Written by Caitlin Endyke
I have a chalkboard in my apartment that counts down day-by-day until the next Olympics. I love the Games. I love the history, I love the pageantry, I love watching athletes who have trained their whole lives finally achieve Olympic Gold.
Lately, It is hard for me to reconcile my love for the Olympics with the news coming out of host countries of the upcoming summer and winter Games. First, the widely-reported anti-LGBT stance of the Russian government, which led many potential viewers to boycott the Games in Sochi. Meanwhile, reports of rampant corruption, population displacement, and even the deaths of workers at stadium construction sites came out of both Russia and Brazil (who will first host the World Cup this summer before the Olympics in 2016).
It’s a common theme for sports fans across the world – how do we reconcile our love for sports with the detrimental effects sports-as-business has on the common good? We’ve written here before about cities using the claim that construction of new sports stadiums boosts local economies, which more often than not results in team executives reaping record profits while the community at large sees little change beyond an increase in their tax bill to fund development. Detroit is just one recent example of where this will be attempted again, even amidst a municipal bankruptcy.
In theory, the Olympics have the potential to be the ultimate exercise in providing for the commons. Host countries have an excuse to finally begin (and complete) construction on infrastructure projects like public transit that will go on to serve local residents for decades to come. Revenue brought in from tourists boosts the local economy. Parks and stadiums that were built to host Olympic Games can be used as public space. Yet it’s been proven that, most likely, a country who hosts the Olympics will end up worse off after the Closing Ceremony than it was before it put in a hosting bid to the International Olympic Committee. Even more, if the host country does manage to profit off of the Games, it is often at the expense of the region’s poorest residents. Last summer, protests broke out in Brazil over the costs of hosting the upcoming World Cup (and later, the Olympics), as Brazil is projected to spend almost $15 billion on development for this year’s event while an estimated quarter of the population lives near poverty, with no access to running water, sewage treatment or mail delivery. Amid construction, taxes in Brazil have gone up, as have public bus fares (which partly contributed to the protests this summer). The Guardian notes that Brazilians are beginning to associate the World Cup with “a distant global elite who profit at the expense of local people.” According to one estimate, 3,000 people have been evicted from their homes to make room for stadium or infrastructure construction. And we can all assume this is just a preview of things to come when the nation gears up to host the Olympics in 2016.
Yet some countries do manage to eke out a commons benefit after the Games have ended. London, for instance, sparked development in a largely industrial neighborhood following their summer Games – offering the grounds surrounding Olympic Park as a public space and earmarking athlete apartments for affordable public housing. The neighborhood that was once full of empty warehouses now boasts a new school and health center to accompany the leftover Olympic structures.
When done right, the Games can help host countries invest in the common good. As fans, we enjoy two weeks of great athletic competition and have fun with the usual pomp and circumstance. Yet we should also try to hold host nations accountable for making sure that the local residents benefit as well.