Dvora Meyers | Longreads | August 2020 | 5,722 words (23 minutes)
A year ago, back when we were still allowed to gather in groups larger than a minyan, activists convened in Tokyo to talk about how they were going to end the biggest global gathering of them all — the Olympic Games.
The activists came from all over: past host cities like Rio, London, Nagano, and Pyeongchang; future host cities Paris and Los Angeles; cities that had managed to derail their bids, including Boston and Hamburg; and places like Jakarta, which is gearing up for a 2032 bid.
They were in Tokyo exactly a year out from the scheduled start of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games, attending the first-ever transnational anti-Olympic summit, which was organized by Hangorin no Kai, a group of unhoused and formerly unhoused people based in Tokyo. The activists, along with academics and members of the media, talked about common Games-related issues, like displacement and police militarization, and discussed strategies for resisting local political forces and the IOC to protect their communities. Elsewhere in Tokyo, Thomas Bach, President of the International Olympic Committee, and the rest of the IOC crew had arrived to mark the start of the 365-day countdown to the Opening Ceremonies.
Eight months after these two very different gatherings in Tokyo, the IOC announced that the 2020 Olympics were going to be postponed by a full year due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. By the time they made the announcement, most other major sports tournaments planned for the summer had been canceled or postponed and the athletes, many of whom were shut out of training facilities due to lockdowns, were calling on the IOC to act for over a week. Once the IOC made the inevitable official, the athletes were able to reset and refocus their training on July 2021.
That even a stripped-down version of the 2021 Games will happen is hardly a foregone conclusion. The pandemic may not be under control by then. Even if it is, and even if an effective vaccine against the coronavirus is developed in time, the Games still might not happen. The postponement is likely going to add billions to a budget that was already triple that of the original projection of the Tokyo bid that the IOC had accepted in 2013. Public opinion in Japan seems to be swinging against the Games, too. In a recent survey, 77 percent of respondents said that the Olympics could not be held next year. In another poll, a slim majority of Tokyo residents said the same thing.
The horrors of the pandemic are real and massive. Yet COVID-19 has offered an opportunity to derail the Games — one that didn’t exist just a few months ago and certainly hadn’t existed when the activists came to Tokyo last July. Dr. Satoko Itani, a professor of sport, gender, and sexuality studies at Kansai University, told me that the pandemic is a “powerful wake-up call to the people who otherwise wouldn’t have given a thought about the costs of the Olympics.”
“Now that a lot of people in Japan are counting and monitoring the government’s spending to fight the pandemic, it became ever more clear actually just how much taxpayers’ money we had allowed the TOCOG [Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games] and the government to spend on the two-week-long sport spectacle while we don’t have enough money to equip ‘essential workers’ with the essential protective gear,” they wrote in an email.
That even a stripped-down version of the 2021 Games will happen is hardly a foregone conclusion.
The Games’ postponement is happening not just against the backdrop of a global pandemic, but also that of a global uprising against state-sanctioned murders of Black people by the police. The catalyst for this movement was the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis by Derek Chauvin, but the protests quickly spread beyond the Twin Cities to the rest of the U.S. and then around the world, including Japan.
The pandemic, police brutality, and the Olympics are not unconnected events. While COVID-19 might be a virus incapable of racial bias, the course it has taken through the population of the U.S., wending its way through Black, Latinx, and poor communities, was determined by decades of racist policy and discrimination. American police forces have killed Black people for decades with impunity as part of the same system that allowed more African Americans to die from COVID-19 than any other group. It’s also the system that has allowed the Olympic Games in the post-war period to reshape the cities that host the event, rarely for the benefit of all citizens. The Games have been a driving force behind displacement, police militarization, increased surveillance, and violence against the working class and poor people, especially Black and Brown, in the cities where they’ve touched down. The very same groups that the pandemic has disproportionately killed and that the police disproportionately target are those who become the victims, rather than the beneficiaries, of the Olympics.
