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Our Olympics Can Benefit All

But only if B.C. learns key lessons from Athens, and especially Sydney.

By Tom Sandborn 13 Aug 2004 | TheTyee.ca

Tom Sandborn was born in Alaska and raised in the wilderness by wolves. Later, Jesuits at the University of San Francisco and radical feminists in Vancouver generously gave time and energy to the difficult task of educating and humanizing him. Tom has a formal education, too: a BA from UBC. He has been practicing the dark arts of journalism off and on ever since university, and now also has about five decades of social justice, peace and environmental campaigning under his belt.

Tom's goal is to live up to the classic definition of a journalist's job from H. L. Menken - to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

Reporting Beat: Labour and social justice, health policy, and occasionally environmental issues.

What is the most important issue facing British Columbians?: Two key issues face BC residents (and they're both so compelling and complex that Tom refuses to rank them): income equality and environmental degradation. Both desperately need solutions.

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In 2000, the Olympics were staged in another city out on the far reaches of what had been the British Empire, in Sydney Australia. One decade later, the big show is coming to Vancouver. Despite a vigorous local opposition to what many saw as one more festival of capitalist consumption and corporate self congratulation, the 2010 Olympics are a done deal.

Now the real questions are how well the Games can be brought into real agreement with their professed ideals, and how well local political leaders, loud during the Games Bid process in their public commitment to a Vancouver/Whistler Games that will protect the most vulnerable elements of the community and respect social justice and environmental concerns, can deliver on these commitments.

The disturbing news from the run up to the Athens Olympics this summer, full of health and safety abuses, dead and injured workers and dubious environmental practices, is not encouraging. Viewed through the lens of the Athens experience, and the prospect of a 2008 Olympics to be held in Beijing, despite the Chinese government's championship role in union busting and worker killing events, the prospects for a just and environmentally sound Olympics do not look good.

Sydney's hopeful experience

However, many observers are hanging their hopes for Games in Vancouver that are worth the support of working people on the partial social policy and environmental successes of the Sydney Games in 2000. Tony Webb's The Collaborative Games, a strenuously enthusiastic account of the Sydney experience, is an important and compelling read for any B.C. citizen who cares about the upcoming 2010 Games, a book full of instructive examples of what can be done to make the Games pay off for someone other than the big corporate sponsors.

The task was immense. The costs for construction projects alone associated with the Sydney games came to $3.5 billion dollars, and employed 7,500 workers on site and another 15,000 in off site work. During the actual Games, over 200,000 paid and volunteer workers joined with thousands of athletes and performers to entertain over seven and a half million who attended the games and their associated off-site performances live, and billions who watched broadcasts around the world. Records were broken regularly, both on the playing field on the profit margins of big business.

But the Sydney Games were not just another squalid tale of corporate profit taking, at least as Australian researcher Tony Webb tells the story in The Collaborative Games, published by Pluto Press. Instead, because of creative steps taken by local organized labour and by the organizers of the Games (made possible in part by the presence in the state capital of a Labour government that was more interested in cooperation than in the dreary neo-liberal catechism of privatization, union busting and profit maximization that shapes so much public policy around the world these days) the Games provided Australian workers with improved wages and a voice in the day to day operations of Games pre-build and operations.

For the same reasons, Sydney's Games offered local unions an opportunity to recruit substantial numbers of new members, at the same time delivering on construction and performance time lines in an almost flawless fashion, on time and on budget, with only one day lost to labour dispute over the construction period, and only one accidental death.

The meaning of 'collaborative'

All of this, in the book's account, is the result of a policy commitment to what Webb calls the "collaborative games" model. (The model will seem familiar to those who have followed or been participants in the ongoing debates within the labour movement about tripartite labor/management/government bodies over the years.)

Some militants within the Australian labour movement criticized this approach for excessive co-operation with management and the state, but Webb's argument is that the collaborative approach won workers far more that it cost.

In the B.C. context, where the local government is far more antagonistic to organized labour than was the case in Australia, and in contrast to the lethal practices on view in Athens, the prospect of a collaborative relationship between Games organizers and the workers who will actually make the event happen can look pretty attractive. Attractive, but not necessarily likely. It will take concerted political pressure and relentless public oversight over the next half decade to make the 2010 Games look more like Sydney than Athens or Beijing.

How 'green' was Sydney?

And make no mistake, the Sydney experience, however instructive, will not do as a complete model for a bearable Olympics here in the rainforest. Despite much public huffing and puffing about a "Green Olympics", and some real progress made at Sydney in terms of mitigating environmental impacts, the environmental record of the Australian games was very mixed indeed. (Greenpeace, for example, in its assessment of the Sydney Games, praise its innovations in solar power and the policy decision taken to make the Games site car free, but sharply criticizes the failure to deal with the toxic waste pollution of Homebush Bay waters and the failure of many sponsors to live up to their environmental commitments.)

Similarly, although the Sydney Games issued eloquent statements about guaranteeing that Olympic uniforms and other apparel be produced without sweatshop abuses, in actual practice the Games organizers stalled disclosure of suppliers' supply chains and grossly under funded any attempts to enforce this anti sweatshop policy.

These are defects that will have to be corrected if the 2010 Games want to have any claim to meeting their publicly professed goals. The Collaborative Games is a must-read for anyone who is following Olympic debate during the run-up to 2010. Other suggested reading includes the website of the current Play Fair at the Olympics campaign http://www.fairolympics.org/ and the website of the locally based Impacts of the Olympics on Community Coalition, http://www.vcn.bc.ca/ioc/welcome.htm.

Tom Sandborn is a Vancouver writer. This article first appeared in The Columbia Journal.  [Tyee]

Read more: 2010 Olympics

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