By Laura Track
“The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.”
This February, I joined hundreds of Downtown Eastside residents for the second annual Poverty Olympics. Featuring events like Skating Around Poverty, Housing Hurdles, and Wrestling for Community, this year’s theme was “End Poverty: It’s Not a Game”. While governments argue over their share of the billion-dollar security price tag and have committed more than $6 billion to Olympic-related costs, as many as 15,000 people in B.C. have no place to call home, 25,000 single-parent families subsist on meager social-assistance rates insufficient to cover even basic necessities, and 1 in 5 children and over half a million British Columbians—13% of the population—live in poverty. The government slogan “the best place on earth” rings more than a little hollow for the tens of thousands of our sisters and brothers struggling to make ends meet in this province.
Last year, Poverty Olympics organizers wrote to the International Olympic Committee highlighting the “world class” levels of poverty and homelessness in B.C. Noting the Olympic Creed, the letter said: “that is all we want—the poorest people in B.C. want the opportunity to ”˜take part’, to participate in the economic and cultural life of B.C.” They called on the IOC to press the federal and provincial governments to implement the recommendations of the Inner-City Inclusive Housing Table, a group convened by VANOC as a means of honouring its Olympic bid commitments to ensure a socially sustainable Games. After all, the IOC awarded Vancouver the Games on the basis of those commitments, which included a pledge to leave a legacy of affordable housing, protect existing rental-housing stock, and ensure that no one would be displaced or made homeless as a result of the Games.
In fact, homelessness in Vancouver increased 373% between 2002 and 2008, and there are now at least 3,000 people experiencing homelessness in Metro Vancouver, a third of them Aboriginal. Over 1,400 units of affordable housing have been lost in the Downtown Eastside since Vancouver was awarded the Games, and there have been no changes to tenancy legislation to prevent evictions or protect tenants from exorbitant rent increases during the Olympics. The promised “legacy of affordable housing” is 12 empty city-owned lots waiting for promised social housing, with no funding committed for construction. Social housing promised for the Athlete’s Village—already drastically slashed in 2006—is at risk. Affordable housing sites like Little Mountain and the Fraser Street villa are being emptied of tenants to make room for condo developments.
The IOC refused to use its influence to press governments to honour their commitments, but assured the letter-writers that “the IOC is using sport as a tool to bring hope to the world”.
In December, the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, a non-governmental human-rights organization based in Geneva, named the IOC the winner of its Housing Rights Violator Award, which it presents to the government or institution that demonstrates significant failure to protect and implement housing rights. COHRE’s research on evictions and displacement related to mega-events around the world, including the Olympic Games, reveals a history of substantial and persistent housing-rights violations: 720,000 people forcibly evicted from their homes in Seoul; intense gentrification and displacement in Barcelona; 9,000 arrest citations issued to homeless, mostly African-American Atlanta residents; and an estimated 1.5 million people displaced in China in the lead up to the 2008 Beijing Games. Where is the hope for these people, the collateral damage of the Olympic Games? How can an organization espousing a mission of spreading hope at the same time be named a leading housing-rights violator?
The Downtown Eastside residents I talk to don’t expect to “win” at the Olympic Games. But they will certainly struggle: against police crackdowns that threaten their lives and liberty; against private security guards who move them out of tourist areas; against security plans designed without consultation or consideration of their needs; and against the gentrification onslaught that threatens their community. As the Olympic Creed states, the most important thing is not the triumph but the struggle. That’s one Olympic promise we can be sure will be kept.
Laura Track is a lawyer with Pivot Legal Society.