The Olympics are widely anticipated and celebrated extravaganza of the greatest athletic feats of humankind. They’re also an increasingly controversial and maligned circus of corruption, gentrification, and exploitation. Former professional and Olympic athlete Jules Boykoff, now a professor at Pacific University, makes the case for why you don’t want the Olympics in your hometown, and what a more ethical version of the mega-event could look like.
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The following is a rushed transcript and may contain errors. A proofread version will be made available as soon as possible.
Jules Boykoff, thank you so much for joining us here on Edge of Sports.
My pleasure, Dave. Great to be with you.
Awesome. So Jules, give us five reasons, please, why people should oppose the Olympics coming to their town.
Five reasons? Okay, well I think we should start with athletes because, after all, athletes are what make the Olympics special in the first place. And there is a rising tide of athlete disgruntlement when it comes to the amount of money they get paid for their efforts around the Olympics. And so maybe that’s a good place to start.
There was a really important study that came out recently by the athlete-led group Global Athlete alongside Toronto Metropolitan University. And what they did was they compared the amount of revenue that Olympic athletes got compared to athletes from the NBA, the NHL, the English Premier League of Football, Major League Baseball. And what they found was with those other leagues, Major League Baseball and whatnot, athletes were getting between 45% and 60% of the revenues. 45% and 60%. What they found with Olympic athletes, they were getting 4.1% of the revenues, and it’s even less than that when you think about direct revenues. And so athletes have been stepping up.
You set that next to the fact that for a nonprofit organization, the International Olympic Committee sure is profitable, at least for some of their major managers. So recently some tax documents from ProPublica revealed that the director general of the IOC, the International Olympic Committee, made $1.4 million in 2021. And so you just set those two things together and something’s very much not right.
I think we should also maybe throw in there, in addition to pay, athlete well-being. We’ve been learning horrific stories about abuse inside of the Olympics, fear, and there’s some really important work being done. I want to give a shout-out to one group right now called Scholars Against Abuse in Canadian Sport, which is speaking up in the Canadian context. So that is problem number one with the Olympics. Athlete pay and well-being needs to improve.
Okay, so reason number one is opposition to the rank exploitation of the athletes themselves and standing in solidarity with their struggle. What’s reason number two?
I think we got to look at costs because the Olympics are essentially what I’ve been calling Etch-a-Sketch economics. During the bid process, you write one number on that Etch-a-Sketch and then you get handed the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee. You shake that thing up and put an exponentially larger number on your Etch-a-Sketch. And just the examples abound. The study that comes out every four years from Oxford University finds that every single Olympics going back to 1960 has experienced cost overruns.
The most recent Summer Olympics in Tokyo are a good example of that. They were supposed to cost $7.3 billion. Instead, they cost more like $30 billion. And not all of that increase was because of the one-year postponement due to COVID. And you can go right down the line there. The Sochi Olympics were supposed to cost $12 billion. They ended up costing $51 billion, more than all previous Winter Olympics combined to that point. And who has to hold the bag at the end of the day? It’s usually taxpayers. So I think that’s an important one to put on the table for host cities. Everyday working people in host cities that pay their taxes are paying for these big enterprises, enterprises that they can’t even afford a ticket to when it rolls into town.
So that would be a very important second reason to highlight, that when you host the Olympics, you’re going to get hosed financially. And the proof of that looks absolutely extensive. And I know you could have gone chapter and verse to far more Olympics than the ones that you mentioned.
All right, what would number three be?
I’m going to go with greenwashing. So since the 1990s, the International Olympic Committee has talked a big environmental game, but its follow through has been minimal at best. And so the IOC actually has a pretty terrible track record, especially when it comes to the Winter Olympics. So just looking back to the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, they actually sliced through a sacred mountain called Mount Gariwang to build the Olympic-quality ski run that was required for the skiing events. There were already two perfectly good ski hills that they could have used, but instead they cut through this 500-year-old sacred forest.
Similarly, four years later in Beijing, they sliced up the Songshan Nature Reserve, where a number of endangered animals live. And so they’ve been talking a big green game, but the follow through has been minimal, and this is something for us to always keep an eye on as well.
So that’s an important one, greenwashing. And I always think of it as, I call it the carbon Shaq footprint, because to call it just a carbon footprint I don’t think even does justice. To me, airline flights are a carbon footprint. Putting on the Olympics is Shaquille O’Neal size 21 shoe carbon footprint. It leaves a stomp where it’s been before.
Absolutely. And a really important point to add to what you’re saying there, a lot of times when the Olympics calculate their carbon footprint, they don’t even include the airline flights, and then they use carbon offsets, which are extremely dubious. So they know all the tricks of the trade to try to make it seem as if they are green. And so it behooves us to look between the lines like you’re doing there.
So that’s number three, greenwashing. What do you have as number four?
Number four, displacement and eviction. So unfortunately, the Olympics bring gentrification and brass knuckle displacement for working class populations in city after city after city. Beijing 2008, Summer Olympics, displaced more than 1,000,000 people. The South Korean Olympics in 1988 in Seoul, some 800,000 were displaced, many of them thrown into camps. You go down the line and you just see it time and again. In Atlanta, 1996, the homeless folks that were living there at the time, many of them were given one-way bus tickets out of town.
The other thing they did in Atlanta was they chopped down the largest standing public housing complex in the United States, something called Techwood Homes. So you often see public housing getting decimated for market rate housing.
And we saw this one with our own two eyes, Dave, when we were in Tokyo in July 2019, and we interviewed two women and a man who were displaced by both the 1964 Olympics back in the day, and then they were getting displaced from their public housing again for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. So this is one of those issues that affects real people, and we need to be aware of it.
