The treatment of environmental activists at Olympic Games contradicts IOC’s Olympism ideals (2024)

With the Paris Olympics fast approaching under the shadow of the climate crisis, activists and advocates continue to raise questions about the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) commitment to one of three pillars of the Olympic Agenda: sustainability.

And for good reason. Despite optimistic rhetoric from the IOC and host committees, environmental exploitation by host nations, and the suppression of opposition to such exploitation, have remained a troubling feature of the Olympic Games throughout the 21st century.

If the IOC’s philosophy of Olympism truly embraces the “harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity,” why are environmental issues surrounding the Games consistently overlooked?

Olympism only adds value to society when it functions as a moral and ethical compass, rather than a simple public relations tool. Yet, there is strong evidence of the latter.

Conflicting approaches

It is clear that the IOC and green activists have conflicting approaches to environmental stewardship. The IOC merely pays lip service to such concerns, while the latter actually fights to prevent the environmental destruction caused by the very hosting of the Games.

While the Olympics tend to lean on environmental rhetoric, including declarations from hopeful bid committees and organizers that their event will be the “greenest” or “most sustainable,” activists have long pointed to the environmental harms already present in host cities prior to the Games, which are often worsened by Olympic venue construction.

Examples include toxic waste being dumped in Homebush Bay ahead of the Sydney Games, polluted waters in Guanabara Bay where the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro held sailing events, and construction waste contaminating the Mzymta River during venue development for the 2014 Sochi Games.

The treatment of environmental activists at Olympic Games contradicts IOC’s Olympism ideals (1)

Activists have also pointed to the human costs of environmental destruction associated with the Olympic Games. Ahead of the Rio Games, for example, the gentrification of Vila Autódromo, a favela located on the edge of Olympic Park, resulted in the forced displacement of residents.

The Olympic torch also passed through lands of the Guarani and Terena tribes who suffered land theft, dispossession and violence from farmers and loggers.

Suppressing activist voices

Environmental advocates’ concerns are often dismissed as distractions from the Olympic spectacle. Activists are characterized as “killjoys” who detract from the “feel good” emotions associated with hosting the Olympics or hinder bid committees’ efforts.

Even more concerning, host cities and nations suppress the voices of environmental advocates by characterizing them as security threats, mobilizing private and public surveillance and security entities to watch, identify, suppress and detain.

In 2013, environmental protesters were tear gassed and water cannoned by police after protesting the plans of the Istanbul Olympic bidding committee to develop Gezi Park, an important and rare green space. The mayor suggested the protests would make hosting the 2020 Olympics “nothing but a dream.”

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Not all hosts, or would-be hosts, resort to such measures. In the past, hosts have also created protest zones for environmental activists to demonstrate and express their dissent against the Games, IOC or host governments.

Hosts, however, tend to place these zones out of sight, with protest groups requiring a permit to even gain access. In 2008, such zones were utilized to detain protesters.

Surveillance, espionage and policing

There have also been several instances where Olympic bid and host cities have used surveillance, espionage and policing to muzzle environmental activists.

Environmentalist Hu Jia was arrested and sentenced to 3.5 years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” ahead of the 2008 Summer Games in Beijing. Human Rights Watch accused the Chinese government of targeting other activists for harassment, intimidation and detainment.

Read more: How security at the 1976 Montréal Summer Games set a precedent for future Olympics

Ahead of the Sochi Games in 2014, authorities banned activists from entering the city, including its own residents. Those conducting research on environmental issues related to the Olympics were threatened with government interference and having their offices shut down.

Yevgeny Vitishko, an environmental activist and outspoken critic of the Sochi Games’ environmental record, was arrested and sentenced to three years in a penal colony.

Suppression in the West

Much of the media coverage of this issue has constructed it as a problem contained within the Global South, or within nations like China and Russia who are political opponents of the West. However, this framing is misleading, as examples also exist in countries like Canada and the United Kingdom.

A private intelligence firm, Stratfor, was used by Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical to monitor activists ahead of the Vancouver 2010 Games. Additionally, the Project Civil City initiative launched by Vancouver in preparation of the Games was meant to regulate and reduce “street disorder.”

In reality, this meant targeting the city’s homeless and other “undesirables” to cleanse its public image as a “global” Olympic city. And in London, construction companies Robert McAlpine Ltd and Balfour Beatty actively blacklisted “problematic” union workers and activists from working on several projects, including Olympic venues for the 2012 Summer Games.

The IOC, as the “supreme authority” over the Olympic Movement, is the only entity capable of curtailing such abuses. But it hasn’t and its inaction further legitimizes and exacerbates city and state suppression of environmental activism.

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Holding the IOC to account

As we look ahead to the upcoming Parisian Games, the French capital is not without environmental and social controversies.

As of June 18, the E. coli level of the river Seine, home to open water swimming and the aquatic portion of the triathlon, was 10 times above the acceptable level. Parisians have threatened to defecate in the waterway to protest the amount of spending the city has poured into prepping the river for the Games, rather than addressing more pressing social issues.

At the same time, Paris police are targeting the city’s most vulnerable in the lead up to the Olympics by removing homeless encampments, harassing sex workers and deporting migrants as part of a “social cleansing” program, which remains a hallmark tactic of Olympic host cities.

The Paris Olympics presents an excellent opportunity for journalists and news media outlets to illuminate the voices of environmental advocates, hold the IOC and French authorities to account in their engagement with activists, and maintain a healthy skepticism of the promised “green” legacies of the Paris Games.

The treatment of environmental activists at Olympic Games contradicts IOC’s Olympism ideals (2024)
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