Putting Cities To The (Olympic) Torch

<p>Cities continue to compete with each other over the opportunity to host the next Olympics, despite repeated examples showing that the games lead to bloated housing markets, lost jobs, debt and repressive social policies.</p>
July 12, 2007, 8am PDT | Michael Dudley
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"Much like the fairs of yesteryear, the Olympics has become a force unto itself, able to transform a city dramatically. The ambition to host the games fits the agenda of a city leadership enamored of gigantic, splashy projects and overweening power.

The toll the Olympic industry takes on host cities is made worse because it's so predictable. Their destructive impact is documented in an extensive study of the seven most recent cities (Seoul, Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Athens, Beijing and London) chosen to host the Summer Games. It was released in June by the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), based in Geneva, Switzerland.

The worst abuses COHRE documents have taken place under the most repressive regimes. Beijing will displace 1.5 million people to host the 2008 Games, as it doubles the already frenzied pace of its urban redevelopment. Often without notice, officials cut off electricity and water to convince residents to leave. If that's unsuccessful, garbage and sewage are allowed to pile up in entryways. Left without recourse, a few residents threatened suicide. Some succeed; others are arrested for creating public disturbances.

Beijing's brutality is hardly unique. COHRE details how South Korea's military dictatorship cleared out 720,000 people for the 1988 Seoul Games. Private security forces roamed the streets at night, using rape, beatings and arson to break community resistance.

But it doesn't take a one-party state to bring out the jackboots when the Olympics come to town. Atlanta gained notoriety among Olympic watchers when it declared the central business district a "sanitized corridor" and had police pre-print arrest citations, with the words "African-American," "Male," and "Homeless" already filled in. In the lead-up to the games the city arrested about 9,000 people, a "crime" that has significant implications because people with criminal records are not eligible for public housing. Some of the homeless were given one-way bus tickets out of town.

What mass-produced arrest citations and bulldozers don't accomplish the market's invisible hand usually does. Real-estate speculation and ballooning rents push out vulnerable populations with inescapable regularity. Barcelona, touted as the most successful recent games, registered a 240 percent increase in new house prices in the run-up to the Olympics."

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Published on Wednesday, July 11, 2007 in AlterNet
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