­sid­er­ing how expen­sive it is to train for win­ter sports, and how lit­tle ath­letes get paid, it is clear that hav­ing inde­pen­dent means enhances one’s abil­i­ty to compete.

2. The Olympics are a diver­sion of local resources.

Every city in the world has high­er-pri­or­i­ty civic issues and crises to deal with than the Olympics. But the glob­al sport­ing event sucks city resources out of the pub­lic trust, putting them into the hands of the IOC, devel­op­ers and the spe­cial inter­ests dri­ving each city’s bid.

The Olympics are often sold as a back­door rem­e­dy to prob­lems like home­less­ness, trans­porta­tion short­com­ings or eco­nom­ic stag­na­tion. Yet there is no evi­dence the Games have ever improved urban life for any­one but the wealthy. The Olympics usu­al­ly promise tran­sit expan­sion, but if they deliv­er, it’s expan­sion that favors the hyper-wealthy, not the tran­sit-depen­dent. The Lon­don 2012 Olympics saw a mas­sive retool­ing of the pub­lic tran­sit sys­tem to accom­mo­date Olympic tourists, instead of pri­or­i­tiz­ing the needs of city res­i­dents. We saw this dynam­ic play out recent­ly at the Super Bowl in Min­neapo­lis, where the light rail was only acces­si­ble for Super Bowl tick­et hold­ers on the day of the event.

3. The Olympics have dis­placed count­less peo­ple from their homes.

You might ask your­self, Why does it take up to 10 years to pre­pare for an Olympic Games?” The answer is that the Olympics are only super­fi­cial­ly about sport. The true engine dri­ving the Games is a com­bi­na­tion of real estate spec­u­la­tion and deep prof­it extrac­tion. The Olympics help push com­mer­cial, trans­porta­tion and hotel devel­op­ments through cities. This process is what Nao­mi Klein would call part of the Shock Doc­trine,” only instead of a nat­ur­al dis­as­ter, it’s a human-made event which pre­cip­i­tates all sorts of evic­tions and dis­place­ment as cities turn into net­works of bou­tique hotels and Airbnbs. The Olympics have dis­placed mil­lions of peo­ple from Rio de Janeiro, Lon­don, Syd­ney, Atlanta—and are a dis­as­ter every­where they land.

Mean­while, the Olympics bring huge expen­di­tures of resources that would bet­ter go towards meet­ing human needs. The Pyeongchang Olympics are esti­mat­ed to go about $10 bil­lion dol­lars over bud­get. The Tokyo Olympics — still more than two years out — are rough­ly $8 bil­lion dol­lars over budget.

4. The Olympics empow­er the police state.

The Olympics give local law enforce­ment and mil­i­taries huge boosts in pow­er, author­i­ty, and tech­nol­o­gy. In the Unit­ed States, Olympic Games become Nation­al Spe­cial Secu­ri­ty Events (NSSE), which give the Depart­ment of Home­land Secu­ri­ty the author­i­ty to col­lab­o­rate with local law enforce­ment. The Olympics also allow agen­cies to height­en secu­ri­ty and sus­pend nor­mal civ­il lib­er­ties in the lead-up and dur­ing the Games, includ­ing unprece­dent­ed sur­veil­lance priv­i­leges.

Often, as in Pyeongchang, the Games them­selves become exhi­bi­tions of mil­i­tary and state pow­er (see the thou­sands of fly­ing drones over Pyeongchang), which dates back to Hitler retool­ing the Open­ing Cer­e­mo­ny to be a demon­stra­tion of fas­cist pow­er. In many cas­es, the Olympic bid includes claus­es that legal­ly sus­pend cit­i­zen rights to protest, con­gre­gate or speak.

5. The Olympic stake­hold­ers are some of the worst, most cor­rupt peo­ple alive.

All you need to know about the IOC is that it has its own wiki for scan­dals and con­tro­ver­sies and counts Hen­ry Kissinger as an hon­orary mem­ber. The IOC makes FIFA look like choir boys by com­par­i­son. IOC mem­bers get paid more per day to attend the Olympics than the U.S. gov­ern­ment pays its Olympic ath­letes to perform.

The Good News?

But the good news is that the Olympics are his­tor­i­cal­ly unpop­u­lar right now as far as find­ing host cities to bid. If they run out of suck­er cities, or if enough abus­es come to pub­lic atten­tion, the IOC might have to dis­solve — leav­ing space to reimag­ine what an eth­i­cal, social­ist alter­na­tive to these Cap­i­tal­ist Games could be. One-hun­dred years ago, Amer­i­cans and Euro­peans were explor­ing what a non-cap­i­tal-dri­ven Olympiad might look like. There were events like the Work­ers’ Olympiad, Chicago’s Counter-Olympics of 1932, and a planned Barcelona alter­na­tive to the 1936 Nazi Games that was can­celled at the out­break of the Span­ish Civ­il War.

There are polit­i­cal­ly sound, humane ways of host­ing inter­na­tion­al ath­let­ic events, and they all start with pri­or­i­tiz­ing the needs of the work­ers and the most vul­ner­a­ble of a host city’s pop­u­la­tion. Any­thing else, and it’s just anoth­er exploita­tion Olympics.

Jon­ny Cole­man is a writer and orga­niz­er based in Los Ange­les and a mem­ber of the NOlympics LA coali­tion which was born out of DSA-LA’s Hous­ing and Home­less­ness Com­mit­tee. He will nev­er be invit­ed to the Ses­sion or any oth­er IOC parties.
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