Olympic Hating: Is China Really Worse than Any Other Host?

by Special Correspondent Thea Lim

If your city newspapers are anything like mine, you’ve been witnessing the regular old deluge of Olympics coverage. But the ’08 reporting is special – mixed in with the diving stats is story after story about how China is corrupt, repressive and deceitful.

Take yesterday’s amazing headline from Canadian national newspaper, the National Post: Chinese Introduce New Sport: Deception. Or Tuesday’s story in the Globe and Mail, another Canadian national newspaper: Beijing static: Disagreements over whether to watch the Olympic Games or tune them out are dividing families. A Toronto Star story from a few weeks back details how the Chinese are not only secretive loonies but also warmongers: China Wages War on Olympic Weather.

I can totally agree that China has an awful human rights records; that what is happening in Tibet is horrible; that Beijing (and many other parts of China) are staggeringly polluted.

But here’s the thing: what Olympic host country hasn’t done terrible things that they should be held to account for? Hell, it’s often the chance to host the Olympics that motivates state violence. So why is China the only one getting called out?

Seriously, I’m not just crying wolf. In December ’07, European organisation the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions released the report “Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights.” The report states that

The Olympic Games have displaced more than two million people in the last 20 years, disproportionately affecting the homeless, the poor, and minorities.

An ’07 article in the Guardian discusses the report in more detail, stating that

In every city it examined, the Olympic games – accidentally or deliberately – have become a catalyst for mass evictions and impoverishment…The games have become a licence for land grabs…

Barcelona’s Olympics, in 1992…[were] used to cleanse the city. Roma communities were evicted and dispersed. The council produced a plan to “clean the streets of beggars, prostitutes, street sellers and swindlers” and “annoying passers-by”. Some 400 poor and homeless people were subjected to “control and supervision”.

We hear the same story in the US.

Even before the 1996 Olympics, Atlanta was one of the most segregated cities in the US. But the games gave the clique of white developers who ran them the excuse to engineer a new ethnic cleansing programme. Without any democratic process they demolished large housing projects (whose inhabitants were mostly African-American) and replaced them with shiny middle-class homes; about 30,000 families were evicted. They issued “quality of life ordinances”, which criminalised people who begged or slept rough. The police were given pre-printed arrest citations bearing the words “African-American, Male, Homeless”…In the year before the games they arrested 9,000 homeless people.

Usually any criticism of the cost of the Olympic games – to poor folks and people of colour – is silenced or ignored. You’re ruining the fun of the games! Why do you hate the spirit of international co-operation? But this year even the torch run was opportunity to loudly and publicly protest the behaviour of the Chinese government – rightly so. So why don’t we use the occasion of the Olympics to criticise more governments?

Could it be that we’re just a lot more comfortable calling out The Other, the backward and the funny-looking; rather than slamming an elegant urbane metropolis like Barcelona, or criticising a great bastion of Western democracy like the US?

And we’re also more comfortable imagining people of colour in poorer countries as victims. The idea of Western citizens as impoverished victims is unsettling to us – so the MSM will give more air time to advocates for an important but distant cause like Sudan than it will to the problems of our own communities.

It’s not just the simple hypocrisy that gets my goat. It’s the way that the Beijing Olympics are being seized as prime chance to express our horror at nasty governments: so that we can distance ourselves from them. We can mark ourselves out as democratic, caring and 1st World in stark contrast to authoritarian, ruthless, 3rd World China.

In the Globe and Mail article one of the interviewees (smugly) states, “Awarding the Olympics to China was certainly motivated and inspired by a noble idea, but the experiment has failed.”

Hello paternalism! Who awarded the Olympics to China, and why were they in a place to tell China to clean up their act?

The idea that Canada should give other countries tips on human rights doesn’t sit well with me. Last year Canada (along with the US) was one of just 4 countries who flat out refused to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. And in the same way that giving the Olympics to China didn’t spur China on to the height of humanitarian goodness, the advent of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver is inspiring a lot of Canadian dirty dealing.

Here’s a tragic example: Harriet Nahanee was a 71 year-old Squamish elder (that’s right, she was 71) who was jailed for two weeks for her part in a protest against the construction of a highway upgrade in prep for the 2010 Olympics. Protesters stated the upgrade would damage ecologically sensitive land. When she was arrested fellow activists asked that Nahanee not be jailed as she was in poor health. Instead she was incarcerated; shortly after her release she died of pneumonia.

At an intercontinental Indigenous gathering in Mexico in 2007, delegates called for a boycott of the 2010 Olympic Games:

Indigenous representatives attending an intercontinental Indigenous gathering in Vicam , Sonora Mexico have called for a boycott of the 2010 Olympics Games…Delegates agreed that the 2010 Games, to be held on the occupied Indigenous territories of Vancouver “BC”, will have an immense negative impact on Indigenous people’s lands and lives. Reading from the proposed resolutions delivered at the gathering, Gord Hill, a Kwakwaka’wakw delegate, stated that “Olympic related mega development on Indigenous lands have already disrupted hunting and fishing grounds and destroyed sacred sites”.

I’ll bet you one Team Canada ’08 visor that the Indigenous-led boycott won’t get much press.