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The Mechanics
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Column Mon Jan 26 2009

Interview: Olympics Myths and Realities with Chris Shaw

This Saturday evening, Chris Shaw, author of the book Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, will be taking part in a panel discussion at UIC entitled "Why we should say 'NO' to the Chicago 2016 Olympics Bid." A professor of ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia, Chris Shaw is also a founding member/lead spokesperson for the No Games 2010 Coalition and 2010 Watch. He recently discussed his book Five Ring Circus with Mechanics contributor Bob Quellos.

BQ: Your book is subtitled "Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games," but Five Ring Circus is not about Greek mythology, correct?

CS: No, sadly it's not ancient Greek myths that are the problem with the modern Olympics; rather, it's the corruption at all levels and the massive debt that cities incur holding the Games that are the problems.

BQ: How did you become interested in this subject?

CS: My interest began when I heard Vancouver was likely to be short-listed and about to submit their detailed bid. It was the period in 2002, very much where Chicago is now in its bid process. We tried our best to prevent Vancouver from getting the bid. Sadly, we failed and all the negative consequences that we predicted came to pass. Chicagoans have the opportunity to prevent the same mess from occurring in their city, but the time to stop the bid is short.

BQ: Vancouver's Olympic Village for the 2010 Winter Games has recently encountered financial trouble -- forcing the city of Vancouver to fund the project. According to a writer for the Vancouver Sun, this move could eventually leave the city of Vancouver bankrupt. Do you think the possibility of the Olympics bankrupting Vancouver is overstated?

CS: Vancouver finds itself on the hook for almost a billion dollars to finance the construction of the Athletes' Village. They are unlikely to recover the money by selling the units in the near future. They also face nearly another $500 million, or more, for other Olympics costs. We were promised by a former mayor that hosting the Games wouldn't cost Vancouverites one penny. Clearly, he was wrong by a spectacular amount, and that is only the direct costs for Vancouver and not the costs to the province or the federal government. The total price tag is now well over $6 billion; we had been told in 2002 that it would only be $600 million. London's bid has gone from about $4 billion to $18 billion. At the same time as Vancouver's costs go up, we suddenly find that half of the City's property endowment fund has vanished. Could the city go bankrupt? Yes.

BQ: As you are aware, Chicago is bidding for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Why should Chicagoans be wary of hosting the Games?

CS: Costs, just like the above, displacement of the poor and homeless (the city police are already planning sweeps to get the homeless out of the city before 2010). Environmental destruction also always occurs and there is no transparency to any part of the process, etc. This is the history of all recent games and there is no reason to believe Chicago would be different. After all, no offense, but the recent governor couldn't even appoint a Senate replacement for Obama without trying to get a bribe. Imagine what it will be like when billions are up for grabs in construction.

BQ: Your book concludes with a chapter entitled "No Games! A Citizen's Manual of Resistance to the Olympics." It isn't typical for authors writing on political/social topics to include an activist guide for resistance in their books. Why did you feel it was necessary to include this chapter in Five Ring Circus?

CS: The main reason is that, ultimately, I'm an activist. The book details ways to stop bids rather than trying to fight the circus after the fact. This is important because the pro-bid side usually has so much money and so much political clout that average citizens think there is nothing they can do. This is not true; there is a lot you can do. We've had great success so far helping the citizens in Tromso, Norway, stop the 2018 bid. If we can help Chicago's resistance, we'd be delighted to do so.

 

Carl GiomettiAuthor Profile Page / January 30, 2009 11:47 AM

I'd really like to hear how he reasons the Olympics were bad for Barcelona, Atlanta, Sydney, Tokyo, Los Angeles, and virtually every other summer olympics host, except for maybe Athens (although there is strong evidence that the investment from the games is starting to finally have a positive affect on the city)

His argument that it causes environmental destruction is highly suspect, as well. Considering that Olympics are centered in urban areas, any investment that takes place usually creates greater population density or, in the case of London, allows clean up of areas that would otherwise be unable to secure financing.

Chris Shaw's reasons for opposing the games seems entirely directed around process. I agree that the process must become more transparent and just, but the end result of having the games in your city are very positive.

