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Olympic abuses go way beyond Sochi

Performers wave Russian flags near the Sochi 2014 countdown clock just outside the Kremlin in Moscow, on Feb. 7. (AFP Photo, Getty Images/ Kirill Kudryavtsev)

Russia's man of steel, President Vladimir Putin, loves big projects - he's splashing out some $50 billion for the 2014 Sochi Olympics that he hopes will make him a novi Peter the Great.

But not surprisingly, his sympathy for steelworkers, and welders, and concrete layers is way more limited, according to a Human Rights Watch report this week on abuse of migrant workers.

The report, however, is only one of a long series detailing the indignities visited on the people at the bottom of the Olympic food chain. And not only in Russia.

The plight of the migrant workers who built the towering 2008 Beijing Olympic venues was even more appalling, according to the group's previous report. In allegations so bad they could have been written by Monty Python, investigators said some workers lived on almost inedible boiled cabbage, and slept two to a bed in unheated buildings.

Then there were the "Olympic brands" scandals around the big sportswear names producing sports clothes for the games in Bangladesh, where workers were allegedly "beaten, verbally abused and overworked."

It gets worse.

Evictions of the poor and homeless have become part of the Olympic brand, according to the Geneva-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. Its report on "mega events" and housing said that the Games were playing foul with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people globally.

In Seoul 1988, it said, "720,000 people were forcibly evicted from their homes" in preparation for the Olympics. In Barcelona 1992 - which made the city an icon of urban elegance - "low income earners" were driven out by high prices. In Atlanta 1996, 9,000 "arrest citations" were issued to the homeless, mainly racial minorities, in a "street cleaning" project that read like ethnic cleansing.

Even Vancouver's "own the podium" Winter Games won no golds for a loss of over 700 units of low income housing.

But all that pales in comparison with Beijing's 1.25 million people thrown out of their homes to put it in the winner's circle as an ultra modern world city.

Little wonder that as many as 170,000 of Rio's poorest slum dwellers are now facing eviction in advance of the 2014 World Cup soccer tournament and 2016 Olympics.

Is there a pattern here?

If so, the Olympics authorities, and host countries, aren't getting it. Advocates for years have been urging them to uphold the basic standards of human decency enshrined in the UN Charter - but in vain. The abuses, COHRE says, are "in complete contradiction to the very spirit and ideals of the Olympic Movement." And the abuses, like the breathtaking budgets, just keep growing.

What's dwindling is the idea of fair play.

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights as a correspondent and bureau chief from the former Soviet Union to the Balkans, Northern Ireland, the Middle East and South Asia. She has won both national and international awards, collaborated on two Emmy-winning films and is one of the few journalists to have a war requiem written to her work.






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