According to the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions and University of Toronto sociology professor emerita Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, about two million people have been displaced since the late 1980s in cities that hosted the Summer Olympics.
“It’s a good excuse to have a crackdown,” Lenskyj told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview from Toronto. “The argument is that the eyes of the world are on the city, which means we don’t want any international embarrassment of journalists filming panhandling or journalists filming shantytowns or whatever it might be.”
Lenskyj’s new book, Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda (State University of New York Press), was timed for release just before the Beijing Games and rejects any notion that the Olympics are beyond politics and commercialization.
She notes that COHRE, a Geneva-based nongovernmental organization, has documented the following housing trends in Olympic host cities: evictions of tenants from low-rent housing; evictions resulting from gentrification; significant decreases in boarding-house stock; inflated real-estate prices; weakened legislation protecting tenants; criminalization of poverty; temporary or permanent privatization of public space; and temporary or permanent suppression of human rights and, particularly, freedom of assembly.
“As well as the 1.25 million already displaced in Beijing, COHRE predicts a further 250,000 displacements in 2007-08, in addition to about 400,000 migrants whose temporary housing in the urbanized core has been demolished,” Lenskyj writes in her book.
Lenskyj told the Straight she wrote Olympic Industry Resistance to provide an update to her two previous books, Inside the Olympic Industry: Power, Politics, and Activism (State University of New York Press, 2000) and The Best Olympics Ever? Social Impacts of Sydney 2000 (State University of New York Press, 2002).
“The most important issue is the continued housing problems that, in most cases, are made worse by hosting the Olympics rather than improved,” she maintained. “That goes hand in hand with criminalizing poverty and homelessness, clampdowns on panhandling, sleeping in public places—all those kind of things.”
The second part of the book focuses on how the Olympic industry has promoted educational initiatives to socialize children and youth into thinking about the Games in uncritical ways. As an example, she mentioned how McDonald’s, as an Olympic sponsor, promotes school-based fitness programs but will not take responsibility for the impact that its products have on childhood obesity.
She also told the Straight that those outside of the university community probably don’t realize that national Olympic committees and the International Olympic Committee make financial contributions to fund Games-related research and conferences.
“In theory, there are no strings attached,” Lenskyj said. “In practice, it’s not too wise to be too critical of the hand that feeds you, so to speak. And in my experience attending Olympic conferences for many years now, there is a very small minority of presenters who say anything critical.”
Lenskyj acknowledged that there have been gender-based and race-based academic critiques of the Games. But she said that “fundamental, radical critiques” are exceedingly rare.
Her book also criticizes how eager the media are to promote Olympic medal winners as role models. Lenskyj states in the book that she doesn’t believe that athletes should be held up as “moral exemplars”, because it puts sport in a special place outside the realm of social and political affairs, where it doesn’t belong.
“Very few Olympic athletes who assume the responsibilities of a role model align themselves publicly with progressive social movements such as civil rights, feminism, or in the case of Paralympians, disability-rights movements,” Lenskyj writes.
“Rather, they tend to reflect the view that their individual experiences alone, or in the broader context of the national team, are sufficient to qualify them as positive examples for children and youth.” She notes in her book that one might argue cynically that Olympic medallists’ willingness to be role models appeals to sponsors who are seeking a wholesome image.