Five Ring Activism

NOlympics LA and global resistance to the Olympic Games

by Lucas Smolcic Larson

Illustration by Ella Rosenblatt

published February 16, 2018

In 1932, while millions of unemployed Americans waited in breadlines, Los Angeles hosted the Olympics for the first time. Leading up to the event, protestors marched on the California state capital of Sacramento with signs reading “Groceries Not Games!”, demonstrating against the California Tenth Olympiad Bond Act. Passed by referendum in 1927, this bill provided $1 million of public funds (almost $18 million in today’s dollars) for the Games. The pet project of LA real estate baron William May Garland, the 1932 Olympics introduced elements now characteristic of the modern Games—the Olympic village, around-the-clock press coverage, and corporate sponsorship deals. That year, Time magazine heralded LA’s Olympics as “a gorgeous, unprecedented success.” The city was even able to pay back the bond and turn a modest profit, a feat not replicated again with the Summer Games until 1984. But the opportunity cost of the money spent on the Olympics was clear. The Sacramento protestors and backdrop of the Depression revealed the striking hypocrisy of channeling public money into Olympic mega-celebrations while city residents starved.

Forty iterations of the Games later, this Olympic injustice has only worsened. Today, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Games’ governing body, requires that taxpayers foot the bill for the Olympic spectacle, while setting up its corporate sponsors to bring home billions. Meanwhile, it mandates a clean image and specific infrastructural investments from host cities, creating the conditions for gentrification, displacement of vulnerable communities, and repressive policing. Despite these effects, the IOC portrays its activities as purely about the benefits of sport and global togetherness. Activists in cities around the world aren’t buying it. In the face of Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter—specifically prohibiting any “kind of demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda” at Olympic sites—activists are using the Games as a platform to spotlight social justice issues.

Activist pressure caused officials in Budapest, Rome, Hamburg, Krakow, Oslo, and Boston all to drop their bids for the 2024 Summer Games, awarded to Paris by the IOC last year. These groups turned public opinion against the Games by citing the enormous costs and detrimental legacies of past Olympics. The IOC reacted by voting to lock-in the remaining contenders—Paris and LA—by awarding the 2024 and 2028 Games simultaneously, forgoing another embarrassing bid process previously slated for 2019. 

On August 11, 2017, LA’s city council voted unanimously to accept the 2028 Summer Games, bringing the Olympics back to their city for a third time (LA also hosted in 1984). A pair of millionaires, LA Mayor Eric Garcetti and entertainment and sports executive Casey Wasserman, had driven LA’s bid. Opposite them, an offshoot of the local Democratic Socialists of America called NOlympics LA organized in protest of the bid months before its approval. The group now represents a coalition of almost 30 community organizations united in their opposition to the slated 2028 Summer Games. The group is gearing up for ten years of mobilization against the IOC as it operates today, learning and building from the anti-Olympics struggles in Chicago, London, Rio de Janeiro, and Boston. They aim to use the Olympic platform to address the needs of LA’s residents, while spotlighting where the 2028 Games would harm the city. 


Jonny Coleman, a NOlympics LA organizer, clarified that his group’s aims don’t involve doing away with international sporting events. “Our ultimate goal is to abolish the International Olympic Committee, dissolve it entirely and find a new way,” he told the Independent. The IOC is the root of the problems behind the Olympics, Coleman says. Incorporated in the tax-haven of Switzerland as a non-profit, the IOC is a private organization, unaccountable to any government. The body’s 100 members are disproportionately made up of royalty, CEOs, and millionaires. Its members are not paid, but bidding cities shower them with first-class plane tickets and dinners at five-star restaurants. IOC officials also have a history of accepting bribes from bid committees, illustrated in corruption allegations surrounding the London, Sochi, and Rio Games. 

The IOC touts the impact of the “Olympic Legacy” on host cities—in their definition the long-lasting benefits of the infrastructural investment, international attention, and economic opportunities the Games bring. The Olympics are immensely profitable, but not for cities and local populations. The main benefactors are the IOC itself and its corporate partners. Members of the Olympic Partner Program, currently 13 corporations including Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble, pay hundreds of millions to the IOC for the right to use the Olympic brand. NBC Universal paid $4.38 billion to the IOC for the right to broadcast the four Olympics between 2014 and 2020 on US TV, contributing to about 40 percent of the IOC's revenue for any one of these events. Olympic TV rights amounted to $4.1 billion in 2016, but the IOC only shared about 30 percent of this with the host city. It brought in $5.6 billion in the Olympic cycle ending that year, using ten percent for its operations and distributing the rest to National Olympic Committees and sports federations—not returning it to cities.

