PtG Comment 06.02.2019

Protest and the Games: What comes next?

There is no single global anti mega-event movement. There is, however, a globalized way of protesting against mega-events that adapts to local conditions, and anti-Olympic protesting is a ‘new normal’. This is how researchers John Lauermann and Dennis Pauschinger sum up the article series on public protests and mega-events.

Our series on ‘Protest and the Games’ published on has struggled to keep pace with its subject. The wave of contestation against mega-events continues, with new protests emerging every few months. For instance, in November 2018 the people of Calgary voted with 56.4 per cent against hosting the 2026 Winter Olympics. Consequently, the city of Calgary pulled its bid ambitions, ending yet another candidacy and bringing the IOC even more trouble.

Calgary is now one of 14 cities that have seen successful opposition to hosting the Games from 2013 through 2018. While this wave of protests seemed initially to be no more than a temporary event, the political pressure from potential hosting cities continues unabated. It has forced sport governance bodies like FIFA and the IOC to introduce reforms which change the ways in which sporting mega-events are planned, managed, and financed.

In our introduction to this series, we argued that the growing number of protests and the many bid cancellations force sport governance bodies to rethink their relationship with host governments and host communities. We argued that the protest campaigns are finding success for two reasons:

The first is that they are organized as temporary political campaigns, timed strategically to disrupt the very earliest stages of mega-event bidding. Most often they build before a bid has been finalized, disrupting a longstanding status quo in which host governments put bid first and negotiated with their constituents later.

The second reason is that these protests assemble diverse – even eclectic – political coalitions that come together with a common objective despite ideological disagreements on other issues. In the majority of recent protests, people active in the campaigns recruit from long-term movements with political causes relevant to local projects or to demands for more equal cities. The diversity of actors is both a source of success and a cause of conflict for mega-event protest campaigns.

Local problems lead to local protests

The campaigns we analyzed in our own research have focused on very local issues pertaining to everyday urban life and the ways in which mega-events threaten to disrupt it. The campaigns adapted their critique to local problems. At the same time, most campaigns were united by critique against the way in which sport governance bodies handle the organization of the Olympics or the World Cup.

Nevertheless, the globally diverse yet similar protests were not able to scale up into the kind of unified international movement which could create pressure for much deeper and necessary reforms in the IOC or FIFA. In other words, to date there is no single global anti mega-event movement. But there is a globalized way of protesting the World Cup and the Olympics that adapts to local conditions.

Our aim for this series was to bring together case studies around the globe to discuss Civil Society, Contestation and the Games, written by scholars that have themselves conducted research on mega-event activism. We have so far featured research on mega-events activism in Brazil, Germany, Russia, and the United States.

Daniel Wolfe discussed what it means to protest mega-events in today’s Russia, where activists struggle with difficult conditions as the government has suppressed the Olympic and World Cup resistance. This reflects a broader online and in-person crackdown on activists protesting a variety of political issues, not only mega-events. Yet, Wolfe’s encouraging insights show that despite these difficulties, people do resist and protest continues.

Anne Vogelpohl and Sybille Bauriedl’s piece on Hamburg’s referendum against a 2024 Olympic bid showed how specific conditions in a city can feed into a successful protest campaign. Traditionally, Hamburg has a history of protest against urban policies and a strong ‘right to the city’ social movement. They suggest that the Olympic enthusiasts were not really interested in authentic citizen participation, while the campaigners were and continue their activism even after the bid was cancelled. They also underline the importance of local scholars who can feed the protest narratives with numbers and studies.

Analyzing the Los Angeles NOlympic movement, Greg Andranovich and Matthew Burbank described how the US anti-Olympics group found itself confronted with a very unique situation. The city of Los Angeles stepped in when Boston withdraw its candidacy for the 2024 Olympics. As other bidding cities dropped from the 2024 race and the IOC was left with only two contenders, it made the surprise decision to award two Olympics at once: 2024 to Paris and 2028 to Los Angeles. Such a decision caught activists off guard, but they later saw this as an opportunity for a ten-year period of challenging the city government with opposition to the Olympic plans. The piece maps the history, activities and composition of NOlympics LA and shows how activists collaborate with local and global organizations to gain visibility.