But people are growing wise to what the Olympic Games are actually about. “It wasn’t 15, 20 years ago you could say, ‘We’re going to have a bid in our city,’ and stand behind the podium and jabber on about jobs and economic upticks floating everybody’s boat, and people just nodded along,” Jules Boykoff told me. (Boykoff is a professor at Pacific University and author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics and NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond.) “Today, no way. People aren’t nodding along like they once did.”
Over the last decade, residents of potential Olympic host cities have voted overwhelmingly to reject the Games. The IOC and local organizers have lost referenda in Hamburg, Calgary, Graubünden, Krakow, Munich, Sion, Vienna, and Innsbruck. Activists in other cities like Boston, Budapest, and Graz/Schladming managed to turn public opinion against the Games so decisively that the bids were pulled before the IOC and Olympic boosters could be embarrassed by yet another referendum loss. If the anti-Olympics activists have their way, soon no city will be a safe harbor for the Games.
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Resistance to the Games is almost as old as the Games themselves. The very first modern Games in Athens, in 1896, already inspired wariness about using public funds to pay for Baron Pierre de Coubertin’s pet project. Greek prime minister Charilaos Trikoupis didn’t want the state to be responsible for financing the Olympics, and private (mostly aristocratic) donors footed the bill.
Nowadays, a lot of tax money goes into financing Games-related projects, but one practice has persisted to this day: wildly underestimating the cost of running the event. Coubrertin had claimed that the whole thing would cost no more than 200,000 drachmas; as Boykoff writes in Power Games, “the stadium refurbishment alone cost three times that much.”
Rome was originally supposed to host the 1908 Olympics, but many people there protested the decision because of the costs. London ended up taking over hosting duties at the last minute — not because the Italian government suddenly became responsive to the will of its citizens but because Mount Vesuvius erupted less than 200 miles away.
In 1912, the Olympics really hit their stride, at least according to their most ardent supporters — the entire city of Stockholm was taken over by the event. The Games were no longer a thing happening in a city, a footnote to the World’s Fair. (The early Olympics were often held in tandem with the World’s Fair.) In Stockholm, residents couldn’t ignore the Games even if they wished to. “Whereas in London the life of the huge metropolis had not been influenced by the invasion of Olympism, the whole of Stockholm was impregnated by it,” Coubertin said of the 1912 Olympics. That the Olympics have since affected every aspect of life in their host cities is a feature, not a bug, and it’s been there almost from the get-go.
Several subsequent Games were met with resistance and with citizens arguing against a misallocation of public resources. The first Games ever hosted in Los Angeles took place in the middle of the Great Depression; “Groceries, not Games” was the rallying cry of people opposing the 1932 Olympics. In London, which in 1948 was a city still rebuilding after the Nazi bombing campaigns of World War II, people accused organizers of misspending public funds. Right before the 1968 Olympics, Mexican authorities massacred protesters, who, among other things, felt that the money being spent on the Games should instead go to social welfare programs.
The very same groups that the pandemic has disproportionately killed and that the police disproportionately target are those who become the victims, rather than the beneficiaries, of the Olympics.
Looking at this history of resistance to the Olympics is simultaneously inspiring and dispiriting. Ordinary people have consistently stood up to the IOC and to their local elected officials and demanded that residents’ needs be met before cities pay for a massive sports spectacle. Yet despite their best efforts, they mostly haven’t succeeded — at least if we define success as kicking the Games to the curb. In over a century, only one city has managed to cast off the Games after they had been awarded to it: Denver.
“I voted for the Olympics to come to Colorado,” Richard Lamm, former Colorado Governor, told me. At the time he was still in the state’s General Assembly. He had been to the 1960 Games in California’s Squaw Valley and had quite enjoyed himself. He thought it would be a good idea to bring the Olympics to Colorado. A couple of years after that vote, Denver secured the 1976 Winter Olympics. When I asked Lamm what he and his fellow legislators knew about the plans for the Games before they voted, he said that ”the state legislature voted in ignorance.”
