On February 9, Green Party leader Annamie Paul stated that Canada should take over hosting duties for the 2022 Olympics Games, citing China’s human rights record and treatment of its Uighur and Muslim minority populations.
This is a terrible idea. It ignores the role of Canada in perpetuating ongoing genocide of Indigenous peoples and fundamentally misunderstands the role of the Olympics in furthering the goals of settler states the world over.
Ultimately, Paul’s proposal that Canada ought to take over hosting duties for the Games may be symptomatic of an unearned Canadian exceptionalism. There is no legitimate argument to be made for hosting the Olympic Games in the years to come, at least until the COVID crisis is firmly behind us and there has been a global economic recovery for workers. And even then, issues that have plagued host countries for decades—displacement, expanded policing and surveillance—would pervade.
What would the Games bring Canada aside from a flexing of its ability to disenfranchise its poorest people and a grand display of national vanity on the world stage?
Even more deeply, it is alarming that these are the ideas one of our major federal parties is advocating for at a point of unprecedented crisis for Canada’s most vulnerable people. So far, a dozen Canadian legislators have signed a letter advocating for the removal of the Games from China. Comparisons were made to Berlin’s 1936 “Nazi Games” Olympics.
Now, it is easy to pour scorn on China, but we need to look in the mirror. Canada has not hesitated to crack down on Indigenous sovereignty at every turn, and the Canadian state has not hesitated to perpetuate its own human rights violations at ongoing, systemic levels. Canada’s most recent crowning achievement in its disregard for human welfare could be the abject failure of the nation and its constituent provinces to manage the pandemic, to cede death as inevitable in privately held nursing facilities, and to continually disregard Indigenous peoples in a time of crisis.
This hasty proposal to relocate the Olympic Games comes when there are still 57 drinking water advisories on Canadian reservations. Reserves left derelict by the Canadian government have seen almost 15,000 cases of COVID-19, a significantly higher per-capita rate than the general population. Canada’s history of genocide is not a historical act—it is still pervasive throughout Canadian society, and magnified deeply by the pandemic. To present Canada’s human rights record as a reason to host the Olympic Games is dishonest at best, and cruelly disingenuous at worst.
In her statement, Paul justifies her proposal by saying Canada has the infrastructure to host the Olympics, likely a reference to the 2010 Vancouver Olympics. What Paul conveniently elides is the brutal history and human cost of those Games, tied deeply to its treatment of Indigenous people. One in 15 Indigenous people in Canadian urban centres are unhoused. Olympics held the world over have been marked by aggressive crackdowns on unhoused populations. This has been such a pervasive feature of the Games, it has become a quiet, unstated expectation of hosting them.
Vancouver’s poorest neighborhoods, which rank among the most deprived in North America, are currently suffering from some of the highest municipal rates of COVID transmission. During the Vancouver Games, unhoused people were the subject of brutal crackdowns, with clearances of tent cities leading to the widespread erasure of unhoused people from public view. Anti-Olympic movements in Vancouver advocating for these populations were infiltrated and provoked by undercover police. There’s no reason to think that the return of the Olympics to Canada would be any different.
The Olympics are institutionally built on human rights abuses and widespread corruption. The 2020 Tokyo Games were only postponed due to an enormous amount of public pressure, deep into the throes of the pandemic. What’s more, the Olympics’ relationships to global health organizations such as the WHO have been described as simply “ornamental.”
The reticence to delay the Tokyo Games and the International Olympic Committee’s tenacity in pursuing future Games is indicative of its malfeasance, inability and lack of interest in protecting public health within its operations. The IOC is a murky, privately funded operation that represents the worst the world of sport has to offer. At every turn, it has played an indirect role in the devastation of communities and widespread exploitation of athletic labour. The IOC has also been instrumental in fortifying a global surveillance apparatus that is quietly accelerating due to a shock-doctrine style approach many governments have taken advantage of during the pandemic. The confluence of the Olympics and a COVID-19-era surveillance apparatus would be disastrous for individual liberties.
This is to say nothing of the fact that much of the Olympic infrastructure Paul refers to would need to be rebuilt from the ground up. The Olympic Village erected for the Vancouver Games was originally slated to be low-income housing, a proposal that was walked back at every turn. What was left of the original proposal has been a disaster for poor residents. The Village is now an aggressively gentrified neighbourhood, unable to be repurposed for any public cause.
Many facilities built for the Games have fared better, becoming public recreation and community spaces, and a request to hold the Games in Canada again would likely necessitate a temporary removal of these spaces from public access for the duration of the event. In a period when Canadians are kept inside and away from common spaces, depriving communities access to these facilities, even with limited occupancy, should be seen as a flagrant disregard for public health.
In an era where unfettered tourism and travel was still possible, the Vancouver Games barely broke even. Paul suggests a joint hosting with the United States—a country dealing with some of the highest rates of virus transmission in the world, and one that currently has a closed border with Canada. Perhaps it’s pessimistic to say that COVID-19 will still be as enormous in 2022, but with the proliferation of new and more contagious variants, experts seem to think so.
The economic fallout of COVID-19 will also still be felt for years. With mass layoffs and extraordinarily confusing policy around the Canada Emergency Response Benefit and other economic supports introduced due to the pandemic, any investment in the Games would be a malignant use of public funds. In Paul’s proposal, one objective fact is ignored: the Olympics, by and large, devastate cities.
Paul’s proposal should be viewed as an articulation of her party’s poor economic and social priorities during this pandemic. For everyone else who signed the letter, it’s simply another example of the pot calling the kettle black.
There should be no Olympics in Canada. In a just world, there would be no Olympics anywhere.