Erick Omena wrote about the history of Brazilian mega-event protests, campaigns best remembered for the massive street protests that accompanied the prequels of the tournaments. Analyzing the reasons for the protests leading up to Brazil’s Confederations Cup, Omena classifies protests into three genealogical phases from the late 1980s to 2013. He argued that a deep historical analysis of the local context is necessary in order to understand what happened in Brazil. The political demands from – and reasons for – the 2013 protests remain urgent realities. Difficult urban living conditions, a lack of public participation in political processes, a growing disconnect between representatives and constituents, and the increasing use of social media are all relevant factors for Brazil’s current political moment.

Finally, Jules Boykoff summarized the many problematic issues involved with hosting mega-events. Greenwashing, over-spending, militarization and displacement are key themes observed in Olympic sites around the world. Boykoff proposes a series of frontiers that could help organize local activism globally. Olympic activists already practice global knowledge transfer, and this could be channeled into a transnational activist resource center. For Boykoff, another key element should be activist collaborations with Olympic athletes and celebrities to elevate the visibility of the cause. The challenges for mega-event activism lies in the many attempts from sport governance officials – or people close to them and on their pay rolls – to discredit the protests through public statements underplaying their relevance, importance and competence.

Anti-Olympic protests is a new normal

These articles provide a snapshot into local protests which share concerns over much discussed consequences like urban transformation, intensified social conflict, militarization of public security and massive public spending. We have argued that the protests are locally bound, building on very specific political conditions at very particular moments.

Nonetheless, we are convinced that anti-Olympic activism (and similar protests against other mega-events) is the new normal, no matter where the Games will be held. Five years of sustained and largely successful protest raises existential questions for the mega-event industry, an industry that is dependent on highly profitable contracts and – more importantly – on willing citizens who subsidize sport.

The protests against the games may very well be symptomatic of our current moment of global political disruption – seen in political eruptions ranging from the election of populists to the emergence of social movements that defy classification in conventional ideological categories (e.g. France’s gilets jaunes).

Each eruption has its own distinct causes, but they build on shared political undercurrents: resentment over the austerity which followed the 2008 recession, discontent with historically high rates of economic inequality, distrust towards globalized elites, to name only a few.

For example, it is important to note that Brazil’s 2013 protest did not start with the mega-events, but rather against increased bus fares and broader discontent with austerity policies. Public attention quickly turned towards the World Cup and the Olympics when the protesters realized that their costs for public services were increasing whilst the government was spending millions on stadiums. The mega-event protests were obviously specific to Brazil’s Olympic and World Cup plans, yet they also built on deeper undercurrents of political discontent, undercurrents which have by no means been resolved.

In this sense, we are convinced that future research on mega-event protests will be both necessary and relevant. More protests are likely, partly because political discontent originates from factors outside of mega-events. Protests are also likely because at least some skeptics will be unassuaged by recent reforms introduced by sport governing bodies like the IOC and FIFA. Both organizations have implemented policy changes surrounding event bidding and delivery -- for example the IOC's New Norm approach or FIFA's governance reforms and human rights policy. These are positive steps, but five years of sustained protest has dramatically disrupted the relationship between international sport and host communities. In particular, local officials now face intense political pressure to justify the costs of hosting and to balance mega-events with other public policy priorities.

International governance reforms help, but mega-event promoters simply face a smaller window of political opportunity than they once enjoyed. Thus while we pause this series on Protest and the Games for now, we leave it open for future pieces from time to time.

Protests and the Games

In a series of articles, Play the Game will zoom in on the protest campaigns that have characterised Olympic bidding during the past ten years. What types of gatherings are these groups, and have they been able to change the institutions and event formats that they are protesting against?These are some of the issues that will be looked into when international experts share their research into the phenomenon.See the other articles in the series