Headlines, Human Rights, North America

CANADA: Olympics, 21st Century Style

Paul Weinberg

TORONTO, Dec 30 2009 (IPS) - Restrictions on art displays and signage critical of the upcoming February 2010 Winter Olympics and the creation of a massive high-tech security network are putting a damper in some residents’ minds on what should be a celebratory sports extravaganza in Vancouver.

A group of Canadian academics issued a statement last month expressing concern that “a climate of fear, heightened security and surveillance” surrounds the upcoming event.

A spokesperson for Vancouver’s Integrated Security Unit (ISU), made up of local city police and the federal police force, defended the security blanket that is enveloping the upcoming Winter Olympics.

“V2010 ISU is committed to and will continue to uphold and respect individuals’ charter rights in accordance with Canadian law, all the while ensuring safe and secure Winter Games for Canadians and visitors to Canada,” ISU’s Sgt. Mike Cote told local media over the summer.

But critics should not be solely directing their ire at the Vancouver Organising Committee for the 2010 Olympic and Paralympics Winter Games (VANOC), which is made up of representation of all three levels of government, said Helen Lenskyj, a professor emeritus in sociology at the University of Toronto.

Their authoritarian aspects originate with the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which imposes a series of strict conditions on the cities, including Vancouver, that have won the highly prized bid to host the Olympics, she told IPS.

The author of three books on what she calls “the Olympics industry”, Lenskyj said the IOC’s charter specifically demands that the host city prohibit political demonstrations or assembly in or near the Olympic venues.

She was referring to section 51 of the latest version of the IOC charter, which stipulates that “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas”.

In addition, the IOC’s contract with the current host city Vancouver includes a provision that “no propaganda or advertising is placed within the Olympic venues or outside the Olympic venues in such a manner so as to be within the view of the television cameras covering the sports at the Games or of the spectators watching the sports at the Games”.

“The IOC calls the shots and if that contravenes the human rights provisions of a country, so be it because a country forfeits the right to challenge the human rights legislation,” Lenskyj warned.

Also adversely affected are a group of young Canadian female ski jumpers who have been unsuccessful in eliminating the IOC’s ban on women’s participation in the official Olympic ski jumping competition.

In a series of “head-scratching decisions”, Canadian courts have told the women that the equality provisions in the constitutionally entrenched Charter of Rights do not apply to VANOC, said Micheal Vonn, policy director for the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association.

“VANOC is running a sports event that is deeply embedded within the governments of the city Vancouver, the government of British Columbia and the government of Canada,” she told IPS. “So, the charter should apply. Unfortunately, because VANOC is governed by the IOC, even though the charter applies, it can’t be enforced.”

She described VANOC as a highly secretive body that does not make the minutes of its meetings with government officials publicly available, and is exempt from freedom of information laws.

One bright spot, Vonn added, is that Canadian courts have overturned a law that gave the host municipalities the power to enter residences and other private property to seize signs deemed “anti-Olympic”, and allowed for fines of up to 10,000 dollars and imprisonment for up to six months for violations.

“The city caved and amended its bylaws,” she said.

On the other hand, concerns abound that Vancouver may be following in the footsteps of other Olympic host cities in purging the downtown where the Games’ venues are situated of poor people and the homeless.

Vancouver’s measures include a security zone and the passage of a law by the province of British Columbia that allows local police to force homeless people into shelters during extreme winter weather, Vonn stated.

“The idea here is if you have the ability to essentially take people off the streets, you assuredly have another tool in the tool kit to remove unsightly people,” she said.

But it is the application of military-style security technology in recent mega sporting events such as the Vancouver winter Olympics, where the budget is approaching a billion dollars – a sharp rise from the initial estimates of a little under 200 million – that is drawing considerable scrutiny in some quarters.

A raft of security measures are being implemented at the upcoming winter Olympics “to make people, places and processes visible in new ways using diverse tactics and technologies,” said Kevin Haggerty, a University of Alberta sociologist and an expert on policing surveillance technology.

In a recent report for the privacy commissioner of the neighbouring province of Alberta, Haggerty cited the adoption by VANOC and the ISU of CCTV cameras, satellite monitoring, cellular telephone monitoring, computerised background checks, biometric identification cards, toxic material scanners and detectors, traveler profiles and overhead communications/monitoring blimps, among other technologies.

“[Authorities] are capitalising on the fact that in anticipation of the Games, citizens tend to be more tolerant of intrusive security measures,” he told IPS.

However, Haggerty warned of surveillance overkill, where Olympic-style security can percolate into more mundane contexts in a relatively peaceful city like Vancouver. “The [Olympic] Games themselves provide a glimpse of a possible militarised, surveilled urban future,” he said.

In interviews with VANOC and the ISU, Haggerty said he faced an insurmountable brick wall in terms of getting a handle on their security and surveillance strategies.

One item that Haggerty could confirm is that Winter Olympic officials plan to photograph Vancouver neighbourhoods with high resolution satellite-mounted cameras.

“Satellite imaging is a fairly new and intensive way for physically dispersed audiences to view phenomena that were previously more difficult to monitor,” said Haggerty.

At the same time, Haggerty added that he does not expect Vancouver to adopt the level of security witnessed in Beijing, where about 300,000 CCTV cameras were installed in what was described as the largest CCTV network in existence.

Meanwhile, Helen Lenskyj suggested that increased security is the direct result of the need to protect valuable corporate sponsorships in the mega sports event, especially since the highly profitable 1984 Los Angeles summer games and coupled with the real potential for terrorism following the 1972 massacre of Israeli athletes in the Munich Games and the 9/11 attacks on New York City and Washington.

“The big multinationals in the categories of IT [information technology], sportswear, bottled water, airlines, car rentals and whatever pay a huge amount of money for that privilege [of corporate sponsorship] and they get exclusive rights,” she said. “And security is actually protecting their rights from ambush marketing [from competitors].”

Albeit stretched by its Afghanistan commitment, Canada’s military will be providing possibly thousands of troops to back up efforts by the local police and the federal Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) at Vancouver’s winter Olympics.

“There will be a lot of surveillance missions as well as securing the backcountry in an alpine environment,” Captain Chris Poulton, a Canadian Forces spokesperson, told reporters recently. “They will be the ears and eyes of the RCMP.”

The role of U.S. law enforcement authorities in the neighbouring state of Washington, across the international border from Vancouver, remains a bit of a mystery, added Micheal Vonn.

Concerns have been raised by civil libertarians that information about Canadian citizens has flowed into U.S. databases, but Vonn’s organisation has no solid evidence so far to back this up.

However, “There is no doubt that there is coordination with security folks across the border,” she told IPS.

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