The Beneficiary of Hosting the Olympics is the Police StateRoundup
tags: surveillance, policing, Olympic Games
Jules Boykoff is a professor of political science at Pacific University in Oregon and author of five books on the Olympic Games.
When the French National Assembly approved the use of artificial intelligence video surveillance at the Paris 2024 Olympics on March 23, it made France the first European Union country to legalize such a wide-reaching AI-powered surveillance system and left civil-liberties advocates livid. They argued that the move not only undermines the E.U.’s AI Act regulating the technology, but also greenlights potentially massive privacy violations inside France.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard blasted the law’s potential to “amplify racist policing and threaten the right to protest.” Callamard’s fears are justified. In the past, the Olympic Games have opened the door for laws that infringe upon civil liberties and the right to protest.
Local and national security officials over the past several decades have used the Olympics to generate huge sums of cash and secure special tools and laws that would be difficult to acquire during normal political times. These new laws can stay on the books and technologies remain in the hands of the state after the Games, reinforcing police power and squelching political dissent. As a result, the Olympics help normalize technologies and practices that undermine human rights, despite the Olympic Charter’s stated commitment to “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”
Policing and surveillance have not always been so central to the Olympic project. At the Stockholm 1912 Olympics, which many view as the best-organized Games to that point, police played a minor role. The final report for the Games noted that at the marathon event, only 100 police officers and 300 soldiers monitored the route. Police were at the Games mainly “for the purpose of admonishing the public to observe correctness of behavior towards the competitors, so that there would be no disturbance of the peace.” The highest-profile police action at the Games may have been the popular tug-of-war event. The Swedish team was composed of police officers who defeated the British squad — made up of London police officers — to win the gold medal.
Yet at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — known as the Nazi Games — security forces were ubiquitous at the Opening Ceremonies. Guards monitored every entrance. Police swept the stadium for explosives. German police created a criminal yearbook of sorts, with photographs and descriptions of grifters who might try to swindle Olympic visitors. But the Gestapo also shifted emphasis, surveilling Olympians, such as the African Americans who they feared would interact with White German women or express anti-Nazi dissent. The Gestapo created a special postal inspection unit to intercept letters sent to athletes in the Olympic Village informing them of Nazi atrocities and imploring them to speak out.
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