Treatment of activists at Olympics violates sustainability


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As the Paris Olympics fast approach under the shadow of the climate crisis, activists and advocates continue to question the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) commitment to one of the three pillars of the Olympic Agenda: sustainability.

And for good reason. Despite the optimistic rhetoric of the IOC and host committees, environmental exploitation by host countries and the suppression of opposition to such exploitation have remained a troubling feature of the Olympic Games in the 21st century.

If the IOC’s Olympic philosophy truly embraces the “harmonious development of mankind with a view to promoting a peaceful society committed to the maintenance of human dignity,” why are environmental issues surrounding the Games consistently overlooked?

Olympism only adds value to society if it functions as a moral and ethical compass, rather than a simple public relations tool. Yet there is strong evidence for the latter.

Contrasting approaches

It is clear that the IOC and green activists have conflicting approaches to environmental management. The IOC pays lip service to such concerns, while the latter actively fights to prevent the environmental destruction caused by hosting the Games.

While the Olympics typically rely on environmental rhetoric, with candidate committees and organizers declaring that their event will be the “greenest” or “most sustainable,” activists have long pointed to the environmental damage that was already present in host cities before the Games, often exacerbated by the construction of the Olympic stadium.

Examples include toxic waste dumped in Homebush Bay ahead of the Sydney Olympics, polluted water in Guanabara Bay where sailing competitions were held during the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and construction waste that polluted the Mzymta River during the development of the Sochi Olympics site in 2014.

Activists have also pointed to the human cost of environmental destruction that accompanies the Olympics. For example, before the Rio Games, the gentrification of Vila Autódromo, a favela on the edge of the Olympic Park, resulted in the forced displacement of residents.

The Olympic torch also passed through the territory of the Guarani and Terena tribes, who suffered from land theft, dispossession and violence by farmers and loggers.

Suppressing activist voices

The concerns of environmental activists are often dismissed as distractions from the Olympic spectacle. Activists are characterized as “killjoys” who distract from the “feel good” emotions of hosting the Olympics or who hamper the efforts of bid committees.

Even more worryingly, host cities and countries suppress the voices of environmental activists by portraying them as a security threat, and deploy private and public surveillance and security services to monitor, identify, suppress and imprison them.

In 2013, environmental protesters were tear gassed and water cannoned by police after they protested against plans by the Istanbul Olympic bid committee to develop Gezi Park, an important and rare green space. The mayor suggested the protests would make hosting the 2020 Olympics “nothing more than a dream.”

Not all hosts, or potential hosts, resort to such measures. In the past, hosts have also created protest zones for environmentalists to demonstrate and voice their dissatisfaction with the Games, the IOC or host governments.

However, hosts often place these zones out of sight, requiring protest groups to obtain a permit to access them at all. In 2008, such zones were used to detain protesters.

Surveillance, espionage and police

There have also been several reported cases where Olympic candidates and host cities have used surveillance, espionage and policing to silence environmental activists.

Environmental activist Hu Jia was arrested and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” ahead of the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing. Human Rights Watch accused the Chinese government of targeting other activists for intimidation, harassment and detention.

Ahead of the 2014 Sochi Games, authorities banned activists from entering the city, including its own residents. Those investigating environmental issues related to the Olympics were threatened with government intervention and their offices were closed.

Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmental activist and outspoken critic of the environmental performance of the Sochi Olympics, was arrested and sentenced to three years in a penal colony.

Oppression in the West

Much of the media attention to this issue has framed it as a problem that is happening in the Global South, or in countries like China and Russia that are political opponents of the West. This framing is misleading, however, as there are also examples in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom.

A private intelligence firm, Stratfor, was used by Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical to monitor activists in advance of the Vancouver 2010 Games. In addition, the Project Civil City initiative that Vancouver launched in preparation for the Games was intended to regulate and reduce “street disorder.”

In reality, this has meant targeting the city’s homeless and other “undesirables” in order to cleanse its public image as a “global” Olympic city. And in London, construction companies Robert McAlpine Ltd and Balfour Beatty have actively blacklisted “problematic” trade unionists and activists from various projects, including Olympic venues for the 2012 Summer Games.

The IOC, as the “supreme authority” over the Olympic Movement, is the only entity capable of curbing such abuses. But it has failed to do so, and its inaction legitimizes and exacerbates the repression of environmental activism by cities and states.

Holding the IOC accountable

As we look ahead to the upcoming Games in Paris, the French capital is not without environmental and social controversies.

On June 18, the Seine River, where open-water swimming and the aquatic portion of the triathlon will take place, had E. coli levels 10 times higher than acceptable levels. Parisians have threatened to defecate in the waterway to protest the amount of money the city has poured into preparing the river for the Games, instead of addressing more pressing social issues.

At the same time, in the run-up to the Olympics, Paris police are targeting the city’s most vulnerable, clearing out homeless camps, intimidating sex workers and deporting migrants as part of a “social cleansing” that remains a typical tactic of cities hosting the Olympics.

The Paris Olympics provide an excellent opportunity for journalists and news media to amplify the voices of environmental activists, hold the IOC and French authorities accountable for their dealings with activists, and maintain a healthy dose of scepticism about the promised ‘green’ legacy of the Paris Games.

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