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Olympics as 'Five Ring Circus'

Chris Shaw, critic, author and now council candidate, on why the games are 'a corporate scam.'

By Andrew MacLeod 26 Jun 2008 |


Andrew MacLeod is The Tyee's legislative bureau chief.

He is the author of All Together Healthy: A Canadian Wellness Revolution (Douglas & McIntyre, 2018) about improving public health. His first book A Better Place on Earth: The Search for Fairness in Super Unequal British Columbia (Harbour Publishing, 2015) is based on a series he wrote for The Tyee about economic inequality and won the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature.

Before joining The Tyee, Andrew worked for Victoria's alternative weekly Monday Magazine, where he wrote hundreds of stories on many topics, including poverty, land use and the environment. His work has been referred to in the B.C. legislature, Canadian House of Commons and senate. He won a 2006 Association of Alternative Newsweeklies award for news writing and was a finalist for a 2007 Western Magazine Award for best article in B.C. and the Yukon.

Andrew lives with his family in Victoria and is learning to play the Scottish small pipes. You can reach him here or at (250) 885-7662.

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'$6 billion party'
  • Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games
  • Christopher A. Shaw
  • New Society Publishers (2008)

First the news: Christopher Shaw, the outspoken critic of bringing the 2010 Winter Olympics to British Columbia, is running for Vancouver City Council. He will campaign for the November 2008 municipal vote with the Work Less Party, supporting environmental activist Betty Krawczyk's bid to be mayor.

Meanwhile, the neuroscientist and University of B.C. professor Shaw is promoting Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, a book that grew out of his work as a founder and lead spokesperson for the No Games 2010 Coalition and 2010 Watch.

Released in June, Shaw said the book's first run of 5,000 copies is selling well enough that New Society Publishers is already planning a second printing. It is a companion piece to a documentary Work Less Party founder Conrad Schmidt released in 2007.

"We will take [the book and film] forward into the civic election in a big way," said Shaw. The election is an opportunity, he said, "To force a lot of red pill moments on Vancouver's citizens and think about what this thing is really all about."

While he said he doesn't expect the Work Less Party to win, members will have some fun and may be surprisingly competitive with Vision Vancouver and Non-Partisan Association candidates for mayor. "We're pretty confident we can paint Gregor Robertson and Peter Ladner as kissing cousins if not twins. That leaves really one choice, which is to vote for grandma [Betty], if you don't believe in that kind of stuff."

The Tyee recently talked with Shaw about the new book by phone while he was home in Vancouver between trips to Ecuador and Hong Kong.

You raise the question in the book of whether the games are cool, a corporate scam or both. At this point how would you answer?

"It's a corporate scam. It is the slickest financial scam I've ever heard of. It's basically a Nigerian banking scam multiplied by a million. It's very, very well done. At the local level it is built by developers for real estate development. At the national level, it's built for television marketing. The two sides talk together and they sell you this thing that's supposed to be Mother Theresa and Wonderbread all rolled into one. It's a very slick machine and it's got 50 years of saturation advertising backing it up. Most of us grow up thinking the Olympics are an unalloyed thing of good and it's very hard to break that conditioning."

People are starting to see how the games are being outsourced, with much of the tax money spent on them leaving the province. What do you make of that?

"They're getting outsourced, that's for sure. The jobs and a lot of the money... I don't think you should be surprised at all. I think it was always a bit of a misrepresentation to suggest all the jobs would stay here in B.C. or even in Canada. Certainly the money doesn't stay here or in Canada.

"That's what you're going to get under this kind of liberalized trade regime. Why wouldn't they under NAFTA? You remember how it was sold, though. It was one more of those things they used during the plebiscite period and even before that to get people onside. It was all going to be about jobs for British Columbians, it was all going to be about art, it was all going to be about the greenest games ever. That's typical. It's not atypical for how they sell a bid."

Are there patterns to how the games are sold to host cities?

