Olympic Games host cities experience increased gentrification, police surveillance, and environmental destruction. Anti-Olympics activists hosted their second transnational summit in Paris last weekend to put an end to the games’ destruction.
“The Olympics are toxic. Our goals are to stop the Olympics and to abolish the International Olympic Committee,” said C.P. Robertson of the anti-Olympics group NOlympics LA. She was followed by Satoko Itani, a scholar-activist from Japan, who emphasized that “fighting the Olympics is hard work.”
They were speaking in Paris at the final session of the second-ever international anti-Olympics summit, which convened anti-games groups from past Olympic cities, future hosts, and locations bidding on the games.
The activists who traveled from around the world to attend the event at the University of Paris included people who hit the streets to protest the Olympics in London, Rio de Janeiro, Tokyo, Los Angeles, Barcelona-Pyrenees, Hamburg, and Paris itself. The meeting represented the left edge of anti-Olympics resistance. Sessions focused on Olympic greenwashing, policing, and surveillance, plus on-the-ground reports from activists living or working in Olympic host cities. The summit was hosted by Saccage, an activist collective based in Seine-Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris, that works to defend public spaces being encroached upon by the 2024 Paris Summer Olympics.
Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) glissades across the globe, activists are trying to replicate that transnational approach. Instead of temporarily assembling extant groups in the Olympic city that are already fighting police militarization, gentrification, and greenwashing only to have them melt back into their activist tracks after the games transpire, summit organizers are trying to create an anti-Olympics movement that can skate from site to site. In other words, these activists are attempting to forge a stable movement of movements rather than a moment of movements working together in the short term. The first global anti-Olympics summit took place in Tokyo in 2019.
From the multilingual swirl of French, English, Spanish, and Japanese, three key themes emerged. First, the Olympics can serve as an expedient entry point for radicalizing political conversations with working people. The week before attending the summit, Maria Escobet and Bernat Lavaquiol helped organize a mobilization of more than five thousand people against the Barcelona-Pyrenees bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. Lavaquiol told Jacobin that their group was “using the struggle against the Olympics to catalyze public discussions around bigger ideas like anti-capitalism.” Escobet added that the Olympic bid afforded them the opportunity to connect geographically isolated valleys in the Pyrenees around issues that matter to their everyday lives.
A second theme was that the IOC, the Switzerland-based group that oversees the games and chooses their hosts, was a useful foil. In ramming ahead with the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, even when 83 percent of the population in Japan opposed it, and then overseeing the 2022 games in Beijing amid China’s extreme human-rights violations against Uighurs in Xinjiang Province, Tibetans, and Hong Kong democracy activists, the IOC has been almost cartoonish in its villainy. Frédéric Viale, a member of the anti-Olympics group NON aux JO 2024 à Paris (NO to the Olympic Games in Paris) called the International Olympic Committee “a black hole of greed, corruption, and unaccountability.” The IOC impeccably exemplifies elite capture, which scholar Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò describes as a relationship whereby “the advantaged few steer resources and institutions that could serve the many toward their own narrower interests and aims.” It’s how “socially advantaged people tend to gain control over benefits meant for everyone.” When everyday people learn about how the IOC operates, it tends to stain their view of the games.
A third theme is that the Olympics provide a state of exception that allows for the acceleration of surveillance technologies, and with limited public scrutiny. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics smoothed a path for the normalization of facial-recognition technology. Casey Wasserman, the chair of the Los Angeles 2028 Summer Games, said that by the time the Olympics commence, the ticket box office will be obsolete: “Everything will be facial recognition, you’ll walk right into the building, and there won’t be lines.” Ulf Treger of NOlympia Hamburg — the anti-Olympics group in Germany that won a public referendum that torpedoed the city’s bid — warned that IOC worldwide partner Alibaba, the Chinese firm that supplies cloud technology for the Olympics, could lead to disquieting privacy issues. Even an adviser in the French Digital Affairs Ministry has conceded, “There is an Alibaba problem.”
Although anti-Olympics activism is ascendent in the twenty-first century, the IOC has not sat idly by. Recently, Olympic honchos have made cagey countermoves to deflect dissent, such as assigning host cities eleven years in advance — as happened with both Los Angeles 2028 and Brisbane 2032 — before anti-games activism could gain public traction and before public referenda could be arranged. These moves undercut democratic practice, a key feature of Táíwò’s “elite capture.” Paris 2024 Olympic organizers’ claims that their games are “for the people” have been obligingly sprayed through the mainstream media ether. The double debacle in Tokyo and Beijing allows Olympic boosters in Paris to promise that their Olympics will be different.
For anti-Olympics activists, significant challenges remain. Unions would seem like a natural ally but have been difficult to sway over to the anti-Olympics cause. Many construction and hotel unions view the games with skepticism but hope to capture some of the money sloshing through the Olympic system. It’s an extreme David-versus-Goliath situation: the IOC holds $5.6 billion in total assets according to its most recent annual report and hauled in a whopping $7.6 billion in revenues between 2017 and 2021. Anti-games organizers in Paris piecemealed the budget for the international summit with bubble gum, goodwill, and a pass-the-hat mentality.
Despite their opponents’ advantages, anti-games activists in Paris vow to press ahead. “Of course, the IOC has more money than us,” acknowledged Paris-based activist Natsuko Sasaki, a primary driver behind the anti-Olympics summit, “but we are on the right side of history.” Fleuves, an organizer with Saccage, told me, “We are not going to stop the Olympic Games in Paris, but we will continue to fight so that the Olympics don’t hurt other people in other cities.”