Olympic activism: Factors and frontiers
Although anti-Olympics activists face an uphill struggle against Olympic intransigence, Jules Boykoff points to areas that could help convert the many moments of anti-Games activism into a full-throttle movement. This is the sixth article in a series looking into protests and the Games.
As Olympic organizers in Los Angeles planned their opening ceremony for the 1984 Summer Games, they aimed to achieve something memorable. The organizing committee arranged for President Ronald Reagan to formally open the Games in front of a packed house of more than 93,000 people, delivering the following key sentence from his luxury suite: “Celebrating the Twenty-third Olympiad of the modern era, I declare open the Games of Los Angeles”. To add a dash of panache organizers secured the services of a bald eagle named “Bomber”, the most symbolic of US birds and an endangered species at the time. The plan was to train Bomber to soar majestically across the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum during the opening ceremony of the 1984 Summer Games.
At first, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was not keen to lend out Bomber, and workers at the Patuxent Wildlife Research Center in Laurel, Maryland denied the request. That’s when, according to Dr. James Carpenter, the chief of propagation at the Center, Games organizers turned up the heat, with an official from the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee asserting that requisitioning the eagle “had the support of the White House”. The Department of Interior buckled under the pressure and shipped Bomber across the country to LA where, five weeks later, the eagle died of blood poisoning. An autopsy revealed that Bomber had succumbed to an acute bacterial infection and vascular collapse. The New York Times reported that the eagle was also afflicted with “a smog-induced lung disease known as pneumoconiosis”. Los Angeles is notorious for its smog.
The US celebrity tabloid People Magazine stated that Bomber was perhaps “the most tragic loser of the 1984 Summer Games,” thanks to the bird’s untimely and premature death. Decades later, activists from NOlympics LA are working to make it clear that it wasn’t only Bomber the bald eagle that suffered because of the Olympics. Everyday people in Los Angeles—especially from marginalized communities—paid a huge price, too, as LA used the occasion of the Olympics to militarize its police force and execute what Police Chief Daryl Gates called “Olympic Gang Sweeps”. The entire incident involving Bomber and the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles points up key lessons. First, the pursuit of Olympic pomp and grandiosity comes with externalities small and large. Second, as this series of articles at Play the Game has amply demonstrated, activists have leveraged the faults and fallacies of the Olympics to raise serious questions about the true social and economic costs of hosting the mega-event.
Entrenched Issues: Greenwashing, Spending, Militarization, & Displacement
Strangely, Bomber is not the only avian casualty of the Olympic Games. Four years later, when Seoul hosted the 1988 Summer Olympics in South Korea, organizers released a flock of doves during the opening ceremony only to have dozens of them fly over the Olympic cauldron and get sizzled alive on international TV. Despite the fact that in the 1990s the International Olympic Committee made environmental sustainability one of its key pillars, activists have repeatedly pointed out that a chasm has emerged separating green words uttered from behind the IOC podium and meaningful sustainable policies on the ground. Greenwashing has become one of the central critiques that activists hurl at the Olympics.
In Vancouver, with First Nations protesters leading the charge, anti-Games groups criticized organizers for building the Sea-to-Sky Highway connecting Vancouver to ski venues in Whistler, as the project jeopardized ecologically sensitive wetlands at Eagleridge Bluffs, home to rare species like the red-legged frog. Activists in London blasted Olympic organizers for developing a new category of sponsorship—“sustainability partners”—that included ecological bête noirs like BP and EDF Energy. In Rio, the Games were supposed to inspire the clean-up of the notoriously polluted Guanabara Bay – yet nothing of the sort happened, a point raised frequently by the activist group the Comitê Popular da Copa do Mundo e das Olimpíadas. Each day around 169 million gallons of untreated sewage gurgles into Guanabara Bay. To make way for a ski run at the Pyeongchang Olympics, organizers chopped down a 500-year-old forest, a point raised early and often by Julian Cheyne and Rebecca Kim at the London-based group Games Monitor.
Astronomical spending is another central grievance leveled by anti-Olympics groups in multiple host cities. The Olympics have become notorious for “Etch A Sketch Economics”, whereby during the bid process, Olympic boosters lowball costs only to have them escalate by the time the Games are staged. The 2014 Sochi Winter Games in Russia provides the most egregious example. Originally priced at $12 billion, costs catapulted to $51 billion, more than all previous Winter Olympic combined. The London 2012 Games were supposed to total $3.8 billion but ended up costing at least $18 billion. No wonder activist groups in Los Angeles and Calgary are skeptical of the publicly stated price tags in their respective cities. And it’s important to remember that costs do not conclude with the Games. Host cities are often left with white elephant stadiums that are expensive to maintain. Pyeongchang is currently considering razing four venues it built for the 2018 Winter Games rather than paying high maintenance costs. This after building a stadium for more than $100 million, using it four times, and then dismantling it.
