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.

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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.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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