The anti-Olympic resistance movement

Jens Ljunggren
Dept. of History, Stockholm University

Jules Boykoff
NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond
196 pages, paperback.
Black Point, Nova Scotia: Fernwood Publishing 2020
ISBN 978-1-77363-276-6

In 1972, something unique happened in the history of the Olympic Games. After local protests and a referendum, the city of Denver resigned from hosting the Winter Olympics in 1976. Anything similar has not happened since. What has become commonplace, however, is that cities suspend ongoing applications. From 2013 to 2018, eleven cities withdrew their candidacies, often after protests or because of the fact that the popular support had failed. During the 2000s, the number of candidate cities has also generally declined. In 2019, once again Denver was at the forefront. At this point it was decided on a new regulation that public funds could not be used for Olympic applications without first having been approved in a referendum.

There are two important factors behind this development. Firstly, the fact that the Olympic Games from the end of the 1960s until today have grown in scope and become increasingly magnificent and, thus, costly. Secondly, the fact that great promises of economic and urban development or improved coexistence and community values that so often are made in connection with Olympic Games are rarely fulfilled. The local population’s experiences of the events have in several cases instead consisted of overdrawn municipal budgets, extensive construction work in the urban environment and traffic jams. An increasing problem is also the many oversized facilities that must be built and afterwards cannot be fully utilized, the so-called white elephants. To this we should add major encroachment on the urban landscape and environmental damages.

The protests in Denver in 1972 did not have any immediate followers. Since the mid-1980s, however, the number of protests against the Olympic Games has increased. First out were those that took place in Amsterdam in connection with the city applying to host the 1992 Olympics. Soon, both Toronto and Berlin had to deal with similar protests, and in the early 2000s, counter-campaigns were conducted in almost every candidate city. Since then, anti-Olympic protests have continued to emerge in candidate cities and now protesters are about to establish themselves as a transnational movement.Ahead of the Tokyo Olympics in July 2019, an anti-Olympic summit was held with participants from several countries.

Two new books depicture this growing protest movement against the Olympics. In his overview NOlympics: Inside the fight against capitalist mega-sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and beyond, the political scientist and former football player Jules Boykoff examines the anti-Olympic protest group NOlympics LA (NOLA). The research anthology NOlympics: Tokyo 2020/1 in der Kritik is a direct result of the meeting in Tokyo 2019. Both of these books have been written by people who are themselves very close to the anti-Olympic movement.

Boykoff shows that NOLA’s origin and development must be understood both on the basis of how the Olympic Games have developed and with regard to local conditions in Los Angeles. NOLA was established in 2017 to mobilize against the City of Los Angeles’ Olympic application for the 2024 Games. In particular, NOLA attacked such things as waste of public resources, unnecessary construction of sport facilities, relocations of poor people, gentrification and militarization of the urban environment. As a countermeasure, in September 2017, the IOC unexpectedly agreed to appoint two organizing cities at the same time, Paris for 2024 and Los Angeles for 2028. Several cities had already withdrawn their candidacies and the IOC wanted to avoid further dropouts. The result, however, was not that the protests in Los Angeles fell silent. Instead, NOLA extended, deepened and strengthened its operations in the city while expanding its international presence.

Before the event, people and the media are receptive to criticism and debate, but as soon as the games start, the eyes and interest are instead directed towards the competitions, the results and the combats.

Before the event, people and the media are receptive to criticism and debate, but as soon as the games start, the eyes and interest are instead directed towards the competitions, the results and the combats.

NOLA was one of several protest groups that mobilized in Los Angeles after Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Another association that gained a foothold at that time was the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Boykoff emphasizes that NOLA grew out of DSA and that these two organizations have had close collaborations. NOLA’s two leading figures, Johnny Coleman and Anne Orchier, both have a background in DSA. Shocked after the 2016 election, Coleman joined the DSA. Orchier has been involved in various anti-war movements since 2011, active in L.A. Tenants Union and part of the DSA Steering Committee in Los Angeles.