Vancouver-based activist Am Johal summed the situation up neatly: “The Olympics are a corporate franchise that you buy with public money”—a public subsidy of private property. The host city contract dictates the sporting facilities, accommodation, and infrastructure that must be available for Olympic-goers. Cities cover the costs, often through public-private-partnerships. The IOC contract includes a taxpayer guarantee—that locks host cities into picking up the tab if the Games go over budget. They almost always do, with final costs reaching an average of 156 percent of the initial estimate, according to a 2016 Oxford University study. 

One notable exception to this pattern: the second time LA hosted the Olympics, in 1984. During that bid process, LA competed only with Tehran, which dropped out at the beginning of the Iranian Revolution. The IOC was forced to accept a deal in which LA taxpayers were not responsible for Olympic costs, which were instead covered by private investments. This was a one-time exception to the taxpayer guarantee. By signing the host city contract last year, LA has committed to covering any overruns of the $5.3 billion budget for the 2028 Games. 


The NOlympics LA platform rests on the idea that 2028 Olympics represent a negligent use of public resources, given the city’s severe affordable housing shortage and rising rates of homelessness. Under Mayor Garcetti, the number of people living on the street surged 75 percent to reach almost 60,000, reported the LA Times this month. LA is one of the least affordable cities in the nation. Rents have risen with the city’s popularity while wages have remained stagnant or fallen. “We believe that resolving these crises as quickly and humanely as possible should be our city’s priority,” explains NOlympics LA in their analysis of LA’s Olympic bid. “For our city’s leaders and elected officials to waste this much money and energy on any other goal is unconscionable.”

Besides diverting resources from marginalized communities in the host city, the Olympics have a track record of displacing low-income communities of color. The 2008 Beijing Games forcibly evicted or otherwise displaced 2 million people, including many low-paid migrant workers, according to a report from the Switzerland-based Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions. A similar dynamic in the build up to the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games led a local coalition of social justice organizations against mega-event oriented development to nickname them “jogos da exclusão”—exclusion games. This moniker arose due to Olympic transportation and stadium projects that displaced entire favela communities while primarily benefiting the rich.

Further, the Olympics empower local police forces to crack down on vulnerable communities. In LA, the 1984 Olympics contributed to the militarization of the city’s police force. Then, Police Chief Daryl Gates imprisoned thousands of people of color suspected of being gang members without due process in the “Olympic Gang Sweeps.” After the Games, the LAPD’s C.R.A.S.H. initiative resulted in a 33 percent increase in complaints of police brutality, a direct consequence of Olympic crackdowns and militarization. After the Brazilian military patrolled Rio’s streets during the 2016 Games, city officials increasingly called upon troops in 2017 to occupy favelas sheltering drug-traffickers, shutting down local schools and forcing residents to contend with tanks patrolling their streets. 

This precedent of diversion of resources, displacement, and militarization has led a range of activists mobilizing on behalf of marginalized communities to the NOlympics LA cause. Coleman said that his group’s outreach efforts have resulted in collaboration between social justice groups that traditionally remain separate, such as housing and homelessness advocates. “I think it's a really interesting kind of gateway,” he said, referring to how mobilizing against multifaceted Olympic effects involves a more holistic approach to fighting social inequities. Defenders of LA's bid claim existing sports stadiums will lessen the monetary and social costs of building new facilities. But NOlympics LA contends that renovations will still be necessary, worsening a decline in unionized construction projects and bringing a more precarious workforce to the city. This issue brings together labor rights activists, anti-displacement advocates, and those concerned about the diversion of public funds—creating opportunities for future collaboration. 


The Olympics offer a platform and spotlight for local activists focused on the needs of specific communities. Theresa Williamson, Executive Director of the Rio de Janeiro-based NGO Catalytic Communities (CatComm), aimed to leverage this by launching the community news site to monitor the impact of the Rio 2016 Summer Games. CatComm works alongside community leaders in Rio’s favelas, majority Afro-Brazilian, informally constructed communities, to promote sustainable urban planning and fight the inaccurate portrayal of favelas as crime-ridden slums. Williamson told the Indy “one of the huge opportunities the Olympics provides to host city organizers [is] a permanent external spotlight for a long period of time that they can help direct to the issues that matter to them, assuming they're impacted by the Olympics.” RioOnWatch publishes articles from a network of favela journalists and international volunteers in English and Portuguese, adopting a “hyper-local” perspective on the news. The site was largely responsible for directing foreign coverage of Rio 2016 to favelas facing Olympic-motivated displacement and giving journalists an accurate vocabulary for describing these communities. 

