Opposing the Olympics

By Harold Lavender

Movements opposing the 2010 Winter Olympics appear to be gaining momentum with the much-hyped spectacle only a couple of weeks away. While a campaign of intimidation and harassment by security forces has made Vancouver the front line in the criminalization of dissent, this has failed to quell opposition.

A series of activities will be staged during the Olympics, including a February 10 to 15 convergence organized by the Olympic Resistance Network, and an opposition festival and march on February 12, the day of the opening ceremonies (see the end of this article for a calendar of actions).

How wide is the opposition?

Many in BC are not at all happy with the games. Despite a massive government, corporate and media propaganda campaign, recent surveys showed 69 per cent of BC residents felt governments had spent too much on the Olympics. Only 50 per cent thought the Olympics were good for BC, while 30 per cent thought they were bad. There is also considerable resentment in Vancouver about the disruptions of daily life imposed in the name of staging the Olympics.

But will resistance be confined primarily to the radical left and a few affected communities? The still-to-be-answered question is the size, scope, public impact and future legacy of anti-2010 organizing.

A multi-issue movement

Organizing against the Olympics has raised a wide variety of issues.

A strong critique has been developed against what is been described as the Olympic industry including International Olympic Committee, the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) and their corporate sponsors. However, there are many other concerns related to capitalist development, social justice and ecological issues, democratic rights and the post-Olympic austerity measures and cutbacks.

Many problems are recurring and common threads link past and future games. However, some issues are special to Vancouver’s Olympics.

Indigenous exploitation

These Olympics will be held on unceded Coast Salish territory. Olympic organizers have induced (with substantial amounts of money) the Four Host Nations to buy into the games and the Host Nations participation is shamelessly exploited. Their culture will be officially celebrated even as rampant social injustice, denial of aboriginal title and lack of control over resource development continues.

The unnecessary $650 million upgrade of the Sea to Sky Highway between Vancouver and the alpine events site in Whistler damaged sensitive ecosystems. Many old growth trees were cut down in the Callaghan Valley to construct the Whistler Olympic Park. Indigenous defenders of the land are opposed to a ski resort expansion that damages their traditional territories.

Indigenous and social justice critics view the Olympic celebrations as a flagrant denial Canada’s long and unresolved history of colonial oppression. The ORN and others have raised the slogan, “No Olympics on Stolen Native Land.”

Ballooning costs

For many, the huge costs of the games, especially to the host city and province, are a major concern. The estimated cost of the games, swelled by cost overruns, is over $6 billion. The bill for the massive security operations, initially projected at $175 million, has now ballooned to over $900 million.

Vancouver was forced to bail out and take over the Olympic Village and future condominium project, leaving the city finances very much exposed. Intrawest, the owners of the Whistler-Blackcomb site of Olympic skiing events, has gone bankrupt, raising the spectacle of an auction of its assets during the Olympics. Is another corporate bailout in store?

What is at stake is the misuse of public money for priorities that don’t meet social and human needs. BC has a desperate need for increased government funding for a wide variety of social programs, including ending homelessness and expanding social housing; raising welfare rates to liveable levels; expanding employment insurance benefits and eligibility; child care; education; health; and public transit. BC’s post-Olympic budget threatens a vicious round of cuts from the federal, BC and municipal governments.

A Cultural Olympiad will help welcome the world to Vancouver. But afterwards, arts organizations face exceptionally draconian cuts in BC government funding. Similarly, the city is cutting the budgets for parks, recreation and libraries. Funds were available for elite athletes, but it is now highly improbable that there will be any extra money for programs that promote physical activity, well being and local athletics.

In a sign of what’s to come in a new “austerity decade,” 800 Vancouver teachers have just received notice of a potential layoff.

Olympic history

The Olympics themselves have a far from benign history. The most notorious case is the 1936 Berlin Olympics under the Nazis. While Canadians are endlessly encouraged to support the torch relay and it is portrayed as a positive force for national unity, the origins of the torch relay and its symbolism under the Nazis are willfully ignored. Students were massacred prior to the 1968 Mexico City games. The Olympics have also been associated with supporting racism, from failing to oppose apartheid in South Africa to the longstanding denial of indigenous rights in Australia.

With Canada expected to do well in the medal standings this time, an upsurge of nationalistic Canadian sentiment is on the agenda.

Recent history is thoroughly tainted by examples of corruption and graft. More and more, the IOC is an industry driven by nothing but dollars and big money.
The IOC and VANOC are very much laws unto themselves. Recent court rulings have said that they are not subject to national laws or public scrutiny when it comes to venues and events inside the security zones.

Corporate roles

Living in Vancouver, I am struck by the dominant role of the corporate sponsors, which include some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the Canadian state and internationally.

One of the primary roles of VANOC is to protect the marketing and property rights of the sponsors. It pressured City Hall, which literally bent over backward to amend its bylaws, as if private sponsorship rights had become the supreme public good.

