Monday, February 24, 2014

The Principles of the Olympic Games…What Principles?

    Credit: Joe Scarnici, Getty Images

Posted by Chandra Ward, ATLANTA, GA -- The human rights issue making headlines for the Sochi Winter Olympic Games centered on Russia's highly controversial and publicized anti-gay laws.  However, a lesser-known human rights issue affecting Sochi and many other Olympic Games host cities are forced evictions.  The Center on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), an international housing rights organization, found that over the past 20 years the hosting of the Olympic Games has displaced over 2 million people.  In Sochi, thousands of families were forcibly evicted from their homes in order to make way for Olympic infrastructure. This left many dogs without homes as these families were moved into apartments which allowed no pets. 

                                                                                     Credit: Chandra Ward

All too often preparation for the Games involves the practice of displacing poor residents (and their pets). Ironically, this violates the United Nations right to adequate housing, which includes the freedom from forced eviction, arbitrary destruction and demolition of one’s home.  Regardless of the guidelines set by the UN, violation of human rights is not uncommon in Olympic or other mega event planning. According to COHRE, city officials in Seoul forcibly evicted 725,000 people from their homes in preparation for the 1988 Games.  Beijing, not surprisingly the worst offender in this area so far, displaced an estimated 1.25 million people as a result of Olympic preparations.  In 2011 the international human rights organization, Human Rights Watch (HRW), documented reports of forced evictions, labor abuses and censorship occurring in Sochi. Atlanta ran homeless people out of town and tore down public housing to make way for the 1996 summer games. This troubling pattern of human rights violations is consistent and creates incongruences between Olympic reality and the Olympic rhetoric.  What does this repeated disregard for human rights say about the Olympic brand and its principles of peace, spirit, unity, and fairness?   If host cities routinely engage in the human rights violations what role does the IOC have or should have in regards to these practices?  

                                                                                     Credit: Chandra Ward
Host cities around the world go to great lengths preparing for the Olympics.  The primary reasons cities seek to host the Olympic Games – international focus, attracting investors, and restructuring the city making it more attractive to business – also drive them to violate the human rights of their most marginalized citizens.  A perfect mix of capitalism and politics, mega-events such as the Olympics, supply both an influx of capital for the city and local businesses, and an opportunity to advance urban political agendas.  The mega-spectacle provides the business and political elites an opportunity to exercise, display, and consolidate their power, ultimately reinforcing and even increasing unequal social relations.  

                                                                                                                                       Credit: unknown.

The Olympic Games are managed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).   The IOC’s duties, based on the Fundamental Principles of Olympism, are to promote positive legacies in host cities, “to place sport at the service of humanity and thereby to promote peace,” and “to encourage and support the promotion of ethics…”    Surprisingly, the IOC has largely been silent in directly engaging issues of social inequality and has instead chosen to fulfill its obligations to “social responsibility” through sustainable development.  While environmental sustainability and infrastructural projects can be a form of social responsibility, they are eclipsed by simultaneous, acts of egregious social irresponsibility. 

                                                                                          Credit: Deirdre Oakley

What kind of “legacy” will be left behind by the 2016 Summer Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro?  So far, it does not appear to be one that 'places sport at the service of humanity' which, according the Fundamental Principles of Olympism and the Olympic Charter is the IOC's purpose.   Many of the favelas (Brazilian “shanty” towns often in urban areas) in and around Rio are scheduled for demolition in preparation of the 2016 Summer Games.  Among the favelas, some of which have been recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, are historical sites detailing the histories of the country's indigenous and Afro-Brazilian citizens.  The fact that these are also some of Brazil's most marginalized citizens is without coincidence.   True to form, Rio's Olympic host city development comes at the personal expense of those with very little as it is.   The price is great; much greater than what can be quantified and reduced to bottom line dollars and cents.  This massive disconnect from the Olympic core principles cannot be lost on the IOC.  Is it possible that the deployment of Olympic rhetoric is not confined just to the powerful interests of host cities, but also by the interests of this powerful international organization?  Have the principles of capitalism and state power co-opted the Olympic principles and brand?

                                                                                          Credit: Deirdre Oakley

Chandra D. Ward is a Doctoral student in the Sociology Department at Georgia State University. She is also Social Shutter’s Managing Editor.  Her photo essay about the history of the Atlanta Olympic Games was published in Contexts Magazine and can be viewed here: You can contact Chandra at

1 comment:

  1. This article is really good, It's great collection. I think you are right that some of which have been recently awarded UNESCO World Heritage status, are historical sites detailing the histories of the country's indigenous and Afro-Brazilian citizens. The fact that these are also some of Brazil's most marginalized citizens is without coincidence....Android Box TV