As we saw above with the 1984 Games, the militarization of the public sphere is another serious concern. At the London 2012 Games, surface-to-air missiles were ratcheted atop buildings in the city, including an apartment complex. When the private security firm G4S failed to train the necessary security guards, the Ministry of Defence stepped in with troops who had just returned from Afghanistan, lending the Games a militaristic sheen. In Rio, an 85,000-strong security force policed the city during the 2016 Games. Activists acknowledge that terrorism is a possibility at such a massive global spectacle, but the same weapons used to intimidate acts of terror can be turns on law-abiding protesters expressing their dissent.
Finally, anti-Games activists have pointed to the displacement of everyday people to make way for Olympic venues and infrastructure. Sometimes this means forced eviction, as it did in Beijing when 1.5 million were displaced to create space for the 2008 Summer Games. At other times, especially in the global north, gentrification is more common, with longtime residents priced out as Olympic construction escalates rents, as happened ahead of the London 2012 Summer Olympics. This is one of the central concerns of NOlympics LA activists fighting the 2028 Summer Games.
One frontier of anti-Olympics organizing is the construction of a transnational activist resource center that would help convert the many and variegated moments of anti-Games activism into a full-throttle movement. Activism challenging the negative externalities of the Olympics more resemble what scholar Sidney Tarrow calls an “event coalition” than a social movement that skates consistently and fluidly across space and time. There have been admirable efforts to make transnational linkages that should not be understated: activists from Rio de Janeiro like Cerianne Robertson, Theresa Williamson, and Meg Healy have traveled far and wide, transferring knowledge as they connect Olympics-based activist groups. So have activists from the No Boston Olympics campaign that successfully scuppered the city’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics. The Counter Olympics Network, based in London, has coalesced activists from around the globe.
A second frontier involves strategically reaching out to Olympic athletes and other celebrities to help support the cause. Some Olympic athletes have voiced concerns that cohere with those of activists. For example, Laurence Halsted, a two-time Olympian in fencing from Team GB (2012, 2016), has spoken out on the environmental downsides of the Olympics and has encouraged athletes to stand up for what they believe in, even if that means critiquing the Olympic Games. Activist groups could engage in tactical outreach to specific athletes and celebrities in an effort to team up to challenge the unsavory elements of the Olympics. The wider renaissance of athlete activism we are currently witnessing presents opportunities. Beyond the sphere of sport, celebrities comprise a particular formation of cultural power with tremendous reach. In Los Angeles, where celebrities dot the social terrain, this line of action seems particularly possible.
None of this will be easy. One hurdle to meaningfully reforming the Olympics is the International Olympic Committee itself. When in 2013 Thomas Bach was elected as ninth president of the IOC, many had high hopes, given his public comments on the need to restructure the Olympics. But once he settled into the IOC offices in Lausanne, it quickly became apparent that Bach was keen to do the bare minimum to reform the Games to address the above concerns while conjuring a tsunami of public-relations materials that overstate IOC reformism. The “Agenda 2020” recommendations, passed unanimously in December 2014, are a prime example of this dynamic.
The IOC’s brand of camouflaged intransigence was on display when the group convened in Buenos Aires for the Youth Olympic Games in October 2018. The IOC invited a handful of critics to participate in its “Olympism in Action Forum”, including Chris Dempsey, who helped spearhead the successful anti-Games campaign in Boston. Dempsey was flanked on stage by four pro-Games panelists—Mariana Behr of Rio 2016, Paul Deighton of 2012, John Furlong of Vancouver 2010, and Yang Shu’an of Beijing 2022—and a moderator, British broadcaster Sonali Shah of the BBC, who consistently steered the discussion onto comfortable turf for Games boosters while quizzically contending that places like Tokyo had seen cost reductions for the 2020 Summer Games. (In reality, the cost of Tokyo 2020 has skyrocketed from $7.3 billion at the time of the bid to $25 billion and counting today). Dempsey tried to raise the issue that neither the “Olympic Agenda 2020” nor the much-trumpeted “New Norm” did anything to change the incentive structure of Olympic economics and that the host-city contract still dictated that cost overruns be covered by the hosts. That viewpoint gained little traction on the IOC’s dais.
As if to underline the challenge, amid the Buenos Aires meetings, IOC Director of Communications Mark Adams openly channeled his inner Brett Kavanagh. When a journalist had the temerity to suggest on Twitter that the IOC Athletes’ Commission Chair was regurgitating the party line on Russian doping, Adams lashed out, belittling critics as “a small group of grumpy obscure journalists” bent on critiquing the IOC. He eventually walked back his attack, but not before inadvertently enacting the very entitlement that stokes the ire of anti-Olympics groups. The episode accentuated the uphill struggle that anti-Olympics activists face, but so long as the Olympics proliferate the problems delineated above, we should expect continued, vociferous dissent.