Olympic Rings at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta, Georgia

Photo by Bryan Turner / Unsplash

The hidden human cost of the Paris Olympics

Paris will be the first Olympic Games with human rights in its host contract, but local residents are still being displaced.

In Ile-de-France, the region of France with Paris at its heart, anticipation is running high. Doors and windows of businesses are marked with the Paris 2024 Olympic rings, and as the sun starts to appear from behind the clouds, tiny green leaves emerge on the trees that line the streets and the dusk grows longer and longer, the taste of the 33rd Olympiad starts to flavour the springtime air.

This week the Olympic torch was lit and last month the Olympic Village was inaugurated. The final stages of two new stadiums and renovations to existing facilities are said to be on track to welcome more than 10 million spectators in just 100 days. Paris is the first Olympic Games with human rights provisions in its host contract when the global tournament returns to the city a century after it was last held there. While this rendition of the Games is being celebrated for huge gains on sustainability and a reduced carbon footprint, there remains a darker side to the Olympics. 

Reports emerged last year about hotels across the city of Paris cancelling their government contracts that provide emergency housing to some 50 000 people to make way for the scores of fans and tourists who will descend on the city to watch the Games. People living in homelessness have been moved to regional cities across France, with squats of hundreds of people dismantled and lives uprooted. The government agency that provides subsidised student housing announced in May last year that more than 3000 student leases would be cut short to make space for the Olympic workers who are set to arrive in the city. 

This week French news outlets reported the eviction of 300 migrants from an abandoned building in southern Paris and bussed them to the outer regions. In the regions, people arriving from Paris are reported to be provided with just three weeks of accommodation before they are left unsupported. In some of these areas, housing stress is even greater than in Paris, and there are far fewer options in terms of emergency accommodation.

In a statement to the media, French housing charity Utopia 56 said that Paris Olympics glory needs to keep in mind the city's most vulnerable citizens.

“The people affected by the social cleansing provisions are numerous, the need for access to social services and support is constant. If Paris wants to be magnificent this summer, this cannot be done to the detriment of the most precarious,” Utopia 56 said.

More than 80 NGOs from across France have called for an end to what they describe as "social cleansing", but the French government resists this characterisation, and has argued that additional accommodation for rough sleepers would be part of the legacy of the Olympics. 

Occupying 50 acres on the outskirts of Paris, only 25% of the newly constructed Olympic village is slated for affordable housing following the Games. This is despite a reported 10-year delay for those on the waitlist to receive public housing, with the majority of those living in homelessness and precarity being from migrant backgrounds. 

In January, the independent administrative office of the Defender of Rights announced that it would commence an investigation into the matter. The scope of the investigation also includes the government's planned AI surveillance and facial recognition strategy and complaints of restrictions on freedom of movement in the Olympic area. The Defender of Rights, Claire Hedon, is due to hand down her report this month. 

Displacement has long been a byproduct of the Olympics. One rather cynical theory is the idea that for host cities, the Olympics provides a deadline and justification for planned gentrification of suburbs, which involves clearing people out so they can roll out renewal projects and keep them out permanently. Reports from the 2012 Olympics in London showed the cost of housing skyrocketing in formerly working class suburbs and long-term upticks in rates of homelessness in these communities.

The displacement of vulnerable people to make way for the mega stadiums and new facilities was the legacy of both Beijing and Rio, characterised by “street sweeping” and the clearing out of vulnerable people ahead of the Games. In Rio, more than 70,000 people were displaced from favelas and other poor communities over the seven years preceding the Games. In Beijing, some estimates say that 1.5 million people were moved out from the city in the lead up to the Games.

In Sydney, the Olympic bid claimed that the Olympic Village we now know as Sydney Olympic Park in Homebush would become a new suburb following the Olympics, but no commitment on affordable housing was ever made, making the transition of Homebush from industrial site to desirable residence a difficult proposition for Sydneysiders.

Ahead of the Sydney Olympics a raft of new laws were passed that empowered police in Sydney to target people living rough in the inner city area with police given directives to move people off the streets ahead of the Games. Councils across Sydney were allowed to create ‘alcohol free zones’ with police given powers to issue on the spot fines for breaches. This of course had the worst impacts on people living rough and these zones and powers still exist today. 

While the International Olympic Committee has made moves to lessen the adverse impacts of the Olympics, in cities like Paris where the issue is rearing its head again, it seems that a lot more needs to be done. A plan to deal with housing stress that doesn’t involve disappearing people to the regions, where they face even greater precarity, less resources and less support, should be built into any plan to host the Olympics if it is going to be an event we can all truly celebrate.