But Lamm, a certified public accountant by training, changed his tune when he became chair of the Legislative Audit Committee. He found that the local boosters, who were prominent, wealthy businessmen, grew more and more defensive as Lamm started to ask questions. “They condescendingly looked down on me and said, ‘Just move aside, you’re not being patriotic.’”
This behavior is not unusual for Olympic organizers. They don’t provide much information about what it actually means to host the Olympics, because they recognize that the more people learn, the less they like it. Remember that scene in Clueless where Cher, the protagonist, describes her nemesis as a “full-on Monet”? “From far away, it’s okay, but up close, it’s a big ol’ mess.” The Olympics is the Monet of global mega-sporting events.
Former Governor Stephen McNichols, in his attempt to keep the 1976 Olympics in Denver, appealed to manners and civility. “It’s like inviting somebody to dinner,” he said. “You just can’t tear up the invitation.” (I’m certain that even Emily Post would approve of uninviting someone if that person threatens to turn over the table and smash the china and leave you to clean it all up.)
Despite fierce opposition from moneyed interests, the activists in Colorado managed to get a measure on the ballot in 1972, a constitutional amendment that would prevent any additional public monies from being spent on the 1976 Olympics. The Games’ boosters far outspent the activists, but the latter still won 60 percent of the vote. After the measure to withdraw public funding was passed, the IOC pulled the Games from Denver and moved them to Innsbruck, which had previously hosted them in 1964. (In 2017, Innsbruckers voted against bidding on another Olympics. Two was enough for them.)
Activists in Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Paris are hoping to pull off a similar feat to the one that Lamm and Denver activists pulled off nearly half a century ago — but they also want to take it a step further. Not only do they want to rid their respective cities of the Games; they want to end the Olympic Games entirely. They believe that the Olympics bring misery to the already-vulnerable, so why would they advocate for ridding their cities of the Games only to see them pop up elsewhere? That would make them the Olympic Nimbys.
In over a century, only one city has managed to cast off the Games after they had been awarded to it: Denver.
To get rid of the Olympics, they’re going to have to fight both the forces of capital and the sense that these Games, once awarded, are a done deal. When I was in Los Angeles in late 2019, the people I spoke to who weren’t directly involved in activism — Lyft drivers, friends, people at cafes — seemed to believe that it was probably too late to stop them. A sense of inevitability had already set in.
For better and for worse, the pandemic has destroyed that feeling in numerous ways. Before COVID-19, students assumed that if they passed their classes, they’d be able to attend their graduation ceremonies. Engaged couples believed that if they paid for a wedding, their family and friends could come from all over. Olympic athletes may have acknowledged the possibility that they might not make it to the Games due to injury or a weak performance at trials, but never considered that the Games themselves might not happen at all.
“The coronavirus shows how fragile the world system can be… COVID-19 showed [that] everything can come crashing down in dramatic fashion,” Boykoff wrote in an email.
“COVID turned the global economy and our social order upside down,” Jonny Coleman, one of the organizers with the NOlympics-LA group, wrote. “Right now, when I talk to people, almost across the board there is a willingness to imagine a better city.” NOlympics-LA is a grassroots anti-Olympic activist organization that was started in 2017 by the Housing and Homelessness Committee of the local chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America with the goal of derailing the LA 2024 bid. (Paris ended up with 2024 and, in a weird Hail Mary move, the IOC awarded LA the 2028 Games at the same time, possibly concerned that no one would submit a bid to host the XXXIV Olympiad.) Coleman wrote that the group has seen their membership numbers go up and interest in their work increase since the start of the pandemic. “There’s both an increased interest in specifically anti-Olympic work, exploring alternatives to sports in general, and a lot of interest in the specific issues we organize around: gentrification, displacement, policing, capitalism, and so on… Who knows where [we] can take this?”
(Disclosure: I have been a member of the DSA and will be again once I remember to pay my dues, which will be any day now.)
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One of the activists who has recently come to NOlympics is Aliza Rood, granddaughter of Rodney Rood, an oil executive who was one of the men responsible for bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles in 1984.
