By Chris Shaw
“The Olympic Games are coming and you can’t stop them, so what’s the point of protesting now?” is a question I get asked virtually every day. Sometimes the question is posed by journalists sincerely puzzled by the fact that opposition to the Games still exists and seems to be growing just a month before the opening ceremonies. Other times, the query comes from members of the public or even from friends and family. Inevitably, the tone is akin to, “It rains a lot in Vancouver so what’s the point of bitching about it?” The usual tag line to both is “If you don’t like it, stay home” or “Move somewhere else”.
Unlike the rain, which is beyond the power of normal mortals to control, the Olympics are not a force of nature, rather one of human construction whose impacts have been acutely harmful to a lot of people. Most of us grew up or moved to Vancouver knowing it was going to rain a lot, a fact we chose to accept as part of life. The Games, however, were not the outcome of a fair choice; rather they were foisted on the city by a small band of developers and politicians who stage-managed a plebiscite (functionally an opinion poll) involving only 12 percent of British Columbia’s population in order to get a desired result.
The rest is history: the bid organizers, later the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee, lied about virtually everything that followed as they proceeded to trash the place with their preparations. Games costs that were to be completely accounted for never were; the “greenest Games ever” wound up destroying Eagleridge Bluffs; social inclusivity and homes for those in need in the Olympic Village never materialized; the stated $175 million in total security costs, obvious even then as a lowball estimate, mushroomed to almost $1 billion. Instead of kept promises, we got catastrophic impacts on the poor and homeless, egregious environmental destruction, outrageous and still largely unaccounted for costs, and a virtual assault on civil liberties. We haven’t even seen the traffic nightmares that are just days from being imposed. Nor have we yet calculated the fiscal impacts on individuals and their businesses as they discover the realities of hosting a party for the rich in the midst of a security free-for-all. Add to the above the lost opportunity costs—that is, what $6-billion-plus could have bought instead—and a more cohesive picture of the full impacts emerges.
In spite of this, some people still love the Olympics and Vancouver’s role and will continue to support the Games regardless. Nothing I write here is likely to change this.
What follows, then, is really for those who are still on the fence and looking for an answer as to why some of us keep fighting back. Keep in mind in the following that this is my opinion and not necessarily representative of others who oppose the Olympics.
First, going out into the streets in February to call attention to the harm done by the Olympics is not a pointless exercise, rather the equivalent of bearing witness, basically a moral response to something many of us believe to be fundamentally damaging to our lives and communities. However, there is more to opposing the Olympics than being against the local developers’ or even the International Olympic Committee’s avarice and the disruption it causes. The Olympic Games in Vancouver represent in microcosm a pathologically flawed economic and social structure that has dominated the world for a long time, a one-dimensional world view that puts profit before all else. Shining a light on any part of the Olympics in Vancouver re-creates a larger global picture.
For example, focus in on the displacement of the homeless in Vancouver and the image that emerges is one of impoverishment of peoples around the world by many of the same organizations that bankroll the IOC. The war on the poor in Vancouver mirrors the war against poor farmers in Afghanistan. The destruction of Eagleridge is reflected back as yet another corporate assault on the environment, from Athabasca’s tar sands to the rainforests of the Amazon, unsurprisingly with many of the same sponsors promoting and being promoted in turn by the IOC and Vanoc. The exploitation of First Nations in British Columbia for land and resources, not to mention misuse of their culture for tourist dollars, resembles the theft from indigenous peoples across Canada and around the world. The organizing slogan of the Olympic Resistance Network, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land”, thus has a local as well as a global context as part of a struggle against the conjoined twins of capitalism and colonialism that have devastated so much of the planet.
Our response to the sins of omission and commission of the Olympics, just as for the sins of the larger entities that the IOC represents, is not to become apathetic and withdraw in defeat or run away, but to stay and fight back—in other words, to resist. Resisting the Olympics seeks to reclaim the streets of our city for our common purposes, reasserts our fundamental natural and civil rights, and sends a message of strength and solidarity to those around the world who are fighting for the same goal of a just society.
Resistance is not defined as a circumscribed set of actions, but is rather a state of mind, an emergent construct that refuses to be awed by the power of the Olympics and its corporate sponsors or the levels of government that actively do their bidding. Resistance is similarly not deterred by a security apparatus that desperately hopes to keep a lid on Olympic protests to avoid embarrassing the IOC.
Creative Olympic resistance can be active or passive. It can take the form of conventional protests or civil disobedience, including direct actions, or can be as simple as talking to tourists to help them understand that the “fun” party they came to attend has arrived at enormous cost to the rest of us. Some of these visitors might even be interested to know that a few streets away from the official “celebratory sites”, a very different community not willing to celebrate the Games will be promoting an alternative vision, one that rejects corporate profit ahead of people and distances itself from the of social myopia of Gordon Campbell and Stephen Harper and those like them. Resistance might include hanging an anti-Olympic/pro-people sign in a window or just refusing to cheer the circus as it moves down the street. Each act of resistance is synergistic with all the others.
Far from futile, resistance to the Olympics may be part of the rebirth of the anti-globalization/world-social-justice movement. Indeed, if there is any positive legacy to be found after February to Vancouver’s Olympic misadventure, it might just take this shape.
Chris Shaw is a professor of ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia and an anti-Olympic activist.