Gold Medals, Iron Fist

Olympic Protesters Face a World-Class Crackdown

The economic and social costs of the Olympics are prompting a global anti-Olympic movement, says Lenskyj, author of the new book Inside the Olympic Industry. A sports sociologist at the University of Toronto and board member of Bread Not Circuses, a social justice group formed in 1989 to fight Toronto's Olympic bid, Lenskyj describes how local opposition to the Games has grown since Denver became the only city to reject an IOC offer to host the Olympics in 1972.

Development, of course, is why city officials crave the Olympics in the first place. But as Jan Borowy of Bread Not Circuses notes, "The Olympic budget doesn't cover the cost of building the housing, so it's public money anyway." And with Olympic housing starts have come Olympic gentrification: Widespread rent gouging in anticipation of the influx of Olympic employees and tourists has left 35,000 Sydneysiders homeless, four times as many as before Sydney was granted the Games in 1993.

This, explains Lenskyj, who spent four months in Sydney earlier this year as a visiting scholar, is "the blueprint for an Olympic host city: Have few if any protections for tenants and low-income people, so that landlords can evict tenants, slap a coat of paint on the premises, and rent it at three or four times the previous rent. That has happened many, many times: Barcelona, Seoul, Calgary, Atlanta, and now in Sydney."

"I suspect there will be violence. I think there may even be fatalities."
illustration by Max Grafe
"I suspect there will be violence. I think there may even be fatalities."

Sydney's Aboriginal, tenant, and student activists in Sydney's Anti-Olympics Alliance will be augmented by thousands more who are expected to bus up the coast following this past Monday's "S11" protests at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne, a gathering of multinational CEOs dubbed the "Business Olympics." The timing of the two events is no coincidence, insists CACTUS's Caughley: Many multinational Olympic sponsors will kill two birds with one intercontinental airfare on the Melbourne-Sydney jaunt.

Environmental protests are expected as well. Greenpeace, which initially endorsed the "Green Games" PR strategy of SOCOG, recently downgraded its rating of the Games' environmental efforts to "bronze," citing the continued presence of dioxin and other carcinogens on the former industrial site of Homebush Bay. Greenpeace activists have since created a giant "crop circle" beneath the Sydney airport flight path, with an arrow pointing toward Homebush and the word TOXIC.

The Opening Ceremony is like a bold statement of intent. . . . While intended primarily as entertainment, the perfectly choreographed segments often give heroes their due or draw attention to a social issue. The Hollywood-style glamour cannot mask the underlying theme of tolerance and respect.
—Sydney Olympics Web site

All of these diverse protest groups are scheduled to arrive in Sydney on the 15th, with a series of actions around the city to coincide with that evening's Opening Ceremonies. In addition to what's become the routine pepper-spray-and-baton police greeting, what's worrying activists and legal observers is the unprecedented restrictions on civil liberties passed by the government during the run-up to the Games. Police and private security officers have been authorized to issue "move on" orders to anyone within three kilometers of the scattered Olympic sites—a zone that covers much of Sydney—for a list of offenses that includes handing out literature, using a camera, using "insulting" language, or otherwise causing an "annoyance or inconvenience." (SOCOG had threatened to ban the Aboriginal flag as well, but backed down.) Violators will be subject to arrest and fines of up to $2200, and can be banned from the Olympic grounds for life. And then there is the Defence Legislation Amendment (Aid to Civilian Authorities) Bill, pending in the Australian parliament, which would allow the use of the military where "domestic violence" is occurring or likely to occur—with the power for warrantless search and seizure and to shoot to kill.

"Sydney is following exactly in Atlanta's footsteps," says Lenskyj. "The government passes draconian measures to suspend human rights and civil liberties and the right to peaceful assembly for the duration of the Games."

Nonetheless, the Peace Walk proceeds, and the protesters are preparing for the Opening Ceremonies on Friday. "At 10 o'clock that morning, there's going to be a rally at the tent embassy site, though they are attempting everything possible to lock us out," says Jackson, the indigenous leader.

"We continue to stress that our actions will be peaceful. We do not want any physical force used by us or against us. But SOCOG has said no way, no one will cross over the Homebush line. So there will be violence. The violence will not be perpetrated by us. But we certainly hold the right to defend ourselves. And how that pans out, we don't know."

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