[Hpn] Why San Francisco doesn't need the Olympics
Wed, 05 Sep 2001 13:23:57 -0700
San Francisco BAY GUARDIAN
September 5, 2001
It could happen here
Why the Bay Area doesn't need the Olympics.
By Cassi Feldman, Tim Redmond, Gabriel Roth, and A.C. Thompson
EIGHT U. S. cities are competing to host the 2012 Olympic Games. In seven of
those cities, community activists are protesting: the Olympics, they say,
are bad for residents, bad for taxpayers, and bad for the environment.
But in the San Francisco Bay Area, where local boosters took Olympics
officials on a four-day tour in late August, there's been barely a peep of
In some measure, that's a reflection of how hard the Bay Area Sports
Organizing Committee (BASOC), which is pushing for the games to be held
here, has worked to incorporate local concerns. To hear organizers tell it,
the Olympics would improve the region's transit systems, increase the
affordable housing stock, and goose the economy.
"Everyone says that," says Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, professor of sociology
at the University of Toronto and the author of Inside the Olympic Industry.
"But the whole agenda is dominated by multinationals."
The truth is, the Olympic Games have always been a bad thing for the region
that hosts them. They involve massive long-term changes to regional
infrastructures to accommodate a two-week influx of tourists and athletes.
They necessitate urban "revitalization" that comes at the expense of poor
and working residents. They take power from local governments and turn it
over to business interests.
So if, as BASOC's pitch claims, "there is no organized opposition to the Bay
Area Sports Organizing Committee's bid to bring the 2012 Olympic Games to
the San Francisco Bay Area," that should change now. Here's why.
It takes a village
When Atlanta bid for the 1996 games, boosters promised safer streets, better
jobs, a revitalized downtown, and billions in contracts and tourist
spending. But no one fully anticipated the costs: the displacement of
thousands of poor people and the wholesale suspension of human and civil
One of the first targets was Techwood Homes, the nation's oldest public
housing site. The rundown development, neighbor to Coca Cola's world
headquarters and the Georgia Institute of Technology, was marked as the
perfect site for the Olympic village, the facility used to house athletes
during the games. Half of the homes were demolished; of those that survived,
only a fifth were preserved for affordable housing.
Larry Keating, an associate professor of urban planning at Georgia Tech,
called the razing of Techwood "a real travesty." In all, the Atlanta Housing
Authority "has brought down more than 4,000 housing units, and they haven't
put back but a thousand," Keating told the Bay Guardian. "It's outrageous."
Techwood residents weren't the only ones left without beds. Three homeless
shelters were torn down to construct the Olympic Centennial Park; other
homes were seized under the law of eminent domain. As many as 10,000 people
are estimated to have lost their homes.
Sydney wasn't much better. According to Rentwatchers, a Sydney-based tenant
group, hundreds of people were evicted from low-income boardinghouses to
make way for tourists in the years leading up to the Olympics. The
organization also noted that rents in some Sydney neighborhoods rose 25
percent between 1999 and 2000.
BASOC says its plan is different. The village would be located on Moffett
Field in Mountain View, replacing 75 acres of former military housing.
Organizers say the games will contribute 3,000 units to the Bay Area's
housing stock, some of which will be kept affordable. (It's not yet certain
Anita Beaty, executive director of Atlanta's Task Force for the Homeless,
says boosters there initially said the same thing. But when the games were
done and Beaty's group suggested to local authorities that the housing
should be used for homeless people, she told us, "they laughed and said, 'Do
you have $131 million you want to buy it with?' "
Housing is only part of the problem. Another is the tendency of Olympic
cities to criminalize homeless and poor people in an attempt to "clean up"
the streets for tourists. In Atlanta this meant enforcing existing
antivagrancy laws and passing a host of new ones. The task force documented
9,000 arrests of homeless people, most of them African American men, during
the year before the Olympics. Sydney added more cops and surveillance
cameras to its streets and forced homeless people out of public parks.
But that's nothing compared with Seoul, site of the 1988 Olympics. Lenskyj
estimates that one million people were "relocated" to beautify the city.
After an initial push drove residents out of low-income housing and into
makeshift squats, she writes, the government demolished "slum housing" along
the Olympic torch route. (Prostitutes were allowed to stay; after all,
they're part of the visitor-services industry.)