Eight years later, RioOnWatch continues to report on favela issues. The site is a landmark for other anti-Olympic groups. Williamson is currently engaging with activists in four cities, including LA, about translating the RioOnWatch model to other cities. She says she believes such a platform should be focused on a particular disenfranchised group. “Favelas gave us a really clear focus which is good,” she said, “We saw the universe of issues affecting them very broadly, so we reported on all sorts of things including transit, quilombos [Brazilian communities of ex-slaves], the IOC, Black Lives Matter, women's movements, gay rights, et cetera.” In LA, Coleman says his focus is on this kind of international cooperation and knowledge sharing. NOlympics LA is also in conversations with activists in Boston, London, Chicago, Korea, and Japan.

“We're trying to get in really early in conversations in other cities, where bids are starting to form, specifically around 2026 and 2030. [Places] like Salt Lake City, Denver, Calgary,” Coleman told the Indy. With lots of time to prepare, NOlympics LA wants to influence other bid processes before they can be advanced. “We realize that in a lot of different ways that the Olympics are historically unpopular right now. By a lot of the metrics—these cities pushing out bids with different referendums—this is happening at a really high rate and still a lot of people don't really realize that because of this giant marketing machine,” said Coleman. 


For a model of a large-scale victory against an Olympic bid, LA looked to Boston. The Boston 2024 bid formed quietly, backed by construction magnate John Fish and Boston Mayor Marty Walsh. In January 2015, the US Olympic Committee (USOC) picked Boston’s bid to submit for the 2024 Games. Robin Jacks, co-founder of Occupy Boston, heard about the bid several months before when a community newspaper in Jamaica Plain, where she lived at the time, reported that the bid commission planned to use Franklin Park for several events. Upset by the possibility of this park being cordoned off for the Games and the bid’s lack of public input, Jacks helped create No Boston 2024 to oppose the bid. Her organization worked in tandem with No Boston Olympics, another anti-Olympics group led by three Bostonians with backgrounds in government and economics, to fight the bid. Jacks and No Boston 2024 campaigned effectively on social media, rallying others to the cause. 

She quickly found herself barraged with messages from other anti-Olympics activists with advice: Londoners describing gentrification and displacement and Chicago activists who followed IOC members around until they would accept a binder full of evidence against the Olympics. “It's not something that necessarily would have worked years ago, but we live in this modern world where everyone is connected digitally instantly, so it's easy for there to be this community of people who have beaten this back at some level in their own communities.” Jacks told the Indy. “It's this whole, weird, odd, motley group, and then the next Olympics rounds come along, and all these people find us or we find them. It keeps going and going.” No Boston 2024’s efforts and the bid’s mass unpopularity caused Mayor Walsh to officially drop it in July 2015. The USOC turned toward the only other city interested in hosting: Los Angeles. 


Writing in his 2014 book, Activism and the Olympics, former professional soccer player-turned-academic Jules Boycoff explains, “It would be more correct to call anti-Olympic resistance an ‘event coalition’ than a social movement proper, since the activism is only scarcely sustained through time; protestors hobble on a shoestring budget from Olympic host city to host city.” He compares the cycle of Olympic bids and corresponding resistance movements to “an activist version of Whack-A-Mole.” But NOlympics LA’s coalition may be building toward something with more staying power. 

Coleman described his vision for the group’s work. “I think what this is probably going to formalize is a group that looks out for all these mega projects, all these lottery events—the World Cup, Amazon, whatever the next iteration of that is,” he said, “If we can't stop them in LA, but we can stop them in ten other cities, that's power. If they run out of cities, the model is broken. They have to reform.” The IOC has long operated as the unaccountable project of the global elite, leaving a path of destruction in its wake. But without a home, the Olympic model crumbles. 
This week, NOlympics LA released an open letter of solidarity with the No Tokyo and No Pyeongchang movements. US coverage of the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics, playing out at the time of this publication, has focused on Korean unity and athletic heroism—overlooking unprecedented levels of militarized security and the destruction of a 500-year-old virgin forest to make way for ski slopes. “This struggle against the Olympics is global,” writes NOlympics LA in their letter. “We say NO: NO to unhoused people swept or given one-way tickets out of host cities; NO to deforestation and gentrification to clear way for stadiums and arenas; NO to exploiting vulnerable young athletes subjected to systematic abuse.”

LUCAS SMOLCIC LARSON B’19 doesn't hate the players, he just hates the games.