Friday, April 24, 2009

Olympics Redux

It’s been a while since I’ve blogged about the Olympics, something I was reminded of in watching the television and print media coverage of the 15 women ski jumpers who finally got their day in BC Supreme Court. The women have filed a lawsuit against VANOC, arguing that the IOC’s decision to exclude their event from the 2010 Olympics despite intense lobbying efforts constitutes sex discrimination under Canada’s Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and that VANOC, as a Canadian organizing committee of an Olympics to take place on Canadian soil, should be subject to the laws of this land. VANOC, however, says its hands are tied, that the decision rests solely with the International Olympic Committee, whose rules appear to trump all others. Indeed, as noted anti-Olympics writer Helen Jefferson Lenskyj usefully reminds us, the IOC, “an autonomous, non-elected body,” abets host cities’ and countries’ curtailment of basic civic rights by insisting that organizers play by their tightly controlled rules, including a guarantee that there will be no public protests in or adjacent to Olympic venues, or any behaviour that might be considered an affront to Olympic values. This reminds us, as well, that while not dismissing or diminishing the severity of the human rights abuses sanctioned by Chinese authorities in the lead up to and during last year’s Beijing Summer Olympics, suspending the rights of public expression and assembly is in fact a de facto aspect of the IOC’s supra-political stage managing of its collective Olympic optics.

Indeed, before pointing fingers it is useful to pause and ask what lessons Beijing might hold for Vancouver, where, as one Chinese student put it to me last year, we take for granted our right to protest as well as our right to disinterestedness. How might thinking critically about the real differences and the complex lines of historical connection in local audiences’ responses to globally mediated sports spectacles like the Olympics foster a politics of place that resists the universalist narratives of development championed by institutions like the IOC? The women ski jumpers’ lawsuit, along with two other rights challenges related to the 2010 Olympics, offer one possible way to begin answering these questions by exposing the performative exclusions embodied within the very category of the human that such narratives are meant to uphold.

The first rights challenge is a United Nations complaint filed against the federal government of Canada, the BC provincial government, and the City of Vancouver by three community-based NGOs working in the DTES. The petition states that all three levels of government are in violation of Section 11.1 of the International Covenant of Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (of which Canada is a signatory), which reads: “Parties to the Covenant recognize the right of everyone to an adequate standard of living …, including adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions.” Citing a litany of broken promises surrounding the 2010 Games, the claimants allege the governments have failed to provide adequate affordable and habitable housing to the neediest residents of Vancouver; that the homelessness crisis in the city has been exacerbated by development projects related to the Olympics; and that as the homeless population in the city is disproportionately represented by Aboriginals, drug users, and the mentally disabled, this constitutes a systemic practice of discrimination.

The second challenge also concerns Vancouver’s “street homeless” population; submitted to the BC Human Rights Tribunal in July 2008 by Pivot Legal Society, United Native Nations, and the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, it alleges that the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association, together with Geoff Plant, in his role as Vancouver’s Project Civil City Commissioner, have engaged in a targeted campaign of harassment against this population via their coordination of the Downtown Ambassadors, a roving “public safety” force meant to combat “street disorder” that is directly modeled on a similar “hospitality force” put in place in Atlanta in advance of the 1996 Olympics. The Ambassadors are Vancouver’s more menacing version of Beijing’s etiquette police, patrolling a 90-block area radiating out from the DTES, on the lookout for “suspicious” individuals, including those sitting or sleeping on sidewalks, binning in alleyway dumpsters, engaging in public drug use, panhandling, or otherwise failing to conform “to the behaviour desired by businesses in the area.”

