Monday, February 08, 2010

The real price of the 'green' Winter Olympics

The BBC animation promoting the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, begins with an Inuit athlete launching himself into a snowboarding run and, in the following few seconds, cleverly manages to feature the downhill skiing, ski-jump, toboggan and curling events.

The soundtrack is triumphant, the film exciting but also strangely ominous. For one thing it is in monochrome, the next thing one sees is our hero being pursued by wolves clearly intent on savaging him. He escapes by chopping his board in half to turn it into skis and then jumping over an enormous canyon.

Next up is a huge, growling, fearsome bear which he vanquishes by using a curling stone as a weapon. Is this meant to be a satire? Perhaps there's some crafty person with seditious, anti-Olympics intent in the company which produced it, because after deconstructing the advertisement you could be forgiven for thinking so.

It is unusual, brilliantly executed and intended to present a positive and stirring invitation to watch the thrilling spectacle of the 2010 Winter Olympics, which opens on 12 February. However, with a sufficiently devious mind and some knowledge of the background to the Games, the images in the BBC promotion tell some ugly truths, albeit unwittingly.

Billed as the “greenest Olympics” ever, the preparations for the games are actually more likely to be the most environmentally destructive in the history of the Olympics of either variety. For instance, the wolves and the bear are not in reality powerful predators to be escaped or destroyed at all costs. They are in fact victims of the huge Olympic juggernaut which has rolled over forests, rivers and mountains, destroying habitats that the bears, the wolves, the salmon and other wild creatures depend upon.

The expansion of the Sea to Sky highway, undertaken to shorten the travel time between Vancouver and the ski resort of Whistler in time for the Olympics, in 2007 alone resulted in the deaths of eleven black bears due to accidents and habitat destruction. What the toll is three years later I do not know.

What of the human cost? Many Vancouverites are dreading the arrival of the Olympics to the city and surrounding region according to a column in Sports Illustrated. Apart from the disruption to people’s daily lives, massively increased surveillance, enhanced police and even military presence, there are deep and widespread concerns about homelessness.

For as with practically all Olympic venues image is everything – visitors to the city must not be upset by the sight of poverty, squalor or addiction. Many of those in this position are the indigenous “Indian” people and it is they, along with environmentalists, who are providing the backbone of the opposition to the whole Olympic five-ring circus.

“No Olympics on Stolen Land” is their slogan. Why stolen? Because most native land in the province of British Columbia, unlike the rest of Canada, is unceded and has never been the subject of treaties with the government of BC or of Canada. Nevertheless the government acts as if it is the legal owner and uses it to exploit its natural resources for profit. Logging, mining, building, expanding ski resorts on delicate ecological areas, irrespective of the rights and usage of much of this land by native peoples, has taken place in the past and continues at an accelerating rate today.

Widespread, focussed protests are also taking place at an increasing rate as the Olympic date draws near. Convergences are being planned and the Olympic torch relay across Canada is being disrupted by activists, using non-violent but militant and determined direct action. The opposition movement began to organise almost immediately the Games were awarded and has grown into a formidable force since.

The Games of course will go ahead, they cannot possibly be subverted now except perhaps by one element. The higher than average temperatures have resulted in an absence of one vital ingredient for a Winter Olympics – snow!

Fiona Harrington

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