Would the Olympics be as brutal in the Bay Area? Perhaps not. But judging
from experiences elsewhere, landlords would push to evict tenants in the
months leading up to the games to take advantage of fierce competition for
rooms in the Olympic host cities. With antihomeless sentiment at a perpetual
fever pitch and housing prices still at a national high, the Olympics could
help finish the economic cleansing of San Francisco.
"If you look across the world, the Olympics has never been a good thing for
poor people," said Paul Boden, director of San Francisco's Coalition on
Homelessness. We already do crack down on homeless people, but [with the
Olympics] it would be intensified. They'll drive them into the ocean or at
least the East Bay."
Silver and gold
Games proponents foresee $7 billion in tourist revenue coming into the Bay
Area from the 2012 Olympics. But there's another side to the balance sheet:
billions of dollars in public and private spending to prepare the region for
the Olympic contests and the influx of visitors they would attract.
Backers say that money would go to improving the local infrastructure by
providing better transit, sports arenas, and other public facilities. But
should a two-week sporting event really determine how the Bay Area spends
billions of dollars in public investments?
Australian officials still haven't decided what to do with Sydney's $414
million new arena (the figure is in U.S. dollars). And taxpayers spent $33
million to create a white-water-kayaking venue on the Ocoee River in
Tennessee's Cherokee National Park for the Atlanta games that has gone
almost unused since the Olympic torch was passed.
Salt Lake City may have the same problem once next year's winter games are
over. A publicly owned ice arena there is being upgraded from 2,500 seats to
8,500 at a cost of $12 million, and almost $60 million is being spent to
build ski jumping and bobsledding facilities.
BASOC organizers stress that a Bay Area Olympics would rely primarily on
existing facilities, including local sports arenas, college stadiums, and
convention centers. But the bid's capital-investment budget totals almost
$1.3 billion to construct, among other things, tennis courts on Treasure
Island and a shooting range in San Jose. If history is any guide, that's a
The Olympics don't just cost the host city; they cost the whole country.
According to a 2000 congressional report, federal taxpayers spent a combined
$2 billion financing the games in Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Salt Lake City.
As Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) put it, "the American taxpayer is now the
largest underwriter of the Olympic games."
Past experience calls into question BASOC's claim that the games will
actually bring in revenue. Georgia Tech's Keating estimates Atlanta's games
cost the public more than $1 billion, with $172 million of that coming from
the city treasury. Organizers anticipated recouping profits for public
services. "The promises were that there would be between 50 and 150 million
bucks profit from the Olympics that would go into youth sports programs and
other community goodies," Keating said. "All the stuff disappeared real
quick. There wasn't a dime left over."
Environmentalists tend to bristle at the mention of the word "Olympics."
"The sheer magnitude of the event, with the associated air travel and the
construction of giant and often unnecessary facilities, is inevitably
harmful to the environment," said Sharon Beder, an associate professor at
Australia's University of Wollongong and the author of Global Spin: The
Corporate Assault on Environmentalism.
BASOC organizers insist that the 2012 Olympics will be different. The
problems that took place in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Sydney, and Salt Lake City
won't happen here, they say. People in the Bay Area "will demand that it be
conducted the way we want it to be conducted," BASOC CEO Anne Warner Cribbs
Indeed, the detailed plans that BASOC has put together include some
important environmental considerations. There will be no parking at any
Olympic venues; tickets to all events will include the cost of public
transit. The Olympic village, to be built at Moffett Field, will be a model
for sustainable design, with solar panels, wastewater recycling systems, and
other eco-friendly features.
There will be only limited construction of new venues, and those that are
built won't displace existing communities. Local environmental and
social-justice groups will be involved in all key decisions. A chief
environmental officer will monitor all Olympic activity.
Mark Jordan, board chair of environmental nonprofit WaterKeepers, sits on
BASOC's steering committee. He says the games could bring environmental
benefits to the region. "I went in thinking, 'How do you limit the
downside?' he told us. "But there's a real upside. If we could get
cutting-edge social-justice and environmental-protection issues written into
the local bid, there might be a way to leverage all of that stuff that comes
with the Olympics."
