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France is moving homeless people out of Paris ahead of the 2024 Summer Olympics
00:28 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: David Goldblatt (@Davidsgoldblatt) is a British sports writer, broadcaster and academic. He is the author of several books, most recently “The Games: A Global History of the Olympics.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more CNN Opinion here.

CNN  — 

The breathless mission statement of the Paris 2024 Olympics tells us that, “Sport has the power to change everything, improving education, health, and social inclusion.” Sport’s potency does not, however, seem to stretch to problems of housing and homelessness.

David Goldblatt

This September, city authorities and police have been busy closing down homeless camps across Paris and moving unhoused people out of the French capital, while the first luxury apartments in the Olympic Village have already gone on sale.

The government housing department says the relocation plan is aimed at decreasing the burden in this urban area and ensuring the homeless have greater support in the provinces. Both it and Paris 2024 organizers say the scheme has nothing to do with the upcoming Games.

This may be, but viewed from a historical perspective Paris appears to stand in long and ignoble Olympic tradition of cleansing urban space of undesirables prior to the games and the arrival of the world’s media, while allocating what little housing does get built to the already comfortable.

Despite all the talk of social responsibility, the Olympic Games are, in the end, a made-for-television spectacle that host cities use to promote themselves and legitimise programmes of urban redevelopment.

The former requires a manicured cityscape that does not include obvious human evidence of social inequality and dysfunction. The latter — effectively subcontracted to private developers and driven by profit — can only make the merest contribution to real housing needs.

Dark history of ‘cleansing’ cities 

Before Berlin hosted the 1936 games, the city’s Roma population were arrested, interned and relocated to a prison camp in the distant suburb of Berlin-Marzahn. 

In the run up to Tokyo 1964, the police arrested hundreds of known pickpockets, moved rough sleepers out of the parks and asked the yakuza gangs to send their most visible members on a long out of town holiday.

September 1964:  A Japanese policeman checking the signs to be used during the opening parade at the Olympic Games in Tokyo.  (Photo by Douglas Miller/Keystone Features/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Organisers of the 1980 Moscow games vowed to “cleanse Moscow of chronic alcoholics and drug addicts,” and then dumped many of them in locations well beyond the city’s ring road.

In Los Angeles, the LAPD used the 1984 games as a pretext to restock its armoury and then conducted relentless and aggressive sweeps of Black and Latino youth and the homeless around Olympic venues. LA 2028 is shaping up to repeat the process, with LAPD sweeps already targeting homeless encampments in the city.

Atlanta’s shame 

But it was Atlanta 1996 that declared more systematic war on the unhoused than any prior games. Public money was spent putting the homeless on a bus with a one-way ticket to wherever they might have come from.

Local ordinances were changed to criminalise reclining in public, being in a car park without owning a car there, and loitering anywhere, ensuring that the police could clear the huge unhoused population out of the city center.

Olympic police officers stand guard at the rowing and canoe/kayak competitions venue of Lake Lanier near Gainesville, Georgia July 15 prior to the 1996 Summer Olympics Games which open on July 19 in Atlanta.

Sweeps were conducted with pre-printed arrest dockets saying: ‘African American, Male, Homeless.’ The citations were left blank for the charge and date. Chasing them and their hostels out of downtown Atlanta was just a prelude to the destruction of what little social housing remained in the city, opening the way for a real estate bonanza for developers.

Relocating residents (sometimes twice) 

That said, the gargantuan urban redevelopment programmes that accompanied Seoul 1988 and Beijing 2008 were on a different level, requiring the displacement of 720,000 and over 1.25 million people respectively, overwhelmingly from the poorest and oldest parts of these cities, according to Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions (COHRE) estimates.

Nothing has quite matched this since. But Rio de Janeiro, which hosted the Pan American Games, the 2014 World Cup and then the 2016 Olympics, displaced more than 75,000 people between 2009 and 2016, according to data from Rio de Janeiro’s City Council, usually with pitiful rates of compensation and the offer of poor quality and distant social housing.

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL - MAY 20: A view from the mostly abandoned Olympic Aquatics stadium at the Olympic Park on May 20, 2017 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. In the nine months after the Olympic games, very few events have been organised in the Olympic Park venues. The Olympic Aquatics stadium was to be dismantled, but it continues abandoned with no obvious signs of dismantlement. In addition, numerous areas of standing water can be found inside and outside the venue in the former official and training pools, making them dengue and zika risk areas. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

Tokyo 2020 moved hundreds of households on. But in an act of remarkable cruelty, the rebuilding of the national stadium required that a number of old people, previously evicted to make way for the 1964 games, were relocated a second time more than five decades later.

Fast forward to preparations for the 2024 Olympics, and Paris has built very little new infrastructure, so relocations have been minimal. But even then the new media centre required the felling of a precious stretch of urban woodland and the new aquatics centre saw old and loved community gardens paved over.

And cities that did it better 

The Olympics can at least claim that the building of an Olympic Village adds to the host’s housing stock – and some have left a positive legacy. Helsinki, which built the first permanent Olympic Village in 1952, created a successful and architecturally distinguished neighbourhood of social housing. 

And after the 1956 games, Melbourne passed most of its dwellings to low income families.

MELBOURNE, AUSTRALIA - NOVEMBER 06:     Japan delegation attend the athlete village entering ceremony ahead of the Melbourne Summer Olympic Games on November 6, 1956 in Melbourne, Australia. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

The gentrification game

For the most part, though, the poor and unhoused have seen very few benefits from these developments. In 1968, Mexico City’s residential towers were allocated to middle class civil servants.

Barcelona’s 1992 Olympic Village became the epicentre of a process of beachside gentrification and soaring house prices. That was the plan for Rio, but the whole Olympic park is virtually empty today. 

London’s 2012 Olympic Village left a small legacy of social housing, but in the post-Olympic developments around it, barely any accessible properties have been created. Organisers promised that half of the 9,000 new homes planned at the Olympic Park would be affordable, but, according to BBC reporting, just a few hundred units have been offered at these rents.

Marginalized voices 

After the 2004 games, Athens chose to allocate around 90% of its flats by lottery to households in serious poverty or with major health and disability issues. By 2015 the repurposed Olympic Village had a 60% unemployment rate, almost no public transport links, a shopping centre that had virtually closed down, and in some of the limited schools and nurseries, residents’ children had to be educated in Portakabins. 

Mandatory Credit: Photo by Urman Lionel/ABACA/Shutterstock (13610016c)
Homeless families moved to City Hall Square to assert their right to housing, on November 05, 2022 in Paris, France.
Homeless families moved to City Hall Square - Paris, France - 05 Nov 2022

Paris is promising to do better, locating the village in run down, but accessible St-Denis, building a new metro station and promising half of the this will be socially allocated – but then, so did London.

Why does the Olympic Games have such a terrible record on these issues? The International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) official history is silent on these matters.

Above all, the power and the voice of the marginal, the unhoused and their allies in the anti-Olympic movements that have sprung up over the last few decades, simply cannot compete with the coalition of the powerful — the International Olympic Committee (IOC), national and city governments, media corporations, real estate capital — that put on the show.

Until that changes, we can expect the staging of future Olympic Games to look the same.