“I attended the 1984 Olympics as an 8-year-old while, unbeknownst to me, Black and Brown communities in Los Angeles were actively being decimated in the service of the spectacle,” she wrote in an email. “I’m personally horrified by everything my grandfather helped to ‘achieve’ for LA, I feel a responsibility to assist in keeping the Olympics from returning in 2028 (or ever) to cause further harm.”
That the 1984 Summer Olympics harmed residents of the city might come as a surprise to many. In American collective memory, LA84 is the “good” Olympics. It didn’t sink the city into debt the way that the ‘76 Games did to Montreal. The facilities used to host the sporting events didn’t become ruins with rolling tumbleweeds as those built for the 2004 Games in Athens. And the city didn’t divert funds from public employees to Games-related projects as officials did in Rio right before the start of the 2016 Olympics.
But it was a disaster for some communities in Los Angeles. A Black Enterprise article from 1991 described the toll the 1984 Games took on Black-owned businesses in the city. “When it came to generating revenues for black owned businesses, I would give the Los Angeles Olympics an F,” Congresswoman Maxine Waters said at the time. Many Black business owners had been verbally assured by local organizers that they would have access to Olympic venues. They took on debt to make the improvements needed to compete in the Olympic marketplace. But they were shut out.
Olympic organizers were not sending any foot traffic to those businesses, either. Though half the athletes were being housed in the USC dorms located in South-Central, they were actively discouraged from exploring the surrounding neighborhoods and speaking to locals.
Black lives didn’t matter to the organizers of the 1984 Olympics. And Black activists in LA haven’t forgotten what the Olympics did to their community.
“Upon moving into the USC Olympic Village in 1984, we were told to be mindful of where [we] were going outside of the large walls and barriers that surrounded the Village,” Tracee Talavera, a member of the silver medal-winning U.S. 1984 Olympic gymnastics team, said in an email. “We were told not to go past the fences and if we did venture past the Village barriers, the USOC would not be responsible for our safety.”
Judging from how the city and the USOC treated them in the run-up to the Games and beyond, it’s clear that LA’s Black and Brown residents weren’t thought of as people who deserved to benefit from an event framed as a public good. Instead, they were treated like a security problem — as if the Olympics and its attendees had to protect themselves from them. Ahead of the 1984 Olympics, the LAPD went on a hiring spree, bringing additional cops onto the force to deal with the threat that the local population allegedly posed to the proceedings. These officers — and the rest of the force — were armed to the teeth.
In conjunction with the FBI and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, the LAPD started rounding up Black and Brown youth and homeless people. Many of these sweeps took place right around the city’s Olympic stadium, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
“We saw how people were pushed out on the street, how all of the homeless people were being pushed out of downtown and pushed in the periphery,” Leonardo Vilchis, an East LA organizer and co-founder and co-Director of Union de Vecinos, said. “There was this very aggressive policing around the homeless community; a lot of our people were put into jail.”
Black lives didn’t matter to the organizers of the 1984 Olympics. And Black activists in LA haven’t forgotten what the Olympics did to their community. They, more than any other group, recognize that events like the Olympics, which expand police budgets and powers, pose a major threat to their safety. Black Lives Matter-LA was one of the earliest coalition partners for NOlympics; their work against the 2028 Games predates the formation of the NOlympics working group.
The LAPD has made it clear that hosting the Olympics in 2028 — and before that, the Super Bowl in 2022 and the World Cup in 2026 — will require an expansion of their budget and of policing in the city in general. Jamie McBride, director of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, recently discussed Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed cuts to the LAPD’s budget, and said that “If he cuts the budget, we’re going to be so far behind I don’t think it’ll be safe to have the World Cup here. I don’t think it’ll be safe to have the Olympics here.” Hosting the Games is not remotely compatible with current popular demands to defund the police, and McBride wanted to be sure that we all realized that.
McBride is probably right. It will be impossible to secure the Games in the way we currently understand “security” — surveillance, mass arrests, targeting of minorities — if the budget of the LAPD is slashed. But McBride is actually making the activists’ arguments for them, explaining precisely why we need to call the whole thing off.