Those claims sound familiar to Australian environmentalists like Beder. Last
year's summer Olympics were billed as the "Green Games." The private
consortium that promoted Sydney's bid enlisted Greenpeace Australia to
ensure that strict environmental standards were applied. A group of
green-thinking architects helped design the proposed Olympic village, which
included solar technology and state-of-the-art energy-generation and
wastewater-recycling systems. Environmentalism was a selling point, just as
it is for the Bay Area: an Australian federal official proclaimed that "a
vote for Sydney will be a vote for the environment."
A year after Sydney's Greenpeace-backed bid was accepted, the government
appointed private development firms not the environmentalists to oversee
the village design and construction. The green architects complained that
they'd been "absolutely shafted." And Greenpeace Australia's director
described the Australian Olympic planning efforts as "appalling" and "a
shambles." The central Sydney stadium was located in the middle of one of
the continent's worst toxic dumps, which was never properly decontaminated
or cleaned up.
Far from ensuring strict environmental standards, Beder said, "Greenpeace
was used to help greenwash the Sydney Olympics and deflect attention from
the toxic waste on-site."
Who's in charge?
One of the games' chief selling points is an opportunity to upgrade the Bay
Area's infrastructure, especially its transit systems. But an unelected
Olympic committee would be given significant influence over those major
planning decisions. Cribbs told us, for example, that when she approached
San Jose officials about using that city's venues, the mayor was thrilled.
"He said he wanted BART extended to San Jose, and that would be one thing
that might get accelerated," she said.
BART to San Jose is a controversial project: environmentalists and transit
advocates say the Caltrain line could be upgraded for far less money and be
adapted for high-speed rail to Los Angeles in the future. But the prospect
of the Olympics coming to town could throw considerable weight behind the
BART proposal. That's not how billion-dollar decisions about the future of
Bay Area transit should be made.
BASOC is dominated by business advocates. Among the 66 members of the
committee, there are nine representatives of the development and
construction industries, eight from financial services firms, and one each
from the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce and the San Francisco and San
Jose tourist boards. Reagan-era secretary of state and former Bechtel
executive George Shultz is a member, as is James Reuben of San Francisco
development law firm Reuben and Alter. The publishers of the San Francisco
Chronicle, the Marin Independent Journal, and the San Jose Mercury News are
also members something to remember as media coverage of the proposal heats
BASOC is now a relatively open organization. Cribbs has promised to allow
the press and public to attend future board meetings although those
meetings still aren't announced publicly. "People just have to know" about
them, she told us.
But if the Bay Area beats Los Angeles, Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, New
York, Tampa, and Washington, D.C., for the bid, the committee that runs the
Olympics will be made up of members appointed by the United States Olympic
Committee as well as BASOC members. And that committee, and its hired CEO,
will have the power to influence the future of numerous Bay Area
"If past history in American cities is prologue," longtime neighborhood
activist Calvin Welch said, "this will be an absolute disaster on the
housing and infrastructure side. The real infrastructure needs of the city
a public power system, senior housing, community health centers, things like
that won't happen. Instead we'll have an unelected group making decisions
that will benefit the international visitor class."
E-mail Gabriel Roth at email@example.com.
San Francisco BAY GUARDIAN
September 5, 2001
Gearing up to shut it down
How do you organize against something that's 11 years away?
THE BAY AREA Sports Organizing Committee isn't worried about public opinion
turning against the Olympics. "Our poll shows that we have the support of
the Bay Area," the committee's Web site asserts. But poll or no poll, BASOC
might be wise to start worrying; local activists tell us they're gearing up
for a fight.
"We have high hurdles if we want to defeat the games," said Richard Marquez
of housing advocacy group Mission Agenda. "We need to start now with a
regional network of homeless coalitions, immigrant groups, neighborhood
groups, and taxpayer watchdogs." For a model, Marquez looks to Toronto's
Bread Not Circuses, which successfully blocked that city's 1996 and 2008
The International Olympic Committee's bylaws state that "no kind of
demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in
the Olympic areas." BASOC assures us that dissent won't be stifled in the
Bay Area. "I think that would be untenable here," spokesperson Tony
Whatever attempts are made to quash opposition, the Bay Area is not likely
to yield entirely. "You can make a case that the opposition is not yet
organized," said Sup. Chris Daly, who has called for a public hearing on the
Olympics bid. "I certainly don't think it means there won't be organized
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