Corruption, controversy and ballooning costs: the dark side of the Olympics

As consumers in a globalised world, it’s all too easy to forget the hidden costs of our daily conveniences. But what about those of international sporting events? As the excitement of the Sochi Olympics fades, Connie Fisher asks us to look beyond the hype and the glory to the human consequences of the greatest show on Earth.

 

Olympic Cauldron Relit for Sochi Winter Games 2014, Feb 21st

Sochi 2014’s Olympic flame © GoToVan (Creative Commons)

No major sporting event comes without its problems, but as we have seen with this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the pre-games controversy – especially over LGBT issues – was all but forgotten amidst the thrill and excitement of the sport. However, behind the scenes, massively inflating budgets, corruption and health and safety issues require us to ask whether such events ultimately benefit or hinder the host countries, especially considering the increasing number of successful bids from BRICS nations.

With a whopping $51bn price tag (five times the original $12bn prediction), the Sochi Games have become the most expensive Olympics in history, leading the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to question whether it is time to reassess their budgeting and bidding procedures. The blame for the exorbitant price of the Sochi Games, which weighed in at nearly three-and-a-half times the cost of London 2012, has been placed on corruption endemic within the construction industry and, according to opposition politicians, up to $30bn in kick-backs for figures close to Vladimir Putin.

Much of the funding for the Sochi Games was provided by private investors, oligarchs who residents say used the Olympics as a smokescreen to increase their property holdings in the subtropical resort. The conversion of the area into a luxury holiday resort after the Paralympic Games makes clear who the long-term economic winners of the whole event will prove to be. In contrast, last month saw Sweden retract their bid to host the 2022 Winter Olympics, stating their unwillingness to invest so heavily in facilities for which there would be little need after the end of the Games.

Sochi Olympics Adler 01

Construction work at the Olympic Park, Sochi. © Stefan Krasowski (Creative Commons)

The building works have also had negative social impacts. A Human Rights Watch report found that some of the 70,000-strong workforce building Sochi’s venues, which included thousands of migrant workers, had suffered abuse and exploitation, sometimes working 12-hour shifts, denied wages for months and forced to live in incredibly over-crowded accommodation. Furthermore, the homes of approximately 1000 people were confiscated by the Russian police, often by force and without ample compensation.

Sochi has not been alone in such controversy. More than 250,000 people lost their homes in slum clearance for the 2010 Delhi Commonwealth Games, despite the event’s mission statement ‘to develop sport for the benefit of the people’. Though many were relocated by the government, the majority that didn’t qualify for alternative housing moved to other slum sites, only to be displaced time and again. Although minimal in comparison, even our own Games did not remain guiltless: the building project for London 2012 required the compulsory purchase of 700 acres of land, home to nearly 450 people.

As all eyes turn to Brazil for both the 2014 FIFA World Cup and 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, not much seems to have changed regarding the intentions of planners. There have been widespread delays in building work across most of the host cities as a result of insufficient funding and large-scale workers’ strikes calling for increased pay. However, Brazilians negatively affected by the Games are refusing to go down without a fight.

From the moment Rio de Janeiro won the 2016 Olympic bid, thousands living in the city’s favela communities were threatened with forced eviction. In 2013, residents of the Vila Autódromo, a favela within the area of the proposed Olympic Park, finally won the legal battle against its demolition. Furthermore, in response to protests, the mayor has promised that any residents still requiring relocation will have the choice of remaining within the community, or moving to the purpose-built Carioca Park, 500 metres away.

Residents are not the only ones making their voices heard. According to a recent CNT/MDA poll, 75% of Brazilians see the World Cup’s consumption of billions of US dollars as an unnecessary expense, and an even larger number said the money could have been spent in more beneficial ways. Since June 2013, nationwide demonstrations have seen hundreds of thousands take to the streets to protest the massive costs of the World Cup and the Olympics, calling instead for a halt in the country’s rising living costs and improvements to currently poor health care and low standards of education. These demands for reallocation of funds come just as the estimate of public spending on the 2016 Olympics, established initially at $2.3 billion, is set to rise considerably.

Measures are being put in place to control the protesting predicted for throughout the World Cup itself, in order to deliver a trouble-free experience for the athletes and paying spectators. It seems that this disconnect, between those who enjoy the Games and those who have suffered as a result, is a pervasive feature of such large sporting events. Looking forward from the most expensive Olympics in history to Russia once more for the 2018 World Cup, the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea and the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, one cannot help but wonder where their future lies. We must hope that the considerations of the IOC lead to more great sporting events, but no longer at such a cost to the people and infrastructures of the host countries, as protesters make their voices heard and spectators begin to acknowledge the sinister underside of the Games’ glossy exterior.

 


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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