“Any time you talk about putting more resources into policing, you’re talking about taking those resources away from things that actually make the people that we care about safe,” Dr. Melina Abdullah, co-founder of BLM-LA, said at an anti-Olympic forum held in 2017.
“When we talk about putting police on the streets it means putting people with guns who are there trained to see us with targets on our backs and our fronts,” she said.
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Vilchis, the East LA organizer, agrees. “We saw the continuity from 1984 to 1992 with the riots.” This is a point that many other activists and academics have made over the years — that you could draw a line from the militarization of the police in 1984 to the 1992 uprising. The LAPD didn’t fire the officers it had hired for the ‘84 Games; they just found ways to use them, notably by deploying them to terrorize Black communities. They also didn’t give back the fancy weapons they had received from the federal government for ‘84. That tank-like vehicle that they got for the Games? They used it for drug raids. In one incident, they took down the wall of a suspected drug house only to find a mother and her children eating ice cream.
The militarization of local forces, mass arrests, and mass surveillance did not stop with the 1984 LA Games; they’ve all become even more prominent Olympics staples since 9/11.
“There are […] standardized, globalized security models associated with the Olympics, and that involves the heavy use of exclusionary zones around sports venues where public space gets privatized; the heavy use of private security corporations in public space; militarization of local police forces,” Dennis Pauschinger, a professor whose research has focused on the security at sports mega-events, told me last year. (He’s also affiliated with the anti-Olympic activists in Hamburg that defeated that city’s bid.) “Also what happens is always a huge mobilization of CCTV cameras and other surveillance technologies.”
And as we saw with LA, the security upgrades aren’t short-lived; they remain even after the athletes have gone home. “It’s called the security legacy of the Games,” Pauschinger told me.
The militarization of local forces, mass arrests, and mass surveillance did not stop with the 1984 LA Games; they’ve all become even more prominent Olympics staples since 9/11.
Organizers and politicians will argue that they have to do everything in their power to keep athletes and spectators safe, but Pauschinger argues that the security measures are almost always in excess of what is actually needed to secure the event. If something does happen, they will be asked why they didn’t pull out all the stops — so they preemptively terrorize whole communities for the sake of appearing to do something.
But it’s not just the athletes and spectators that officials are concerned about protecting. They are worried about protecting their product, too. “The security is put into place with the justification of the War on Terror… but also to protect the highest and best product they have, which is the World Cup and the Olympic Games,” Pauschinger said.
Sometimes, the security itself becomes the product. Pauschinger said that mega-events like the Olympics and the World Cup have become showrooms for security and surveillance technologies, such as the ALSOK Reborg X model, a surveillance robot that NOlympian Spike Friedman encountered when he went to Tokyo for last summer’s transnational activist summit. “The robot is designed to scan crowds and target individuals who are too ‘jittery’ or have skin that is too ‘red tinted’ as these are supposedly signs that someone is about to commit a terrorist act,” and not, say, that they’re having an allergic reaction to something they ate. The potential here for racial and ethnic profiling is terrifying. But if these robots are shown to “work” — and I’m not sure how we’d measure success here — then you’d probably see them popping up all over, perhaps even at future Olympic Games.
In fact, the security industry in Japan has the Olympics to thank for its very existence. According to Tokyo 2020’s own promotional materials, the country’s security sector came into being in preparation for the 1964 Olympics. The upcoming Games have been a boon to the very same industry; in the name of security, the ISDEF, a large Israeli security and weapons expo, was held outside of Israel for the first time. One of the reasons cited for hosting this event in Kawasaki was the 2020 Olympics. Itani, professor at Kansai University, said that some activists managed to sneak inside the event and saw that weapons were being advertised there in addition to high tech security and surveillance equipment on display. The Olympics, which claim to be a movement promoting peace and unity, are used to rationalize the buying and selling of arms.
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One legacy of the Games that no one puts in promotional materials is that of displacement.
