The Fight for the Games

Under the shadow of the newly elected Olympic stadium, Mariah de Penha stands solemnly, fist raised towards the sky in protest. A group of 50 crowd around her, arms interlocked in mutual objection to the rows of Rio de Janeiro Municipal guards stalking quietly towards their homes. Even though Penha, now 50, labored tirelessly for years to afford the property she stands on, her neighborhood would now become a parking lot for the 2016 Olympic summer games, history and tradition concreted over only to serve a greater “Olympic spirit.” As millions packed into couches this summer to watch the Olympics, Penha’s story in the Washington Post remained on my mind. Can one justify the economic, social, and environmental costs for such exorbitant festivities, with the mere allure of the world together in the pursuit of athletic success to watch and support the Olympic games?

In a 2019 article, Jules Boykoff put words against this argument, writing that “overspending, militarization of police, citizen displacement, greenwashing and corruption…” most often follow in the wake of the Olympics. Simply put, he is correct. 

In 2018, The Council of Foreign Relations reported that Tokyo initially allocated $7.3 billion, but eventually spent 21 billion; Russia spent $51 billion for their initial allotment of $10.3 billion; London originally budgeted for $5 billion, but in the end exceeded $18 billion. Such gross overuse of resources was astounding: countries that lacked basic human necessities, Russia and Brazil, overallocated resources for sporting events while failing to aid their citizens’ wellbeing. In 1984, the Olympic Games in Los Angeles acted as fuel for mass incarceration, as aggressive police presence in low income neighborhoods surrounding stadiums set precedence for a system of biased policing. In 2016, citizens, including Mariah de Penha, were brutally ripped from their homes and displaced, ensuring the necessary space for the construction of the Olympic venues. And finally, in 2014 the illegal dumping of waste from construction sites contaminated local groundwater surrounding Beijing, China, decreasing previously low levels of viable drinking water to nearly drought conditions. 

This being said, it is equally important to recognize the importance of the Olympics to athletes and to the world. The games define the dreams of thousands of individuals working towards a single pursuit, while serving concurrently as a beacon of hope and fairplay for billions around the world. While it is thus difficult to argue for a complete abolishment of the games, the opinions raised above are certainly not unfounded. The toll on the host city is undoubtedly real, and it has become increasingly difficult to justify the maltreatment of millions of citizens at the cost of the games. In the spirit of compromise, some have proposed a neutral permanent site, others offered a simple rotation of cities, while some still demand the abolishment of the games altogether. In actuality, the status quo will most likely remain the same, and it will be our job as the viewer to demand change for sustainability and human rights at the Olympics and upcoming Los Angeles 2028.