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January-February 2010

Olympic Countdown: Interview with 2010 Watch’s Christopher Shaw

Cate SimpsonWebsite

Christopher Shaw

Christopher Shaw. Photo by Flickr user The Blackbird. Used with permission.

Christopher Shaw’s day job is professor of ophthalmology at the University of British Columbia, but since Vancouver launched its bid for the Olympics more and more of his time has been spent campaigning against the Games—first as the founder of No Games 2010 and now as lead spokesperson for 2010 Watch. Shaw’s book, Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, argues that those responsible for bringing the Olympics to town are those with the greatest financial stake in it: the developers and realtors who profit from the Olympic infrastructure. Far from being about sports, Shaw claims that the true pillars of the Olympic Games are dodgy real estate deals, huge profits for a select few, and a really big bill for everybody else once the Games have left town.

This: You just came back from the torch ceremony. How did that go?

Shaw: From my perspective, I thought it was pretty lame but then I’m pretty jaded. For me, it’s sort of offensive on top of everything else that you have what can only be described as a Nazi propaganda tool being run through the streets as if it’s brotherhood and friendship and kittens and puppies and rainbows. Commentators weren’t recognizing it. They were saying the torch goes back to Ancient Greece, but it doesn’t; it goes back to Germany in 1936. They invented the torch as a propaganda tool and, ironically, ran it through many of the countries they were later to invade.

This: How did you first come to oppose the Olympic Games?

Shaw: I first came to be an opponent back in 2002. I had heard that Vancouver was being shortlisted and when I saw people lining up in favour of the bid, that instantly made me suspicious, because when you see the ostensible political left and right joining forces it’s either something really good or something else is going on. I thought, “Maybe this demands a little more scrutiny.” I did a commentary for the CBC thinking that would be my one shot to say, “It’s not financially what you think it is.” Then it just blossomed, and when Vancouver was shortlisted and turned in their bid book, I began to devote more scrutiny to the whole thing and started No Games 2010, which, once the Games had been awarded, defaulted into a watchdog role.

This: What is 2010 Watch’s goal?

Shaw: The best we can achieve is making the running of the Games very painful with the purpose of drawing attention to things that need to be addressed, like poverty and homelessness, and educate other cities so that if they are thinking of going down this path they have the information, which we did not. The other thing is that we hope through our lawsuit to strengthen the charter. The municipal and provincial laws against ambush marketing are violations of our charter freedom of speech, and we hope to strike them down.

This: Tell me more about that lawsuit.

Shaw: The city passed an Olympic and Paralympic signage bylaw in July, and the province has recently — in a bill before the legislature called Bill 13—expanded the powers of Vancouver, Whistler, and Richmond to enforce an anti-marketing bylaw. The city of Vancouver maintains in their bylaw that you cannot go into so-called celebratory zones with a sign that has a stick on it, because presumably it could be used as a weapon. You can’t pass out leaflets, you can’t have a voice amplification device. You can’t demonstrate, in other words.

This: Part of your book is about the people who were responsible for bringing the Games to Vancouver, and their own financial stake in that outcome. Who was involved with the initial bid?

Shaw: The initial bid was mostly realtors, and then they handed off the Bid Society to [real estate developer] Jack Poole’s Bid Corporation, which was stuffed with developers, realtors, and a few athletes for cosmetic reasons.

This: Who is getting rich from the Vancouver Games?

Shaw: Well, the developers do, and certainly the high-end hotel sector does okay. Anybody near a celebratory zone as well; it’s all the people outside those zones who are getting the shaft. People won’t be able to get to them, they won’t be able to get their deliveries, traffic will be massively disrupted. If you’re a small restaurant away from the main area, you’re going to find it hard to continue your business.

This: Will the government injecting money into these big development projects have a trickle-down effect on the rest of the economy though?

Shaw: That’s the theory; it just turns out not to be true. In a number of Games it’s like an Obama stimulus project: if you throw in enough money you’ll get this runoff effect. And to some extent that’s true—but not with the kind of things they end up building. For example, if they said, “We have $6 billion we don’t know what to do with, so we’ll build hospitals and schools,” they generate outcomes everyone uses and permanent jobs. But building a luge run just doesn’t do that, or any of the special sporting facilities. It does during the building of it, but then it ends. All the construction projects are done now so it’s demonstrably both here, and in London, not a long-term economic stimulus.

This: Who are the biggest losers in the Games?

Shaw: You and me, and our kids and our grandkids. This is going to be the Big Owe: we’re going to be paying this for 30 years. The Olympic adventure has cost Vancouver a considerable amount of money, and some of it will never come back. The operating budget is a $60-million deficit, and there’s no way the city can keep the 250 units [of the Athlete’s Village] that were going to be social housing. They have to sell them. Basically, the province is paying for Vancouver’s party.

This: One number that’s still unknown is the security cost. What’s the current estimate?

