“At mega-events, young people come second, young people’s rights are trampled on, young people are targeted,” John Connor of Aston Mansfield argued at the “Sport Mega-Events and the Crisis of Youth Exclusion” Conference at Goldsmiths in London. We wanted to know whether there is any research backing up his claim, and—probably not all too surprisingly—there is. Public spaces are sanitized and marginalized youth moved out of sight.

Sanitizing public spaces in Olympic host citiesJacqueline Kennelly from Carleton University in Ottawa examined the experiences of homeless and street-involved young people with policing and surveillance practices instituted within the city of Vancouver in preparation for the 2010 Olympic Games. She traced encounters with the security apparatus before and during the Games and accounted for the experiences of young people through a theoretical frame that understands security as a ‘spectacle’ – related to the spectacle of the Olympics themselves.

The Dominion, a monthly paper devoted to accurate, critical coverage that is published by a network of independent journalists in Canada, has more details on the experience of young people in Vancouver during the Games:

“Young people who watch the Olympics are expected to benefit from the Games, according to sociologist J.J. MacAloon in This Great Symbol: Pierre de Coubertin and the Origins of the Modern Olympic Games. MacAloon says youth ought to relate to the athletes, who are themselves young adults, and be inspired by the example of these fine role models. Go to any Olympic host city organizing committee’s website, and you will encounter special games, educational activities, and interactive content geared directly at youth. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recently taken its focus on youth a step further with the introduction of the Youth Olympics.”

What happened, however, in Vancouver was constant policing of the city to keep homeless and street-involved youth out of the parts of town likely to be traversed by tourists or business people. Homeless youth were moved from downtown tourist streets to areas where they would be ‘out of sight.’ Absurdly and ironically, Vancouver’s Downtown East Side—an area notorious for open drug use, sex trade work and poverty—was the only neighbourhood these young people felt was free from police harassment in the year leading up to the Olympics.

“They don’t care if you’re down there. They’ll come up to me while I’ve been using drugs and they’re like, we don’t care that you’re using. Just stay out of sight,” said Jennifer, a formerly homeless woman who continues to attend the youth drop-ins at her local homeless shelter.

Street youth who were visibly homeless – symbolically marked through dirty or ripped clothing, tattoos, mohawks, carrying large backpacks or leading large dogs on a leash – were treated by the police as if they were ‘out of place’ when found in the city’s affluent West side or in the shopping district of the city’s downtown, Jacqueline Kennelly reports in her 2011 paper Sanitizing public space in Olympic host cities: the spatial experiences of marginalized youth in 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London.

The Dominion article draws attention to the hypocrisy of the policing approach in Vancouver:

“Homeless and street-involved youth also noticed police treated other young people differently during the Games, particularly if they were obviously Olympic revellers. “If you’re wearing Canada gear, you can be as hammered as you want and the cops won’t bother you, as long as you’re going, ‘Go, Canada!’” said Jason, a young man currently housed in Vancouver’s east side. This injustice rankled Jason and other youth, particularly given that they experience regular police harassment for relatively minor infringements.”

Kennelly suggests that the experiences of marginalized youth in London prior to and during the Games may well be congruent with those of disadvantaged young people observed and documented in Vancouver. “Even two years before the opening ceremonies are scheduled to begin,” she wrote in July 2010, “young people living in transitional housing in East London were encountering the revised spatial practices that also accompanied the Vancouver Olympics, carried out through intensified policing and security regimes.” The experiences documented at the “Sport Mega-Events and the Crisis of Youth Exclusion” Conference in April 2012 seem to confirm her observations and conclusions, among them this:

“As global cities attempt to capitalize on ‘prestige projects’ (Newman, 2007) such as the Olympic Games, governments often make use of the police as agents of the spatial reorganization that permits the city to ‘look its best’ when the ‘world is watching’ (McCann, 2009). This generally carries negative implications for the city’s marginalized inhabitants, including homeless and street-involved young people. These are not the stories of youthful heroism and athletic endeavour on which the IOC markets its brand; nonetheless, they are the recipients of Olympic legacies within the cities they call home.”

(Source: ‘Sanitizing public space in Olympic host cities: the spatial experiences of marginalized youth in 2010 Vancouver and 2012 London’, in Sociology October 2011 Vol. 45 N° 5 Pages 765-781)

Written by Jacqueline Kennelly

Jacqueline Kennelly is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She is the co-author (with Jo-Anne Dillabough) of Lost Youth in the Global City: Class, Culture, and the Urban Imaginary (Routledge, 2010), and the author of Citizen Youth: Culture, Activism, and Agency in a Neoliberal Era (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2011).