If the Olympic Games can be used to promote anti-health industries, then why can’t they be used to promote discussions about human rights, social justice and a fairer distribution of wealth and health?

Marie McInerney, a journalist and editor who produces the VCOSS magazine Insight, does just that in the article below, cross-posted from the VCOSS Voice blog.


The Olympics: faster, higher, stronger…fairer, better, healthier?

Marie McInerney writes:

Love them or loathe them, the Olympics shine a light not only on international athletic prowess but on big issues like poverty, disadvantage, conflict, refugees, racism, human rights, colonialism and more.

We saw it with the ‘Sorry’ outfits worn by Midnight Oil at the Sydney 2000 Olympics and just as pointedly on Saturday in the London 2012 opening ceremony, where Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) got equal billing alongside the Queen, Daniel Craig, JK Rowling and Paul McCartney (see the social media response), with the official media guide noting:

The NHS is the institution which more than any other unites our nation. It was founded just after World War II on Aneurin Bevan’s famous principle, “No society can legitimately call itself civilised if a sick person is denied medical aid because of lack of means.”

Many others have been looking at big issues through an Olympics lens.

1. London 2012

According to The Times (in a pay-walled article in May), London is the first host city in Olympic history to have a permanent resident from every single competing nation – all 204 of them. ‘When it comes to multiculturalism, our capital is king, with one in every two Londoners having been born outside Britain,’ it proclaimed.

But not all Londoners, of course, are doing well:

The health and life chances of children in the six London boroughs hosting the Olympics deteriorate significantly by the time they reach their teens, where high proportions of five-year-olds are obese and only just over half are ready for school, according to a report by the London Health Observatory which builds on the landmark 2010 Fair Society Healthy Lives (The Marmot Review).

‘Sheds with beds’: just half a kilometre from the Olympic stadium, Bloomberg news agency finds ‘a modern-day scene evocative of Victorian England’, with thousands living in illegal squalor.

Lives on the line: Work by the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis is depicting child poverty and inequality like a London tube map, where a year in life expectancy is lost for every station eastbound on the Jubilee Line between Westminster and Canning Town and concludes that, without significant social change, ‘the fates of many children living in the poorest parts of London are seemingly already sealed’.

2. Human rights

The Olympics: games of freedom or oppression? Sarah Joseph, Director of the Castan Centre for Human Rights Law at Monash University, looks at the track record of the Games, starting with Berlin in 1936 when African American Jesse Owens won four golds through to the implications of the International Olympic Committee’s commercial and security controls.

3. Landmark for women

With Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei sending women to the Games for the first time, London 2012 marks the first time in history that all participating teams will have women, but human rights groups say the IOC should have put more pressure on Saudi Arabia. South Africa sent a strong message when it selected Caster Semenya to carry its flag at the opening ceremony after she was forced to undergo gender tests at the 2009 World Championships.

4. The medal tallies

Poorer countries tend to perform better relative to their GDPs than rich ones. Wealthier countries tend to perform better relative to their population sizes than poor ones. What’s the score when we compare athletes’ performance against the size of their economies and populations? Or see this animated infographic that uses the Olympic rings to look at global inequality.

5. The independent athletes

At the Sydney 2000 Olympics, East Timor’s athletes competed as independents as it was still moving towards independence after its violent occupation by Indonesia. The four independent athletes competing now in London provided another glimpse into the conflicts and colonialism shadowing so many Olympics, as do these reports on Somali and Afghan athletes.

6. Olympian advertising

Like the US SuperBowl, the Olympics gets corporates and advertisers competing almost as aggressively as the athletes. But what are they selling? In The Conversation, Curtin University’s Professor Mike Daube asks whether the Olympics stand for a healthier, sportier community or just another way to sell junk food and booze?

7. The statistics

And if you just want to know about the sport, check out the ABC’s huge database, perhaps while considering the cost of producing Australia’s Olympic victories – now getting up to nearly $49 million per gold medal, according to James Connor, from the University of New South Wales.

• Marie McInerney is Publications Editor at VCOSS