These challenges highlight some of the social groups left behind when urban aspiration is harnassed to Olympic inspiration: if human bodies can be engineered—via equipment vested or drugs ingested—to go “faster, higher, stronger,” then why can’t cities? The winners and losers accompanying such contests remind us that the history of the Olympics mirrors that of capitalist modernity, from their humble origins as amateur sideshows at World Expositions to their steady growth as a powerful global industry run by professional elites, fueled by broadcast revenues and corporate sponsorships, and riven by bribery scandals and competitive fraud. Yet as the women ski jumpers’ lawsuit attests, such fundamental institutional inequities are actually built into the very fabric of an athletic movement based on the cohesion of body and world that has for most of its history done its best to ignore over half of the bodies in the world, not to mention the various social and political movements they have spawned.

Whither sport. Despite its Charter’s avowal that “the practice of sport is a human right” (somewhat ironic giving the IOC’s banning of the philanthropic organization “Right to Play” from the Vancouver Games owing to a licensing dispute with one of its major sponsors), the Olympic Movement remains deeply entrenched within binaries of human difference. Sex and gender chief among them, but also race, class, sexuality, age, religion, and geography. Indeed, one of the main arguments in awarding Beijing the 2008 Olympics—that the world’s most populous nation should have the right to host the world’s premiere sporting event—seems slightly specious when one considers that most of the sports showcased at that event were invented by white European men at the height of colonialism. In the politicized spectacle of place promotion that is the Olympics, where final medal tallies belie not just the unspoken story of “performance enhancement,” but also a long history of the global south, or the communist east, having to beat the West at its own game, gentlemanly competition of the sort envisioned by Pierre de Coubertin is one showcase that has come utterly undone.

Still on the subject of the Olympics, I went to an interesting planning and information meeting at the downtown campus of my university yesterday. It was hosted by members of the Winter Olympics Outcomes Project, a yearlong cross-disciplinary and collaborative inquiry, based in the Urban Studies Program at SFU (and coordinated by my colleagues Peter Hall, Meg Holden, Karen Ferguson, and Anthony Perl, together with their fabulous RA Alix Freiler). The Project is focusing on how the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver will affect, determine, and help shape some of the most pressing questions of social, cultural, and environmental sustainability facing the city, and how Vancouver’s work in these areas compares with that of other Olympic host cities. Activities include comparative data collection and analysis of several “meta-indicators” relating to specific urban impacts from the past six Winter Olympic host cities (including public indebtedness, polarization, public amenities and legacies, sprawl, cohesion, creativity/cultural impact, and local economy); a mini-symposium this June coordinated around the visit and public lectures of Andrew Thornley, an expert on urban planning from the UK, who will speak on related issues facing London in the lead-up to 2012; a larger symposium/conference planned for this fall, placing the Vancouver Olympics within a global context of mega-development projects; a collaborative endeavor with fellow researchers at UBC in the Spring of 2010, to coincide with the Olympics and Paralympics themselves; and a possible longer term research project based on the outcomes of the Games.

It was a very useful and stimulating meeting, and good for me to talk about these issues with urban studies scholars. I also met Duncan Low, former Executive Director of the Vancouver East Cultural Centre, at the meeting, and look forward to working with him in the future on issues relating to arts and culture funding and legacies tied to the Olympics. He offered a rather grim and sobering assessment about where the cultural community stands now in relation to various promises made in the original bid, with several companies and organizations actually scaling back their cultural programming for 2010 as a result of receiving less funding than promised, or simply because they don’t think there will be enough of an audience out there to support paid attendance to side events on top of all the free Olympic stuff. Something of a reality check, to be sure.

At any rate, I hope to use this blog site to post regular updates on the progress of the Olympics Outcomes Project’s research, as well as notices of public events, etc. Stay tuned, in particular, for more information about the June symposium, which is scheduled to take place on Monday, June 8th, at SFU Harbour Centre.

And stay tuned, as well, for a further post this weekend relating my thoughts on three dance performances I will have seen by then: Judith Marcuse Projects Earth = Home (I caught yesterday’s noon show at the Dance Centre); Hubbard Street Dance at the Playhouse tonight; and EDAM’s Repose mixed program at the Western Front on Saturday.


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