The Five Ring Olympic Circus: The Big Lie, Elite Priorities, and Lost Opportunities            

Chris Shaw

2010 Watch and Work Less Party

As Vancouver edges ever closer to the opening of the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, even the most jaded citizen or booster-ish journalist now realizes that the costs for hosting the Olympic circus are going to vastly exceed the early “official” projections.  Combining the stated costs of the giant infrastructure projects (RAV, Sea to Sky Highway upgrade, and new convention centre) let alone the various Games’ venues, puts the cost well into the multiple billions, all funded by the taxpaying public. Adding on security costs of likely more than $1.4 billion and the odd government gifts to the Vancouver organizing committee (VANOC) (for example, the federal government’s recent donation of an additional $20 million for the opening ceremonies), the minimal true costs will likely exceed $6 billion. This outcome was precisely as predicted by some serious journalists and the No Games 2010 Coalition back in 2002.

There is nothing surprising about this: All Olympics come with massive price tags with the burden falling on ordinary people rather than the private sector that reaps the real rewards. Vancouver is thus in perfect lock step with cities currently preparing for their own Olympics: London coming in well above $12 billion; Beijing at an unbelievable $60 billion.

Since when it comes to the Olympics money is no object for governments, it might be worthwhile to examine what else Vancouver’s Olympic dollars might have provided instead, in other words what are some of the lost opportunities? Olympic boosters dismiss this sort of speculation as unknowable and even naïve, as if somehow the very notion that money spent on the Games could be better employed elsewhere is an absurd utopian ideal. Intangible it may be to some extent, but the concept of lost opportunities is no more intangible than the second pillar of the Olympic frame, patriotism. In fact, the question of what things society might need more than a 17-day party is one of those ‘red pill’ questions that arose during the bid period in 2002/03 that directly links the Olympics to the subject of social priorities and how our money gets spent and for whose benefit. 

Over twenty years of government cuts to services and the under-funding of health care and education are typically blamed on debt loads that all levels of government typically carry. “What can we do?  We have to live within our means”, becomes the official mantra. The Olympic machine exposes this as a lie since for projects the government wants to fund on behalf of their friends in the private sector, even at enormous expense, it can. The glaring reality is that money exists, just not for purposes of ordinary people. An illuminating example of this – one could say an epiphany – is unfolding as these words are written: North American and other Western markets are falling into panic due to the sub-prime lending schemes of the last dozen years. Western governments and their national banks moved within days to inject almost a trillion dollars into the market to ensure ‘liquidity’, the same governments and banks that have for years made the argument that any timely and equivalent funding to combat climate change is impossible[i].  Clearly, the problem isn’t money, it’s priorities, with theirs completely trumping ours.

From the cost accounting cited above for what Vancouver’s Olympic Games will cost, it’s worthwhile to do a thought experiment to see just what $6 billion could provide instead. The same will apply, of course, to whatever billions have been spent on previous Olympics or the untold billions still to go for Beijing and London as cited above, or Sochi (whatever the Russian mob wants the government to spend). Could we, for example, eliminate poverty in British Columbia, if not in Canada, for $6 billion?  No, but this amount would certainly put the problems plaguing Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside into an entirely different perspective. For well under this amount, all of the 3,200 housing units needed for the homeless could be provided with lots of money left over for new enterprises aimed at job creation for the local residents, for drug addiction services, and basic health care. On a larger scale, $6 billion would certainly have a profound impact on BC’s health care services, could be used to find solutions to the rapidly emerging pine beetle crisis, provide aid to save the wild salmon fishery, retrain workers in forestry communities now in dire straits as the lumber industry fails, and encourage alternative energy ventures to combat global warming. Arts and culture?  Imagine the flowering of creativity that would spring forth from even a fraction of the Olympic dollars. How about providing this money to universities to allow kids from aboriginal communities to attend?  Might this not be one path out of dependency and despair for Native youth? 

In my own field of neurological disease research, $6 billion is the equivalent of over ten years worth of funding for the national health research establishment (Canadian Institutes for Health Research). Focused funding of this amount could supply the basic and applied research that in the same period would make most cancers, diabetes and the neurological diseases like Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and Lou Gehrig’s only distant memories.  The overall societal cost of these neurodegenerative diseases in North America alone is half a trillion dollars per year. What if the money spent on the Olympics reduced these diseases by only 10%?  We’d still save billions per year that could go into education, other health services, etc. The same is true for all the listed diseases. If the percentage of success were higher, the societal savings would increase in lock step. Pipe dreams? Not at all. Any one of these outcomes, individually, or large parts of each in combination, are do-able with $6 billion.  There are dozens of other options that would serve society far better than a 17- day party for the rich.

The money spent on the Olympic scam forces us to realize that these alternatives simply aren’t priorities for our politicians. Why? The simple reason is that our politicians would prefer to put our tax dollars into the private sector as corporate welfare. Even if we were to accept the Olympic frame that hosting the Olympics brings billions of dollars in economic returns – and it never does – the magnitude of the difference between imaginary Olympic outcomes and very realizable social/medical ones is simply staggering. The failure of our politicians to see across this gulf speaks to a truism that has become starkly obvious to tens of millions in North America and around the world: The world’s economy is not run for the benefit of the majority of those on the planet.

The impact of the Olympics goes beyond lost ‘intangible’ opportunities such as those cited above, to extremely tangible ones. Hosting the Games is promoted as a boon to businesses big and small, but this rarely materializes. Certainly some companies get lucrative contracts and just as surely parts of the tourism sector and businesses close to Olympic venues can do very well during the actual Games period. However, transportation headaches created by construction during the pre-Games period, or traffic jams or security perimeters during the Games themselves, often make the access of tourists and locals alike to parts of the city nearly impossible. The construction of the RAV line has negatively impacted local businesses along Cambie Street. The latter disruption even led BC’s Finance Minister, Carole Taylor, to admit the obvious, without, however, offering anything in the way of compensation to those businesses going under.

Joseph Goebbels, Nazi propaganda chief, once said that,If you tell a lie big enough and keep repeating it, people will eventually come to believe it. The lie can be maintained only for such time as the State can shield the people from the political, economic and/or military consequences of the lie. It thus becomes vitally important for the State to use all of its powers to repress dissent, for the truth is the mortal enemy of the lie, and thus by extension, the truth is the greatest enemy of the State.”  The IOC has learned the lesson well as it promotes the Olympic frame that the Games serve humanity by promoting elite sport in the cause of peace. (This is not likely an accident given the fascist nature and sympathies of the IOC and some of its past presidents, Avery Brundage and Juan Antonio Samaranch, for example). The lost opportunities, the displacement of the poor and homeless, the destruction of the environment vanish before the new big lies of the IOC and VANOC. And, of course, the government is rapidly preparing its security response for 2010 with thousands of police and soldiers headed for our streets.

Our job as the anti-Olympic resistance movement, therefore, becomes the essential task of dismantling the Olympic frame and showing British Columbians, as well as people around the world, what the Olympics are truly about and what the true costs –direct and in lost opportunities- actually are. And, while we may not save Vancouver, we can help our sisters and brothers in future “Olympic” target cities as they gear up to fight the Olympic machine. Just as the economic globablization agenda of the corporations called forth a globablized anti-globalization response, building an international anti-Olympic resistance by combining knowledge and direct action is the best example we can set for the world. If we do, perhaps the true “legacy” of the 2010 Games will be that our resistance set in motion the events leading to the demise of the corporate Olympic Games.