Previously during the 20th century, there has been other counter-movements and protests against the Olympic Games. However, the new protest initiatives differed from their predecessors. They are not primarily based on a care for the sport as such and do not focus on forming a more open, inclusive or humane sport. Instead, NOLA opposes allowing authoritarian institutions such as the IOC and FIFA to seize power in the cities. Its aims are to reclaim the city and protect what it perceives to be the good urban environment. Skid Row is a large area for the homeless in Los Angeles, and here NOLA has been present to support the homeless and campaign against police brutality, forced relocations and gentrification. It has been relatively easy for NOLA to get the city’s residents involved in and to discuss housing issues and the Olympic Games. There is certainly a measure of strategy in this. NOLA takes advantage of the strong symbolic and emotional content of Olympic Games by turning it in the opposite direction. By conducting Olympic resistance and confronting housing issues NOLA attempts to mobilize people for the overall goal of combating capitalism. As Boykoff puts it: ‘The Olympics can inadvertently strengthen activists’ communities in their battle for social justice’.

Boykoff discusses the difficulties that face Olympic resistance groups. Before the event, people and the media are receptive to criticism and debate, but as soon as the games start, the eyes and interest are instead directed towards the competitions, the results and the combats. Afterwards, interest declines; media coverage shuts down and protest initiatives withdraw. Rarely, sports, or other, journalists critically follow up how the games affected the city. Unlike the sporting content of the games, the cities’ candidacies and organizational efforts are not universal experiences since they only affect a few cities at a time and most of the world’s cities have never even been involved in these kinds of processes.

In order not to fade away as yet another ‘event phenomena’, NOLA has invested in becoming a permanent movement and to be able to operate in the long term. This has been done both by collaborating with the DSA and other activist groups in Los Angeles and by pushing for the anti-Olympic protesters to take measures to expand into a unified and powerful initiative on a global level.

Steffi Richter, Andreas Singler & Dorothea Mladenova (Hrsg.)
NOlympics: Tokyo 2020/1 in der Kritik
262 sidor, paperback.
Leipzig: Leipziger Universitätsverlag 2020 (Leipziger Ostasien-Studien)
ISBN 978-3-96023-347-3

To scale up globally, in Tokyo in July 2019, representatives from Japan, Brazil, France, the United States, South Korea and other countries gathered for a week to protest, exchange experiences, make contacts and draft a joint declaration. As a result of this meeting, the research anthology NOlympics Tokyo 2021 was published 2020. Here, twelve researchers and activists contribute, each with their own chapter. The volume emphasizes that in July 2019, the anti-Olympic movement took a decisive step towards becoming a global movement. The anthology also reports that the participants jointly succeeded in creating a prefigurative autonomous space that is open, flexible and non-hierarchical. In addition to building relationships across national borders, this autonomous space is defined as a political stance in itself.

In order to be stable and cohesive, protest movements need common theories and analytical concepts which help them to understand the world around them and their own purpose. In NOlympics Tokyo 2021, the necessary ideas are developed with the help of prominent sociologists such as Donatella Della Porta, Sidney Tarrow and Manuell Castell. In particular, the notion ‘celebration capitalism’ emerges. Celebration capitalism is, according to Boykoff, a different form of capitalism than neoliberal capitalism. It also differs from what Naomi Klein has called ‘disaster capitalism’. Celebration capitalism is supported by the public sector and it aims at privatizing property in festive forms while simultaneously commercializing and militarizing its surroundings. The analysis goes that the Olympics and other mega-events embody celebration capitalism.

Conducting academic research seems to be a strategy of the anti-Olympic movement. After reading these books, however, I had to think about what it means for activists to research their own movement and write its history. There are several historical examples of political commitment and activism breaking ground for both innovative and important research, and the Olympic critical research is just one example. Nevertheless, certain risks and shortcomings with activist research come to the surface. For example, Boykoff clearly crosses the line between research and political rhetoric as he repeatedly praises Bernie Sanders.

