How The Olympic Games Displaces The Poor – The Case For Deep Reform Of An Autonomous Movement

Alexander Popov involved with Rio Olympics
Rio in Olympic mode ... but what did it take to get there? - Photo Courtesy: Swimming World

Sunday Essay/commentary:  It is no easy task to entice many of you to read more than 5,000 words on a massive downside of the Olympic Games this day of relative rest but I  recommend, nonetheless, to all who prepare for a the showcase of an autonomous Movement, to all who look forward, as we do, to the thrill of the action at Tokyo 2020NE and all who see the biggest multi-sports event on the planet as a height of entertainment (A.K.A , self-governed, autonomous Big Business with meagre – and in some areas zero – independent oversight) to take the time to understand an aspect of a realm they are part of that does not deserve support.

Indeed, in these days of heightened awareness among athletes, here is an aspect of the Games that athletes need to be far more aware of as they seek a fairer share of the revenues that flow from the Olympic Games: if the moment marks the culmination of the hard work of 4, 8 and sometimes more years to achieve your sporting goals, for others, a Games can mean the loss of home, rights, dignity, livelihood among the poorest members of society. Athletes want a greater return for their investment. Fair Play. But have they considered whether the returns on their investment are ethical?


Coaracy Nunes – FINA Bureau member 2000 until his arrest in 2017 – Photo Courtesy: PBK

When Coaracy Nunes, long-term member of the FINA Bureau, passed away of late, the passages notice from the international federation failed to mention that he’d been sent to jail for fraud directly related to his role in sport and the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. FINA’s leadership, the tier of governance below the International Olympic Committee top table on which the swimming federation is represented by its president, never called an Ethics panel inquiry into those events, nor any of the events associated with seven criminal investigations against Bureau members in the past decade. FINA’s leadership has not removed the honours handed out to those subsequently investigated for or prosecuted for crimes directly related to their roles in sport.

Dr Lothar Kipke was criminally convicted in the 1998-2000 Doping Trials in German for abuse of minors. He has his FINA honor to this day. No athlete or any other representative body within FINA or the Olympic Movement has called for that to be changed or backed calls, such as those from Swimming World, for that to be changed.

The flip side of the coin is that athletes who opt not to have their photograph taken next to a challenger with a doping record face immediate punishment. 

There is also this: omertà. When insiders do raise legitimate questions in-house, they face barriers, some of which are so high that they feel obliged to lodge their complaints with state prosecutors in an effort to have proper inquiry in pursuit of answers and justice.

One realm, one set of rules – but in the gap between governors and athletes there are often two very different interpretations and outcomes, with questions from media left ignored and unanswered, the silence of guardians and governors a part of the foundations that hold the Olympic edifice in place.

There is often a gulf, too, between the Olympic Games and Movement and the people who live in host cities and countries. What happens in that gulf is something Olympians and the rest of us should not turn a blind eye too.

In this strangest of Olympic seasons, COVID-19 having wiped out the sporting calendar, there is time to think deeper and more laterally about the Olympic Games beyond the rush of excitement that holds hands with the Games once every four years and often blinds us to what’s going on back stage and how the whole thing affects those living in host cities and countries.

The 5,500 words are not mine/ours. Here is the story I recommend you read, this day or any other:

Below are a few key references in the midst of the longer text focussed on a favela and its community in Rio de Janeiro, clearances and evictions. As those who read the full text will see, brutality and enforcement are among things that drive the “Olympic Dream”.

The backdrop of the Games includes the politics at play in a realm supposedly governed by an Olympic Charter that calls on athletes and others to set politics aside even though the Movement and the Games themselves are soaked in politics, the power of the ‘Hobbits’ who kick back – and the anti-Olympic Movement with a message for IOC bosses: clean house or have your establishment shut down altogether – Games Over.