According to a report from the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, more than two million people — most of them poor — have been displaced from their homes since 1988 in order to make room for Olympics-related projects. Most of the activists I spoke with put displacement at the top of their concerns. This issue is not separate from the racism and police brutality highlighted by BLM activists. The unhoused are particularly vulnerable to over-policing and violence, and more often than not, the people who are displaced by events such as the Olympic Games are poor and marginalized.
Concerns over displacement and housing were foremost on the agenda when I attended a NOlympics meeting last September. NOlympics is partnered with more than two dozen organizations in California, including Black Lives Matter, K-Town for All, Union de Vecinos, SAJE, LA Tenants Union, and several others. The work of several of its partner organizations is focused on housing insecurity and displacement in the city.
The meeting, which was convened to discuss the Tokyo summit that many of the activists had attended in July 2019, was held at the Skid Row offices of one of its other coalition partners, Los Angeles Community Action Network (LA-CAN). The setting, one of the most visible encampments for the unhoused in the U.S., provided an object lesson in what happens when resources are shifted from social programs meant to serve the poor to mega sporting events for the global elite. All of the messaging inside LA-CAN was a response to the homelessness crisis — LA’s unhoused population increased by 12 percent in 2019; things are looking even more grim for 2020. Of the few folding tables pushed up against the perimeter of the room, one was laden with leaflets, bumper stickers, totes, and zines, all with some sort of anti-Olympics or housing-justice message, such as “Homes, Not Hotels.” Rooster, a small mutt belonging to one of the activists, was wearing an orange bandana with a pin that read “Services not sweeps.” Even the dog was on message.
According to Boykoff, the form that Olympic displacement takes usually depends on where the Games are being held. In the global north, it’s usually the racist market forces of gentrification that do the dirty work. In the global south, however, the displacement is usually achieved through force. To prepare for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, the Chinese government pushed more than a million people out of their homes. More than 77,000 people living in favelas lost their homes to make way for the 2016 Olympics.
Atlanta went to great lengths to rid the city of as many poor residents as possible before the 1996 Olympics, issuing people one-way bus tickets to leave the city, and making them put it in writing that they wouldn’t come back. Anita Beaty, the former executive director for the Metro Atlanta Task Force for the Homeless, “came into possession of piles and piles of arrest citations pre-printed with the designations ‘homeless’ and ‘African-American,’” according to a 2016 radio story. Over 9,000 Atlantans were arrested during the lead-up to the Games.
The 1996 Olympics also led to the destruction of Techwood, the oldest public-housing project in the United States. The housing project stood on valuable Atlanta real estate in the center of the city, next to Georgia Tech and the Coca-Cola headquarters. By the time the athletes arrived in Atlanta, the housing projects were gone and so were their former residents. The transfer of public resources to the private sector was complete.
“It’s not a coincidence that they happened to be the residents of public housing because that’s the easiest target. It was sitting on this prime location by the national stadium,” Itani said of the homes destroyed for 2020. To make this even more horrific, these razed buildings were constructed for Japanese citizens displaced by the 1964 Games. And worse still, the buildings destroyed for the 1964 Games had been built for people left homeless by World War II and soldiers returning from the conflict. Boykoff and Nation columnist Dave Zirin interviewed two elderly women who had been displaced twice.
Displacement isn’t just about losing the roof over your head; it’s about losing the community you’ve built over the course of years.
The move to displace low-income residents in LA has already started. Right across from Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, which was used for the ‘32 and ‘84 Games, are a couple of blocks of two-story homes, broken down into apartments. These will be gone by the time the 2028 Olympics kick off, and so will the people who have lived in them for decades. What attendees will see instead is the Fig, a gleaming 4.4-acre mixed-use development that’ll contain a hotel, private student housing, and residential units, some of which will be set aside as so-called “affordable housing.”
LA city councilmember Curren Price, Jr., who put forth the motion for the Fig, said that the city “must balance the need for affordable housing with the needs for hotel rooms.” A preposterous thing to think, let alone say aloud, in a city where there is a pressing houselessness crisis, one that is getting worse by the day. And that was before COVID-19. Activists are bracing themselves for thousands of evictions once the moratorium is lifted.