That’s right. We were in Tokyo together in 2019. And the other thing we saw, and the other thing we investigated there together, was Fukushima and the fact that they kept saying that it would be a safe place for the Olympics to congregate, to even have events. And we saw something quite different. We saw mountains of garbage bags filled with radioactive waste. Just unbelievably inhumane.
It was. And that fits perfectly with greenwashing because the leaders of that Tokyo Olympics were saying, if you help us host the Olympics in Tokyo, or allow us to do it, we will be able to clean up Fukushima. It was going to be this “recovery games.” But people that you and I talked to, from journalists to elected officials to everyday people on the street, told us the opposite. They said that, actually, the Olympics were slowing down the recovery in Fukushima because the cranes were going to Tokyo for the construction and not coming to Fukushima.
And you remember, we were traveling with a guy, a scientist, who had one of those handheld dosimeters that measured the radiation. And at that time we were told that if it’s 0.20 or lower, you’re safe. That guy’s dosimeter said 3.77, that’s the highest I saw when we were traveling around. So some 18 times higher than was safe. And people were living there and were being told to go back there because it was an Olympic promise that had to be made before the Olympics started.
So that’s number four, displacement. It’s brutal, it’s ugly, and we’ve seen it with our own eyes. What do you have for number five?
I’m going to go with the militarization of public space. So when it comes to the Olympics, local police forces and national police forces use the games like their own private cash machine to get all the special weapons, special laws that they’d never be able to get during normal political times. So that’s how you end up in 2012 at the London Olympics with surface-to-air missiles ratcheted on the top of apartment buildings and on top of towers in town.
And just a side note, I talked to some of the people that were living in those apartment buildings who were informed of the fact that surface-to-air missiles were ratcheted to their roofs by having a piece of paper slipped under their door — By the way we were putting surface-to-air missiles on your roof. None of them were very happy about that. They’re wondering if they had now all of a sudden become some sort of terrorist target.
But you see that time and again with the Olympics, it becomes a way also of doing sort of soft launches of questionable technologies when it comes to civil liberties. So for instance, in Tokyo, the original plan was to have facial recognition operating at all of the Olympic venues. Now we know that they were postponed a year, and then most fans were not allowed into the stadium, so they scrapped that. But it was going to be this happy face soft launch of a highly problematic, highly racist system — Facial recognition — In the Olympics where it gets normalized and then it becomes the new normal after the Olympic Games. And so these are things that if I were living in a host city, I would definitely want to be keeping my eye on as the Olympics were getting close.
And I would just say one other thing, Dave. The next Olympics will take place in Paris, France, in the summer of 2024. And every single one of these dynamics that we’ve been talking about are in play in Paris, despite the fact that they knew full well about these issues and problems, and they said that the Paris Olympics were going to be different. Well, guess what? They’re not actually all that different when it comes to these five areas.
No, not at all. And Paris, of course, has been the site of many strikes and demonstrations recently. Currently, it’s being convulsed by President Macron’s banning of Palestinian solidarity demonstrations, which people are defying. There goes my question for you right there, it’s like, do you think we could see more disruption of the Olympics than we’re used to seeing in Paris given the temper of the times?
I think that’s a very real possibility, especially when you look at the strength and savvy of a lot of these unions that are operating across France right now. They know that the Olympics gives them this gift of leverage that they wouldn’t normally have. They can withhold their labor and either squeeze more money out of the system — Which, by the way, will ramp up the cost of the event overall, but also to get better deals for themselves. And I think, I wouldn’t be surprised at all if we see savvy union groups using the Olympics to their advantage to cut better contracts for their workers.
Jules, you’ve been asked this question a million times, but I got to ask it because I know the people watching this are thinking it. Can the Olympics be done humanely? Can the Paris promise actually be something that you could see implemented where we don’t see the debt, the displacement, the militarization of public space, the greenwashing, the athletic exploitation, those were the five that you described? Can the Olympics be done humanely?
Well, Dave, if you would’ve asked me this question 10 years ago, I would’ve given you a very different answer. In fact, I was asked in 2014 by The New York Times to write an essay about how I would fix the Olympics. And at that time, I put forth very much inside the lines ideas that I thought could make a difference for athletes and for everyday working people in these host cities, ideas that were roundly ignored by the International Olympic Committee.
So with 10 years now of experience of thinking about reform, I would say that with the current construction of the International Olympic Committee, it is essentially impossible to have a humane Games, because they are not interested in addressing these five areas that we have been talking about. And they have been milking the Olympic machine with both hands, and they have no intention whatsoever of making big changes to their system. So no, I don’t think in their current formation they can.
Now, if we got rid of the International Olympic Committee and you dwindled down the size of the Olympics massively, thereby making the carbon footprint smaller, the effect on host cities smaller in terms of costs, you could start to move in that direction. But those are some big ifs right there. And the International Olympic Committee has no interest whatsoever in addressing these issues. They think they’re outside the purview of the games, although everybody knows that that is absolutely not true.
Some people also suggest, why don’t you just have the Olympics in one city or a rotation of five cities for each of the Summer and Winter Olympics? That’s reasonable, that would lower costs and so on of building and whatnot. But the IOC has zero interest whatsoever in that. In fact, I was debating a couple of years ago the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, a guy by the name of Dick Pound, and it came up this issue, and he was like, no, no, that’s just like a non-starter. So because of that fact, I think that with the International Olympic meeting in place, we don’t have a lot of hope for more of a just Olympics in the near future.
That was Jules Boykoff with five reasons why you should oppose the Olympics coming to your town. Hey, thank you everybody for watching. Thank you to everybody at The Real News Network. For everybody out there listening, please stay frosty. We are out of here. Peace.