"They have a playbook I'm sure they hand out to cities. We know bid cities study each other, the ones in the past that worked and the ones that didn't. They know for sure what sort of things resonate with the public and they try to hit all those notes, the fact that they're rarely true notwithstanding.... They get away with it because in most cities people haven't been exposed to the stuff before.... All the happy rhetoric is rarely accurate."

You mentioned people in Tromsoe, Norway, which is bidding for the 2018 Winter Olympics, are learning from Vancouver. How so?

"The people in Tromsoe until recently didn't know what was happening in Vancouver until they realized there was an opposition. Their opposition group there was kind of beleaguered and didn't know quite what to believe because the Tromsoe organizers are saying, 'Look, Vancouver's the perfect example of how everything goes right and everything is on time and on budget and nary a tree came down.' And you have to actually sit these people down and say, 'Actually none of that's true.' And so actually the opposition there now has a fighting chance to actually combat the circus."

Obviously some people are making money. Who makes money on the Games?

"Jack Poole, David Podmore and Li Ka-Shing and all the developers. They make a bag of money on the games. They do really, really well.

"I don't know if you've followed the Millennium athletes' village thing, but they're going to make a bag of money.... They're going to make, a conservative estimate would be $500 million, probably make more than that, probably make a billion. For essentially no risk. It's the sweetheart real estate deal of all time. How they pulled it off is a very interesting question... You and I could have put this deal together. If we had the right connections.

"There should be some serious hard scrutiny on this. I'm not suggesting any badness is happening, it's just you'd think with a project of this nature where Vancouver's reputation is sort of on the line, and you don't want things going south on this, and Olympic scandals are far too well known, you'd want to have this be as clean as you can. To have the secrecy surrounding it is just weird."

In B.C., the organizers seem reluctant to answer even some basic questions about the games. Why would that be?

"They default as bid organizations do into a culture of secrecy. They can't stand scrutiny because they make a lot of decisions behind closed doors and they get caught in these outright falsehoods. The best example I can think of, besides this Millennium nonsense, is security costs. They've been holding to this $175 million BS from the get go.

"What we realize from the [RCMP] documents is they've spent most of the $175 million already and we aren't anywhere near 2010. Which doesn't even begin to add up what the army's going to spend and what the other police are going to spend.

"They came up with a low-ball number they thought the public would buy and they ran with it. It's now becoming obvious that number was silly and it's probably going to be 10 times more and what are you going to do? Now you've got the Games coming and you've got to defend it and they'll spend what they have to spend. It's not coming out of VANOC's pocket. They don't care.

"Then they get squirrelly because they don't want to answer questions, because if you ask them that question they surely don't want to have to deal with it."

In the book you talk about the "journalism lite" that surrounds the Olympics. What do you mean by that?

"Most of the media want to put a happy face on it. It's understandable from the corporate perspective that that would be true.... We saw it from almost all the print media, we saw it from most of the radio and TV. English CBC was awful, just ghastly. In terms of Olympic boosterism, they were probably the worst offender of all. I suspect it had a lot to do with their high hopes for being the ones getting the broadcast rights. They didn't."

"At the time they thought they had a lock on it because they'd run the broadcasting for previous Games. They have Beijing, so they just assumed they were going to get it. They weren't going to bite the hand they hoped would feed them.

"They didn't even do the balance thing of 10 good things to one negative thing. They just ignored stuff they didn't like. We chased them for months trying to get any kind of coverage at all from CBC, the fact there even was an opposition. It was absurd."

Are reporters not taking a closer look as the Games approach?

"The media goes through different phases. Before the bid was one phase. Now everyone's being a little more critical because the numbers don't add up and the promises clearly are falling by the wayside.

"Then there's the third phase when you get closer to the games and you get nothing but glowing reports and they'll all default into the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat kind of stuff. A year from now you won't hear the slightest negative thing. It would take Jack Poole killing somebody on his staff to get into the media. And then they'd probably find a happy way to make that sound good.

