Why We Need To Make The Next Olympics 'The People's Games'

The Olympic flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeir
The Olympic flag is raised during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at the Maracana stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. / AFP / GABRIEL BOUYS (Photo credit should read GABRIEL BOUYS/AFP/Getty Images)

As the world tunes into the Rio 2016 Olympics, I feel ambivalent: torn between hoping the Games will deliver for Rio and for Brazil and knowing that, without radical reform, the selection processes for Olympic host cities will continue to have serious negative consequences, often for the most disadvantaged in our societies.

As the Games kick off, the President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Thomas Bach, must be silently questioning whether his team made the best choice of host city. Of course, back in 2009 when Rio was first awarded the Games, not all the problems now facing the country could have been foreseen: the worst recession in 25 years, a presidential impeachment trial, an outbreak of Zika virus.

But the effect of extensive, rushed development on an already unequal and divided city, the budgetary strains of a US$12 billion price tag, the environmental damage caused to areas like the Marapendi nature reserve: many of these factors could and should have been taken into account.

The problem, however, is this: the current selection process for Olympic host cities pays far too little attention to the will of the people. Under the current system, an Olympic bid is made on behalf of all the people of a city. It is usually framed in terms of community benefit - urban renewal, improved transport, better sporting facilities - and the IOC sets great store by venue legacy impact. Yet, in all of this, the majority of citizens are not consulted. Too often, in the rush to fast track venues and other Olympic projects, community consultation is limited and local concerns dismissed. And in practice, legacies often amount to little more than white elephants whose long-term benefits are few and far between.

'Bread not Circuses' was the message of the anti-Games lobby that opposed Toronto's eventually unsuccessful bid for the 2008 Games. Their point was that legacy benefits of the Games tend to accrue to already privileged sectors of a population, while the disadvantaged bear a disproportionate share of the burden. Certainly we can see this pattern repeating in Rio.

More than 77,000 favela residents, or just over 22,000 familes, have been evicted since 2009, many of them forcibly removed. In the same time period, more than 2,500 citizens have been killed by the police. The rocketing cost of the Games has brought public services in the city to a standstill: only by declaring a state of calamity has the State of Rio de Janeiro been able to release sufficient additional federal funding to pay its public servants.

Many contributions to the Olympic budget have come from real estate developers: wealthy businessmen who will be given publicly owned land once the Games have drawn to a close. New laws introduced for the Olympics threaten to define political protest as terrorism, potentially legitimising state violence and eroding civil liberties.

I'm sure someone once said that absolute power corrupts absolutely. Well, international sports organisations like the IOC, or FIFA, currently wield absolute power. Due to their unique institutional design, the ordinary mechanisms of accountability used to govern international corporations or governmental bodies hold little sway. Their stakeholder relationships are diffuse and complex; very few have any external directors. The salaries of their top officials remain undisclosed and executive term limits seem not to apply. Vast amounts of money flow through these bodies and they influence financially significant decisions at the highest level of politics, yet their governance practices have failed to keep pace.

Perhaps the question therefore isn't what needs to be done to fix the system, but how to do it. Until people are put at the heart of the selection process for Olympic host cities; until they are empowered to provide an ongoing oversight role in the preparatory and execution phases of the Games; until the impunity of the IOC is swept away by citizen-led accountability, corruption and the deeply unequal distribution of Olympic benefits will continue to mar future events.

The IOC has at least announced its intention to review the host city selection process. If they are serious about future games reflecting the true nature of the Olympic charter, civil society involvement and independent oversight must be made one of the conditions of a successful bid. Host city contracts must include clear obligations relating to human rights, treatment of local communities and procurement standards. The Games cannot be a panacea for a city's ills, but with direct involvement from the host community, it should at the very least not exacerbate them.

Protest groups have dubbed Rio's Olympics 'The Exclusion Games' and as the Olympic torch entered the city, striking teachers protesting at their government's inability to pay their salary for two months while lavishing billions of dollars on the Games, managed to extinguish the flame. It serves as a potent symbol. If people continue to be excluded from a process that can have so great an impact on their lives, their discontent is likely to bring an end to the Olympic ideal.