I also wonder if the protests do not risk becoming an unreflective mirror image of the object to which they are directed.On NOLA’s website, you get to know that the games are ‘parasitic’, that they ‘kill the poor’ and that they ‘are a gigantic disaster’. As unequivocally as the games’ proponents attribute to them an excessively positive societal significance, NOLA and other activists paints the picture pitch black. ‘I personally speak of “Olympic fascism”. As a movement we should henceforth bring the term “Olympic Disaster” into circulation. Basically, the accident at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant in 2011 and the hosting of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are directly related.’ These are the opening lines in Ukai Satoshi’s, professor of French and Postcolonial Studies at Hitubashi University in Tokyo,contribution to NOlympics Tokyo 2021. What we get here is highly confrontational language and research that is totally supportive of the anti-Olympic movement.

Anti-Olympic activists talk euphorically about what they experienced during the summit in Tokyo 2019. However, photos seem to show a rather sparse attendance at demonstrations. This may be due to Corona or certain picture angles, but I cannot help wondering.

On the one hand Boykoff celebrates transnational activism, on the other hand his book is rather US-centric. Whether a more in dept analysis of the interconnectedness between NOLA and its European and Latin American predecessors would prove these connections to be strong or weak, it would be worthwhile considering the topic. Especially in a context where the longing for transnationalism comes to the fore so ardently.

The reason for why protest groups have been able to influence cities’ applications probably does not only have to do with these groups’ memberships. Still, it is puzzling that these two books contain so little information on quantitative circumstances. Certainly, Boykoff mentions that the DSA has 600,000 members in the United States, which is a vanishingly low figure. But no in-depth analyzes are made of members development or the extent of followers. Anti-Olympic activists talk euphorically about what they experienced during the summit in Tokyo 2019. However, photos seem to show a rather sparse attendance at demonstrations. This may be due to Corona or certain picture angles, but I cannot help wondering. When Boykoff argues that ‘NOlympics need to improve its ability to mobilize support’, he implicitly suggests that the activists themselves are dissatisfied with their present outreach. Which somehow contradicts the simultaneously ongoing success story.

It may be close at hand for researchers who are themselves activists to overemphasize the importance, strength and uniformity of their own movement. However, the sport historical impact of the anti-Olympic protest groups should not be doubted. Not least, these initiatives have pointed out and put on the political agenda conditions that the IOC needs to attend to. It will indeed be exciting to see what will become of them in the future, in particular since we now also see tendencies that especially young people around the world have become less interested in following the Olympic games.

Copyright © Jens Ljunggren 2021


Table of Content, NOlympics. Tokyo 2020/1 in der Kritik

Steffi Richter
Olympia – Nicht so! Oder gar nicht? Einführende Gedanken

Ichimura Misako
Meltdown. Tokyo

Koide Hiroaki
Die Katastrophe von Fukushima und die Olympischen Spiele in Tokyo 2020

Ukai Satoshi
Dem olympischen Faschismus die Stirn bieten!

Jules Boykoff
Feier-Kapitalismus, die Olympischen Sommerspiele und Tokyo 2020

William Andrews
Anti-2020 als transnationale Bewegung: Die Schaffung autonomer Räume durch internationalen Protest und Solidarität

Andreas Singler
Stimmen aus der Elektrizitätskolonie. Atomkraft, Fukushima und die

Philippe Stützer
”Wir müssen behutsam mit diesem Wort umgehen“ – ”Wiederaufbau“ und Olympische Spiele aus der Sicht von Betroffenen

Itani Satoko
Frauen und Olympia. Sport, Gender und Sexualität aus der Perspektive von Nationalismus und Kolonialismus

Christian Tagsold
Die ”Legacy“ der Olympischen Spiele von 1964 und 2020 – Ein Selbstläufer für Tokyo?

Markus Heinrich
Olympische Spiele in Hiroshima?

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