RuFF / January 31, 2009 1:00 PM

Carl Giometti. Since I doubt he will be responding to your comment, I'll try and do that for you. ALL Olympics except Los Angeles (both in 1932 and 1984) have come at a loss. LA has been the only city in the history of the Olympics to make a profit, EVER. In 1932 the city made a 1 million profit (a lot for those times) and in 1984 a profit of over 200 million (also large for it's time). Beijing's 40 billion investment is well in the red. London now rounding 20 billion, also in the red. Athens, red. Sydney is sitting comfortable in the red with a giant elephant sitting empty requiring tax payers to pay for maintenance. Atlanta, though not documented and believed to be false, broke almost even. Barcelona, red. Seoul, Red, Moscow, red. Montreal finished paying it's Olympic debt 30 years after having hosted in 2006 I believe. This is not fiction, the Olympics are UBER expensive. The ONLY reason LA came out in the black was because that city, like no other city in modern history, relied heavily on existing infrastructure and sporting venues as well as corporate sponsorships and donations. Being that LA pumps out a new venue about every 5 years, it's not hard to see why what that city already had was good enough.

Carl GiomettiAuthor Profile Page / January 31, 2009 1:55 PM

But by that same logic, our education system doesn't make any money, neither does our highway, transit, or virtually every other public enterprise. Does that mean we shouldn't undertake them? No, because in the end, they are an investment in ourselves. Who cares what the Olympics cost so much, the net effect of the game is positive. I'm sure Barcelona lost money on their games but anyone who says that they did not profit substantially from hosting the games is looking through an awfully shortsighted lens. Atlanta, in preparing for the games, built an airport terminal that is directly responsible for ATL being the busiest airport in the world. Do you think anyone there cares that it cost them some millions of dollars to do it?

Given the absolutely pathetic reputation of Americans to open their wallet for public investment, the Olympics are a great mechanism to focus spending and public sentiment around a common goal. London is spending billions, yet I hardly doubt that the land they are rehabbing for the Olympics would have ever been used. The Columbian Exposition, the World's Fairs, and the Century of Progress expositions all required incredible amounts of capital, yet Chicago would not be half the city it is without those significant events and the money invested because of them.

We even have a great recent example in Millennium Park. We all know that it cost a HUGE amount of money to build. Being a public project, there most certainly was waste. However, any argument against the fact that the park has brought (and will continue to bring) millions of dollars to the city is just that, an argument against a fact.

Also, I think it is highly suspect to treat Winter Olympic cities the same as Summer Olympic cities, the nature of the two events are entirely different.

Robert C Benson / March 24, 2009 9:16 AM

“Given the absolutely pathetic reputation of Americans to open their wallet for public investment,” well I suppose your right we do make some poor attempts in public investment since we are so busy bailing out AIG, Fanny and Fredy Mc, what is another billion or so of public money to the Olympics?
Mr Ruff let me explain to you that our “pathetic reputation” as Americans gave birth to our nation. You remember the saying No Taxation Without Representation, no you do not because you are short sighted on history and economics! Maybe you were sick from school that day. Sir if your argument is that we should throw our tax dollars blindly into the black hole without any future investment into our city while at the same time our schools and parks lose funding, are roads are not repaired, and suffer so others may get richer. I say take your socialist agenda and pedal it to another city that can afford IT! But I will not let my children's future be burdened by the greed of city hall!

Robert C Benson / March 24, 2009 9:22 AM

My post was in contrast to Mr Carl Giometti not Mr Ruff. I apologize for the confussion.

Dr. Ravee Raghavan / June 22, 2009 10:45 AM

At a time when the global economic crisis has caused so much economic misery already, the politico-real estate industry complex is pushing for "Olympic"-style games all over the world falsely championing national pride and other Olympic ideals. Chris Shaws book is merely confirmation of the underlying economic forces that push the hosting of Games agenda even when people are "starving". This same IOC does everything in it's power to deny and denigrate national sovereignty at every opportunity through the manipulation of Olympic ideals, but when it comes to bidding to host Games,national goverments and the public ultimately bear the costs. There is a contradiction here, of doing everything possible to keep the public out of the IOC halls of power but have their hands in their pockets when needing funds for hosting Games. These and other irregularities with the Olympic movement are essentially the outcome of the fact that the greatest sports franchise in the world is in exclusive private hands. There is a long overdue need for public oversight of the IOC and all Games.

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