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Thoughts on "The Best Olympics Ever?"

In her most recent book, "The Best Olympics Ever?" (State University of New York Press), Helen Jefferson Lenskjy puts her agenda up front. "My goal," she writes in the introduction, "is to disclose what the Sydney 2000 Olympics industry suppressed: the real Olympic costs and impacts, the forgotten victims of Olympic-related housing and homelessness crises, the unrecognized and undetermined effects of community organizations, the Olympic industry's co-option of universities, Sydney 2000's "symbolic reconciliation" efforts in light of over two hundred years of Indigenous people's suffering, and other key social issues related to Sydney's Olympic preparations."

Lenskyj is partly successful. Certainly she demonstrates that the celebration of diversity presented in Sydney, highlighted by the choice of Cathy Freeman to light the flame, must have seemed a cruel joke to the Aboriginal people, who are twenty two times more likely to die in police custody than non-Aboriginals, as well as much more likely to be jobless, homeless, and otherwise disenfranchised.

The Olympics did for Aboriginals about what the celebration of the heroic feats of Jim Thorpe has done for Native Americans. Lenskyj also presents evidence that those organizing the games cared a lot more about putting on a dazzling show than they did about the long-term consequences of building white elephant facilities and threatening the environment, and she recognizes that preserving the civil rights of those protesting the games mattered not at all to those determined that folks should praise the spectacle as great, glorious, and above reproach.

But is the Olympic Games different from other gigantic building and entertainment projects underwritten by television and corporations with sneakers, soft drinks, and insurance to sell? Only in terms of the intensity with which the games are presented as supportive of community, the pursuit of excellence, and various other "Olympic ideals." If it weren't for the bunting of international brotherhood, nobody would necessarily expect the Olympics to be any more considerate of the rights of the poor or the taxpayers than most other corporate concerns are. While Professor Lenskyj demonstrates the hypocrisy of the "Olympic family" campaign, she doesn't finally establish that the Olympic Movement is any more or less corrupt, greed-riddled, anti-environment, or dangerous to the poor than any number of other international, corporate profiteers, nor does she acknowledge that the Games at least make for an entertaining television show every couple of years.

Still, "The Best Olympics Ever?" is evidence that somebody - Lenskyj and other activists connected with organizations such as Green Games Watch and Redfern Legal Center - continue to expect and demand more from the international juggernaut of the Olympic Games. Of such demanding, and such books as this one, change sometimes comes.

This program aired on November 23, 2002. The audio for this program is not available.

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