TOPICS: Millions displaced by Olympic Games

Governments may fiercely compete for the honour of hosting the world’s premier sporting event. But for minority groups and the poor, the Olympic Games have been anything but a windfall. A new report by the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE), a UN-funded agency, says that gentrification and soaring real estate prices linked to the Games have displaced more than two million people in the last 20 years. Titled “Fair Play for Housing Rights: Mega-Events, Olympic Games and Housing Rights”, the report, released last Tuesday, says that the vast majority of the forced evictions happened in Seoul, South Korea and in Beijing, where the 2008 Summer Olympics will take place.

“It is shocking and entirely unacceptable that 1.25 million people have already been displaced in Beijing, in preparation for the 2008 Games, in flagrant violation of their right to adequate housing,” said Jean du Plessis, COHRE’s executive director, in a statement. The 2004 Athens Olympics affected the Roma population, and in Atlanta, the low income African American population suffered the most acute impact from the 1996 Olympics. The COHRE report is the most comprehensive study to date on the subject of hallmark events and displacement. There will be a conference later this month to push the International Olympic Committee to reform its evaluation processes and ensure sustainability for future Olympic Games.

Although the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Olympics was not a major subject of this study, activists say that dozens of low income people were evicted from their homes for the international sports event. Glen Bailey, founder of a local Olympic watchdog group called Impact 2002 and Beyond in Salt Lake City, said, “There was a shelter opened during the Olympics, but no planning had been put in to place to deal with the actual Olympic-related evictions.” For instance, the owners of Aspenwood apartments in West Valley City, which were to be used by FBI agents, evicted low-income people paying a relatively moderate price of $560- 600 a month.

In Vancouver, where the 2010 Winter Olympics will be hosted, there have been over 700 units of low-income single resident hotel units converted to other uses. Although much of this gentrification in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood cannot be directly attributed to the Olympics, critics have argued that the speculative fever brought on by the Games is a contributing factor. During the Expo 86 World’s Fair, over 1,000 people were evicted from this neighbourhood.

Though the British Columbia provincial government has recently purchased some single residency hotels which were under threat of conversion, community groups are still calling for 3,200 units of housing to be built before the Olympics. An internal report released by the Vancouver Olympic Organising Committee argues that they have already met 80% of their sustainability targets. The report was criticised by community groups who claimed it was not independent. — IPS