"Afterwards, who cares? It's come, it's gone, the money's spent and the financial hangover's set in and Eagleridge is still gone, so now what? Why harp on negative things when you can't do anything about them. The circus has moved on, they didn't pay any taxes, they scooted out of town and it sucks to be us."

How big a financial hangover do you predict?

"The number we came up with is pretty close to what Vaughn Palmer pegged in 2002. About $6 billion. And that's what we know.... In public money you get about $6 billion. If you add the private sector contribution it pushes it closer to $7 billion."

"If it was a totally privately financed bid, that would be a different thing. It's not. It's massively publicly financed... The province, by signing the host city agreement, has basically issued an unsecured line of credit. So if it costs $6 billion, that's one thing. If it costs $20 billion, they're going to pay it.... You've just given your credit card to the guy on the corner. You better hope he's okay."

What kind of scrutiny is needed?

"Scrutiny is hard to do as a private citizen. To really get to the bottom of the costs and what's going on here, you'd need Sheila Fraser's office at the federal level and whomever the auditor general in British Columbia is at this level to be doing this full time. And they're not, so we're never going to know, ever.

"It gets really murky really quickly. You could make your best guesses and make your assumptions and you're going to get a low ball figure at the very best. That's what we're dealing with. No one will ever know what the Olympic Games cost. It goes to transparency in government. It goes to accountability of government. It goes to, in a massive way, lost opportunities and priorities."

What does making hosting the games such a priority say about us?

"What kind of society puts its priorities on having a party and making a few people wealthy and leaves how many people homeless in Vancouver? 3,000? 4,000? Imagine if instead of having the 17-day party, you decided to cure six of the worst diseases in the world. You could have done that. $6 billion is not the only thing that would deal with poverty in the city, but it would go a long way to providing resources.

"The list is endless. What kind of society spends money on a party when it needs to deal with other urgent issues of somewhat more import than how many of our athletes are standing on the podium getting their trinkets?"

What would be a better source of national pride?

"I derive my sense of [national pride] from the things our society does for its less fortunate, and I'm just not seeing that happening in Vancouver. I find it difficult to have a lot of pride in what this city and this country's been doing about something as scandalous as having a Downtown Eastside exist in a major, rich city. I find it very difficult to have a lot of pride in that. We talk about sharing our city in the mountains with the world. Well, we're also going to share the poverty we have here with the world. The image we project around the world is not going to be as glowing as the 'our time to shine' bumper stickers would have us believe."

How much do you think the Games will be used to show the world what's really going on here?

"The idea the Olympics are apolitical is nonsense. They're always political since their inception.... The Chinese are trying to use the Olympics as a showcase for their country as the superpower of the 21st century.... The Tibetan protesters are trying to raise awareness of Tibetan sovereignty and religious rights and they're absolutely right to do so.

"By the same token, the APC and DERA and Pivot should be doing everything they can to bring the world's spotlight onto the issue of poverty in Canada and the condition of aboriginal communities in Canada. It's perfectly acceptable and legitimate."

How do you communicate the criticism to ordinary people?

"I guess by writing a book and making a movie. Conrad Schmidt made a documentary of the book. That's the best way to get the message out there.... You are pushing up hill against mainstream media that have all the resources in the world. Whatever number of people read the book or see the movie, a thousand times more are going to watch the Olympics on TV and see the happy spin.

"Having said that, there's more traction maybe in other cities like Tromsoe where people are starting to question the bid before it's come. There's a lot more success in that regard. That's the place you stop the games.

In the book you say the Olympics are a wedge issue to look at issues around globalism and capitalism. How so?

"The Olympics doesn't operate in a vacuum. The IOC's really the ultimate and most successful corporate parasite out there.

"It forces people to think about for whose benefit things happen. You can look at what an IMF loan does for a third world country and ask much the same question of what does the Olympics coming to Vancouver do for an average Vancouverite or British Columbian. Pretty much the same sort of story. It's basically shaking the money out of your pockets into theirs."