When the Rio waters turned green – Photo Courtesy: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Extracts from Donahue’s Olympic Games feature:

“Across the world, millions have been booted from their homes to make way for sports venues. Bill Donahue tells the story of Rio – and how one community fought back”

“In the lead-up to the 1988 Games, in Seoul, 720,000 people were forcibly moved, according to the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. Before the 2008 Games, in Beijing, the centre has reported, 1.5 million Chinese were shunted out of the way; resisters were handed one-year “re-education through labour” sentences.

“You could tell this story in either Seoul or Beijing, or in London, where a low-income housing development, Clays Lane, was erased to make way for the 2012 Games. But I travelled instead to the western fringes of Rio de Janeiro, because it’s there I knew I’d find a tale of Olympics displacement that was not only fraught and heartbreaking, but also inspiring.

“The date is 3 June, 2015. Rio is readying to host the 2016 Olympics, and at the moment, on a warm, overcast morning, a bulldozer is idling on a dusty dirt road on the edge of a small favela, or improvised community: Vila Autódromo, population 700 families. The dozer is there because the Olympics need wide-open land on which to build stadiums, parking lots, swimming pools and media centres. And Vila Autódromo is in the way. Brazil’s second-largest city is midstream in its campaign to level the favela – every last house.

“Maria da Penha, 50, grew up in a hilltop shack in Rio’s biggest favela, Rocinha, population 100,000. Drug dealers roamed the narrow streets near her home, and killings were commonplace. At age eight, Penha began working in a bar as a dishwasher. Later, she earned her keep as a street vendor, a maid and a snack shop clerk…

“If it had been any other Olympics, the rest of the story would have been almost too predictable to tell. Poor people have very little leverage against the International Olympic Committee, which oversees the Games and earned a total of $5.7bn (£4.5bn) from the 2014 and 2016 Olympics. The city of Rio kept levelling Vila Autódromo that year. Still, after the police beating, a photograph began to circulate – of Penha with half her face covered in blood.”

Written in the Los Angeles Times in Olympic Games city 2028:

For the first time, anti-Olympics activists from around the globe are now joining to stand against the Games. Their slogan is “No Olympics anywhere”, and after 200 of them met last summer in Tokyo, one attendee – American Jules Boykoff, who teaches politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon – summed up the ills of the Olympics in a neat list: “overspending, militarisation of police, citizen displacement, greenwashing and corruption”, Boykoff wrote in a 2019 Los Angeles Times op-ed.

More recently, Boykoff has seized on the postponement of the Tokyo Games to heighten his rhetoric. “If the IOC is not willing to create an ethics committee with real teeth,” he wrote for NBC News’s opinion website in late March, “… then it should probably be abolished and the international community should work to find a different way to organise the competition.”

The Mantra of Pierre de Coubertin

” … a callous elitism has arguably pervaded the modern Olympics since their inception in 1896. The first Games were the brainchild of a French baron, Pierre de Coubertin, who conceived the Olympics as an insider’s club for privileged men. Women, he felt, were best suited for “applause”, and the working class was likewise excluded by a “mechanics clause” that disqualified manual labourers from competing, supposedly because they held an unfair physical advantage. The first International Olympic Committee included two counts as well as a lord, and Baron de Coubertin seemed to revel in the group’s aristocratic exclusivity. “We are not elected,” he said, proudly. “We are self-recruiting, and our terms of office are unlimited. Is there anything else that could irritate the public more?”

  •  All commentaries above are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Swimming World Magazine, the International Swimming Hall of Fame, nor its staff.


  1. Roy Shepherdson

    To be honest, neither what it set out to be or has become is particularly pleasant to some degree.

  2. Rob Richardson

    I vote for defining standard locations in the America’s, Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia and rotate them out every 4 yrs. The practice of creating a new Olympic Village and sporting venues every 4 yrs obviously isn’t working (just ask Greece and Brazil to name a few). The process only makes money for the IOC and they don’t care about the wake of destruction they leave behind.

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