The Olympic Games look like a rich man’s game

Posted by admin on Apr 10th, 2009

By Harsha Walia, Special to the Vancouver Sun, April 10, 2009

For anyone who still maintains any illusions of Olympic prosperity, an updated Olympic budget released by Vanoc last week made clear that there is no projected potential Olympic profit. According to John Furlong, “We will be very happy to get to break-even.” With sponsors such as GM and Nortel in crisis, the financial stability of the Games has been a controversy. Although $950 million in corporate sponsorships is expected, only $365 million has been collected. A Vanoc line of credit with sponsor RBC was cut by $65 million. The IOC has still not signed two of its top sponsors, resulting in another $30 million shortfall.

However, these financial troubles are not simply due to the recession. According to Kevin Walmsley, co-director of the University of Western Ontario’s International Centre for Olympic Studies, most host cities incur a net of high debt. Montreal’s $1.5-billion debt was only recently paid off. Other cities were left with similar debts: $910 million for Calgary, $1.4 billion for Barcelona, $2.3 billion for Sydney.

Since 2004, Vanoc and government officials have claimed that the Olympics will be on budget. But the convention centre expansion is one of many examples of cost overruns; originally budgeted for $495 million, its final costs ballooned to almost $900 million. Vanoc’s 2008 annual report shows that construction costs for five venues have increased by 48 per cent.

Vanoc and the B.C. government further insist that the final Olympic tab will be around $1.8 billion, a figure that has been widely discredited. Contrary to the B.C. auditor-general’s own assessments, much of the infrastructure costs — including the Sea to Sky Highway and the Canada Line — are not being counted. Depending on which projects are included, the actual costs range from $3 billion to $6 billion.

The security tab alone is $1 billion, with 13,000 personnel involved in the largest deployment in Canadian history. High-tech operations, including unmanned aerial vehicles and remote sensors, have led to the dubbing of 2010 as the “Surveillances Games” by sociologist David Lyon.

And Vancouver city council has approved using $2.6 million from provincial and Vancouver Integrated Security Unit funding for closed-circuit cameras. Canada’s privacy commissioner Jennifer Stoddart has raised concerns, stating, “Experience has shown that Olympic Games and other mega-events can leave a troubling legacy — large-scale, security surveillance systems often remain long after the event is over.”

For years, economists have been saying to anyone who could listen past Vanoc’s propaganda that the Games will not pay for themselves. According to Dr. Martin Shaffer, who co-authored an assessment for the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in 2003, “The Games are not attractive from a financial point of view.”

According to a January 2009 poll conducted by Canadian Press Harris-Decima, only 52 per cent of British Columbians feel that the Games have more benefits than drawbacks. This recent outrage with Games-related financing and misdirected public spending gives long-time critics some bitter-sweet satisfaction.

It appears that Vancouverites are learning that the Olympics are less about sport than a spectacular capitalist industry that ensures corporate profits at all costs. That it is no coincidence that accessing Vanoc’s financial statements is like finding a needle in a haystack. Or how quickly it seems the municipal government decided — through a provincial legislative change that circumvented the necessity of going to voters — that borrowing $458 million to complete the Olympic Village was a more important priority than housing or health care.

Just as the failed financial commitments, the IOC and Vanoc have failed on their social promises, including protecting rental housing and the right to protest, guaranteed in the Inner-City Inclusive Commitment Statement.

The devastating reality is that Vancouver has experienced a 300-per-cent increase in homelessness since the Olympic bid, residents in the Downtown Eastside are being affected through aggressive police ticketing, Native communities are opposing Olympics-related development on their lands, and environmentalists are challenging the “Green” Games.

British historian George Monbiot has aptly characterized the Olympics as “a legacy of a transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich . . . . Everywhere they go, [they] become an excuse for eviction and displacement; they have become a license for land grabs.”

The economic crisis has led to worldwide opposition to the systemic failures of our economic system. We should make it clear to Vanoc and our governments that we will not allow them to use the Olympics financial crisis to accelerate a fundamentalist economic program that privatizes gains for the rich and socializes financial and social burdens upon the rest of us and the environment.

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