Saturday, August 8, 2009

Olympic Rights Complaints: An Update

This week the Impact on Communities Coalition (IOCC), a local Olympics watchdog, filed two new human rights complaints with the UN. As IOCC chair Am Johal explained in a brief item in The Georgia Straight, the first complaint centers around civil liberties and mostly targets the special Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit, which the IOCC claims has been unduly harassing activists and Downtown Eastside residents. The complaint also alleges that a recently passed omnibus City bylaw restricting assembly and free speech during the Olympics is unconstitutional. As, indeed, it is, and it shocks me that a Vision Vancouver-led council not only allowed such a bylaw to pass, but actively supported it.

The second complaint filed by the IOCC with the UN concerns tenancy protection for renters occupying suites in homes across the city, who are vulnerable to being evicted by owners anxious to make some extra cash during the Olympics by charging higher rates to out-of-town visitors (something that is again being encouraged by the City).

These two UN complaints join a previous one filed by the IOCC, Pivot Legal Society, and the Carnegie Community Action Project in April 2008 regarding the conversion of single-room-occupancy suites in DTES hotels to market accommodation targeted at Olympics tourists. The federal government will have a chance to respond to that complaint in September.

Meanwhile, the women ski-jumpers' attempts to have the ban on their sport by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) overturned by BC Supreme Court was unsuccessful in early July. Although the judge did explicitly state that the IOC's ban was discriminatory, she claimed that as the IOC is a supra-national organization, the women could not rely on the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to make their complaint.

There was better news that same month for the BC Human Rights Tribunal complaint leveled against the Downtown Ambassadors. A petition by the City of Vancouver and the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association was denied, paving the way for the complaint to move forward for review.

As I argue in my chapter on the Olympics in my forthcoming book, these rights challenges highlight some of the social groups left behind when host cities harness their particular urban aspirations to abstracted messages of Olympic inspiration: if human bodies can be engineered--via equipment vested or drugs ingested--to go "faster, higher, stronger," then why can’t the places those bodies reside? Of course, the winners and losers that accompany such contests are a reminder that the history of the Olympics mirrors the history of capitalist modernity, from their humble branch plant origins as an amateur sideshow at World Expositions (themselves glorified trading shows) 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. Even the poor return of medals that is routinely cited (as it was again in Beijing) as evidence of Canada’s lack of serious investment in its sports industries is part of this same developmental narrative. Yet as these rights challenges again attest, 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 principled avowal that "the practice of sport is a human right" (and notwithstanding the noble efforts of former and current Olympians involved in the Right to Play aid organisation), the Olympic Movement remains deeply entrenched within binaries of human difference. Sex and gender are chief among them (as hormone testing and controversies surrounding trans athletes routinely attest), but exclusionary divisions and categories based on race, class, sexuality, age, religion, physical mobility, and geography are just as persistent. 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 corporatized, bureaucratized, politicized spectacle of place promotion that is the Olympics, 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.


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