An examination of sponsors quickly contradicts any myths of green games, peace or cooperation. The Royal Bank, Bell, Hudson’s Bay Company, Petro Canada (taken over by Suncor in 2009), Trans Canada Pipelines, General Electric, MacDonald’s, Coca Cola and Visa are among the sponsors. A number of sponsors are major defense contractors and weapons manufacturers. Others are linked to the ecologically destructive tar sands development including Suncor and the Royal Bank, its number one financier.

Property development and homelessness

The Olympics brings benefits to some, primarily the rich, and temporary increases in employment, especially in construction jobs (although this includes the use of temporary super-exploited migrant workers). They have also facilitated an expansion of ski resort developments strongly opposed by indigenous defenders of the land.

Real estate developers, among the prime movers and beneficiaries of the Olympics, are looking to further accelerate expensive condo developments and gentrification.

Many people living in poverty in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, next to the venues for the biggest events, loathe and fear the games. Gentrification and rising property values and rents threaten to displace them from the community they consider home. The number of SROs (Single Room Occupancy units) is fast shrinking. Although the worst housing in the city, SROs are often the only housing people on welfare can afford and are the last step away from homelessness. Homelessness has increased fourfold since the Olympic bid, with around 3,000 homeless in Vancouver and 14,000 in BC.

Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson pledged to end homelessness by 2014, but so far his program has mostly involved band aids – an increase in shelter space and low-barrier shelters (changes that will reduce the number living on the street during the games).

Earlier this decade, the BC government passed the Safe Streets Act, a move towards harassing and criminalizing the poor. A massive police presence will expand into the Downtown Eastside during the games. Fears were not allayed when the BC government recently passed the “Assistance to Shelter Act,” which could allow police to forcibly move homeless people to shelters.

Vancouver is in many ways a very wealthy and attractive city. But it also suffers from shameful and grotesque levels of socio-economic inequality. Many boosters would like to keep the realities of this Vancouver from the eyes of the world.

Security on the offensive

Fundamental democrat rights are a key issue as national security apparatuses have been strengthened in the “war on terror.” Mega-events such as the Olympics give national security apparatuses a free hand.

Early protests sometimes caught government and VANOC official napping, but now the picture has changed.

During the games, 16,000 security personnel, including some 5,000 members of the Canadian Armed Forces, will be deployed as an occupying force. The number of video surveillance cameras and high-tech spying devices has increased massively.

The Vancouver Integrated Security Unit (VISU) has conjured up the threat of potentially violent domestic protesters and is on the offensive, aiming to disrupt, intimidate and isolate resistance to the games. Some people have even joked that there is one police officer assigned to every core organizer. Key people involved in open public organizing and local anarchist radicals opposed to the games have received unwanted visits from VISU. Harassing visits have extended to their landlords, neighbours, employers, parents, families and professors. Police have actively recruited informers and the use of agent provocateurs is a concern.

Recent years have seen considerable hardening of border controls, making it harder for those deemed “undesirable,” including migrant workers, racially profiled groups, refugees and the poor, to cross borders.

Political dissent, especially anything anti-Olympics, is very high on the Canadian Border Services Agency priority list. The high-profile detention and interrogation of Democracy Now host Amy Goodman and seizure of her material has cast an important spotlight on the paranoid behaviour of the CBSA. An anti-Olympics organizer seeking to speak in the US was detained, extensively questioned and turned away the border.

Free speech under attack

Free speech and the right to protest are under attack. The Vision Vancouver majority on city council passed appalling bylaw changes, which could have been used to ban protests and signs in large areas of downtown Vancouver adjacent to Olympic venues, and could have empowered police to seize and remove anti-Olympic signs and art from homes and buildings. This prompted some division within council, with a partial disruption in the alliance between the dominant Vision party and its junior partner in a loose de facto coalition, the left-leaning COPE. A firestorm of criticism against these restrictions on liberty and a lawsuit filed with the backing of the BC Civil Liberties Association successfully forced council to amend and drastically restrict the bylaws.

Protest will be banned inside Olympics site (and could get people ejected from city’s celebration sites) but lawful protest will be tolerated outside these areas. However, there is still uncertainty as to how police will react to any marches. Any “illegal” actions during the Olympics run the risk of a harsh crackdown.

There are ample grounds to resist the Olympics. The next few weeks could see some real drama as people try to exercise their rights.

Harold Lavender is an editor of New Socialist.


The calendar of actions is filling up.

The Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) is organizing an anti-Olympic convergence. A two-day conference on February 10 and 11 focuses on the Olympics industry and its impacts on indigenous people, the poor and many others, and days of action are planned for February 13 and 15.

The 2010 Welcoming Committee (endorsed by wide variety of groups including the ORN) is organizing toward mass mobilization, with a February 12 festival and march to coincide with the opening ceremonies.

The third annual satirical Poverty Olympics will be held February 7. (It has organized its own torch relay in BC to highlight poverty issues).

Many will stand in solidarity with the longstanding annual February 14 women’s memorial march to commemorate the murdered and missing women (many indigenous) in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside and across BC and the Canadian state. March organizers rejected VANOC’s request to change the route.

Indigenous activists committed to defense of the land will hold their own gathering just prior to the Olympics.

The Impact on Communities Coalition will hold a rally on February 21 to demand a national housing strategy to overcome growing homelessness and the lack of affordable and social housing.