Displacement isn’t just about losing the roof over your head; it’s about losing the community you’ve built over the course of years. Hundreds of people were displaced from London’s East End to make way for the 2012 Olympics when the Clays Lane housing estate was destroyed to make way for Games-related construction, and those forced to leave mourned not just the loss of their physical home but the community that the unique complex, replete with communal living spaces and a cafe, engendered. “We’ll never see the likes of this kind of community again,” Ed Doherty, one of the residents who was forced to leave, said.
Giselle Tanaka, an organizer in Brazil working in the social housing movement, told me that some of the displaced from London sent notes of encouragement to those facing eviction in Rio. “They said messages like, ‘We know what you’re suffering, and we hope you have more success than us,’ because those people were evicted in London.”
Itani told me that some of the senior citizens who were displaced for the 2020 Games had asked if they could be resettled together to keep their community intact. That request, they said, was denied.
When demolition of the Kasumigaoka public housing complex began in July 2016, it was after a protracted battle with the last three remaining households, who had resisted the city’s eviction orders. One of the elderly residents died while protesting their upcoming forced relocation.
You can also lose your claim to the city in smaller ways. Boykoff described watching a father playing catch with his child on a cement patch in Tokyo. He later learned that they could no longer play on grass at a neighboring park because a warm-up track was being constructed on top of the grass, right where people used to play baseball.
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Should the Olympics cease to exist? It’s a question I never thought I’d ask. I did gymnastics when I was younger and have been thoroughly obsessed with the sport ever since. I even built my writing career around gymnastics, so the Olympics — where the sport is a perennial favorite — factor heavily into my work (and my income).
“I had an emotional attachment to the Olympics growing up as an athlete,” Itani said. “It’s such a well-produced media spectacle. It’s amazing to see these athletes, the quality of the camera, the angles, the stories of the athletes in the Olympics that are covered by the media.”
I experienced the same emotional attachment that Itani described — and still do. I was aware of all of the harm that the Olympics brought to communities but I took a reformist approach: we could preserve the good and eliminate the bad through smart policies and transparency. But reform hasn’t worked. In 2014, the IOC introduced Agenda 2020 to make reforms to the bidding process and curb the excesses of hosting the Games. Yet the tab for Tokyo 2020 is more than triple what was originally projected.
Nobody’s right to participate in sports justifies the amount of destruction and the violence that goes into hosting the Olympics.
“It took me a while to really digest the critical writings about the Olympics,” Itani said. It was visiting Vancouver in 2010 and Rio in 2016 and seeing the damage firsthand that helped them let go of that emotional attachment. “Nobody’s right to participate in sports justifies the amount of destruction and the violence that goes into hosting the Olympics. People understand on many levels that this is not a good idea but something about the Olympics makes it so hard for people to say no.”
And even if you get to the “no,” the powers that be will force you to offer up alternatives. Well, if you say no to the Olympics, how will we get all those jobs and all those tourists? If you say no to this luxury housing development, what do you propose to build in its place? It’s a twist on the first rule of improv: “No, and.” But “no” can be a full sentence. It is enough.
“The saying ‘no’ is really your real goal, to stop these things. When you already start thinking that, ‘Oh, this a done deal, we have to negotiate,’ you’re not just negotiating your defeat. You’re preparing for your exit, for your displacement, for your criminalization,” Vilchis said.
People might finally be ready to say “no” to the Olympics, to the police, and to many other oppressive institutions as Vilchis, Itani, and many others have done. They’re not willing to wait for things to get worse.
Back in 2017, at the NOlympics forum, someone asked about the potential for an uprising after the next LA Olympics, similar to what happened in 1992. Abdullah replied, “Let’s not wait until after to have the uprising. Let’s do that shit now.”
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Dvora Meyers is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in several publications, including Deadspin, the Guardian, and Texas Monthly. She also writes a newsletter about gymnastics called Unorthodox Gymnastics.