Shaw: The current number is $900 million. I suspect that’s a vast underestimate, but the problem is we’ll never know because they routinely hide the number. The newest trick with security things at the federal level is to walk it into the privy council and all of a sudden it gets stamps with a 30-year exclusion, and getting to the bottom of that is going to be a problem. The province is equally squirrelly. I just requested some email communications between [B.C. Finance Minister] Colin Hansen and Annette Antoniak, the former secretariat to the Olympic Games for the province, and much of it is censored or excluded based on half a dozen exclusivity loopholes in legislation. So $900 million would probably be a low-end estimate. The last three Games were well over a billion. Athens was $1.5 billion. London, who knows?

This: And where’s the money coming from?

Shaw: Well, from three levels. Of course city taxpayers for policing. The rest of it falls supposedly on the provincial and federal government. That’s probably true for things like the RCMP, although the province is still pretending $175 million is correct, which it’s not.

This: There are some things that are odd about the Games’ organizing body, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), such as not paying taxes. How do they swing that?

Shaw: They swing it because they make it part of the contract with the city that they have to be exempt from any kind of taxes in the country where the Games are held. They somehow managed to convince the Swiss government that they are a nonprofit organization, and nonprofits don’t pay taxes. Also, nonprofits don’t get audited, so the IOC sails through life with no one looking over their shoulder. They are a law unto themselves. The IOC also dictates whether categories of people can exercise their equality rights. The IOC does not have ski jumping for women, and a number of woman ski jumpers sued the Vancouver Organizing Committee (VANOC) saying that, because of the Charter, if you’re putting on a ski jumping event for men, there has to be one for women. VANOC claimed they were unable to do anything about it because they were a subsidiary of the IOC, and the IOC could dictate how the events were going to occur. The judge said that it may be true that this is unequal, but that there was nothing he could do. That was a ruling that essentially weakened the Charter.

This: Another issue is the Native land claims. Is Native land being co-opted for the Games?

Shaw: Native land has been co-opted for the Games. First Nations hosts did not have anywhere near consensus. In St’at’imc areas definitely most people were against it and the band leadership went ahead anyway, and money changed hands that went to the leadership. Then of course there are the co-opted Aboriginal symbols and culture: it’s convenient to use Indigenous cultures for cute things like mascots, without doing anything about the problems of those societies, because tourists think the Natives are cute and fuzzy. We can have them dance for tourists, but God forbid we get them decent job prospects or get their kids into decent schools or recognize their sovereign claims. There are a lot of words about how inclusive the Games are meant to be, but the reality is very thin.

This: Do you think that despite all the expense and scandal the Games are still valuable as a celebration of sporting excellence?

Shaw: The Olympics are ostensibly about competition at the highest level, better understanding among people, and the world coming together to play beach volleyball. To some extent I’m sure that’s true, but I don’t think it’s unique. When I go to neuroscience conferences I sit down and chat with people from all over the world. I don’t think the Olympics is the only way countries get together, and the Olympic Truce is nonsense. A few months back someone asked [Olympics CEO] John Furlong to ask if the Canadian government would seek a truce with the Taliban during the Games and Furlong said it wasn’t his business, and the government wouldn’t even think about it.

This: Are we seeing the same patterns for the London Games as in Vancouver?

Shaw: Yes, absolutely everything’s the same. The cost overruns may be even worse, the security costs, the massive deceit about what’s going to happen. They are already cannibalizing money from arts and culture to pay for cost overruns. Security is going to be a nightmare because they’ve chosen for the Athletes’ Village location an immigrant population, and it’s going to be surrounded by a lot of these people. So they’ve parked it in an area they’re terrified of.

This: What is the Olympics going to mean for homeless people in Vancouver?

Shaw: I think they’ll be pushed further and further out of the downtown core. They will be continue to be marginalized and a lot of them will find it very hard to move around and live their lives during the Games because police are going to be shuffling them around. I think impacts will be huge and governments at all levels will say, “We’d love to help but we are now in deficit,” without actually blaming it on the Olympics. Any future solution will be pushed further down the line, and I think people in the streets in 2009 will be on the streets in 2012, and it’ll all be traced back to governments claiming they can’t afford to do anything. I think that will be the legacy for them.

This: Do you think the Games are salvageable? Is there a way to rein them in and make them the simple sporting festival they used to be?

Shaw: Yeah, there is. Get the IOC out of the picture and put it in the hands of the athletes, and have the athletes negotiate with communities. Or park it in one place and don’t move it. If it came back to the same city that had paid for the infrastructure and absorbed the cost it might actually make some money. But that would fly in the face of the real purpose, which is to generate money for the IOC. Why would they give up this golden goose? I’m also not all that sure that the Olympics hasn’t gone past its best-before date. I’m not sure any kind of mega-events, given global warming and given the costs, are even reasonable anymore. Someone said recently that Rio in 2016 might be one of the last Games. They’re going to bankrupt their city, they’re facing ferocious problems in their slums, and it might finally be the message that it’s just not doable anymore.

[This article originally said Chris Shaw was an assistant professor at UBC. He is, in fact, a full professor. We regret the error.]

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