The Tokyo “2020” Olympics are still, somehow, happening this year. They are happening despite the fact that roughly only 20 percent of the Tokyo population is fully vaccinated days before the opening ceremony; despite a COVID outbreak of more than fifty Olympics-related visitors, including in the Olympic Village itself; despite reports of sexual violence at the new stadium; despite a mountain of public relations disasters, from the creative head of the Tokyo Organising Committee stepping down for calling a woman an “Olympig” (only to be replaced by a woman with her own sexual harassment scandal) to a high-level Japanese Olympic Committee accounting executive who jumped in front of a train days after a whistleblower came forward to the composer of the games being scrutinized for his abusive behavior. After all this, we hear the International Olympic Committee (IOC) call on Japanese residents to make “sacrifices” to ensure the games continue on.
And the games continue on, despite 83 percent of Tokyo residents wanting them canceled; despite pleas for their cancellation by Japanese medical officials and nurses already dealing with the current COVID emergency and hospitals at full capacity; despite several dozen Olympic athletes and officials testing positive for COVID and the fact that many of the athletes are unvaccinated themselves. The IOC keeps going, despite even the most mainstream opposition and calls for accountability; despite the blithely racist punishment of athletes; despite its fascist overtones (and history). The IOC continues to march on and threaten any athlete who steps too far out of line during the competitions themselves, just like they always have.
No phrases can capture the colossal screw-ups happening on all levels in order to satisfy some TV and brand contracts. It’s beyond hyperbole. In defiance of the will of the entire world, the Olympics are still happening. Why? Because NBCUniversal and other Olympic partners plan on making a “record profit” on presold rights. These are the games that the IOC and Olympic boosters promised would be the most innovative, most sustainable (they’re not), “best ever prepared,” and most socially responsible in history — a line they’ll probably stick to, no matter how high their body count.
These catastrophic outcomes are intrinsically built into the Olympic system — a feature, not a fluke. We can’t just blame 2020 for this one. The games and their puppet masters, the IOC, (which boasts war criminals like Henry Kissinger and used to be run by a guy whose nickname was “Slavery”), have always produced these unholy states of exception, existing because of their willingness to exploit athletes and host cities, not in spite of it. That’s why they must come to an end.
The modern games were founded in the late nineteenth century by the aristocratic eugenicist Baron Pierre de Coubertin as a sideshow to the World’s Fair. Their purpose was to bolster French nationalism while further lining his pockets and the pockets of his already wealthy friends. Coubertin was a staggeringly racist and misogynist man with a flair for showmanship and ostentation. The games’ touted connection to ancient Greece is more a mythic marketing ploy than historically accurate. But the games are increasingly used as a Trojan horse for displacement, militarization, and speculative real estate, as well as accumulation of power by the powerful.
Choose an edition of the games blindly, and you will find that it, too, encompasses its own version of these timeless themes and devastating realities. The 1904 games in St. Louis might be harder to pin down, as Olympic honchos have since tried to erase it from the official narrative for a number of reasons, including one event they called “Anthropology Days,” where organizers brought in indigenous people to compete against the gentry, where “the ‘savages’ would mimic their white counterparts” so the rich Westerners could “demonstrate the inherent inferiority of the world’s indigenous peoples.”
Los Angeles hosted the games in 1932, in the midst of the Great Depression. The decision to host these games was conceived by real estate tycoon Billy Garland and the reactionary, developer-friendly heads of the five major newspapers in LA, promised to put LA “on the map,” marketing it as a tropical, middle-class paradise. They saw the games as they really are: opportunities for speculative real estate deals and political favors. Boosters built the city’s first mega-hotel (and rampant hotel speculation continues wherever the games go today), and they laid the groundwork for institutions like the LAPD Academy in Elysian Park (more Olympics always means more police).
One Olympics the IOC remains curiously unapologetic for: the 1936 Nazi Games, which introduced the Olympic torch relay, and which Adolf Hitler and his propagandists used to help grow his power at home and globally. (These games have recently drawn the ire of the Auschwitz Memorial and Museum, after the IOC in 2020 tweeted a “throwback Thursday” remembrance of the Nazi Olympiad; the organization later apologized for the tweet but not, strangely, for its longtime collaboration with Hitler.) Racism, like politics more broadly, is something the IOC is ardently opposed to acknowledging: athlete protest has always banned in the IOC charter.
But when the strength of the US and Europe’s working class grew, so did leftist opposition to the Olympics. The Socialist Workers’ Sport International (SASI) formally launched the Workers’ Sports Movement in 1920. By 1928, there were over 2 million members.
The first Workers’ Olympiad was held in 1925 in Frankfurt. Vienna hosted the second in 1931. This one attracted 250,000 spectators and 80,000 participating athletes — more athletes and spectators than attended the 1932 LA Olympics. In Chicago this same year, members of the Communist Party launched their own counter-Olympics. In 1937, just before World War II broke out, the third and final Workers’ Olympiad took place in Belgium. After the war, the International Labor Sports Federation was established as a successor to SASI.
But in the decades following World War II, organized labor has pulled further and further away from Olympics resistance efforts and over to the side of Olympics boosterism.
Olympics problems have only grown in size and scope since the 1980s. Out of the ’84 games grew the now-naturalized proto-police-state-cum-American-city. Hailed by Ronald Reagan, the games provided a citywide podium for LAPD’s most infamous chief, Daryl Gates, the legendarily brutal top cop who stepped down following the 1992 Rodney King uprising and who, in the leadup to the ’84 games, was given complete freedom to take all gang members — confirmed and suspected — into custody for Olympic sweeps. (At one point, nearly half of all black men in LA under the age of twenty-five were registered in the LAPD’s gang database, thanks to Gates.)
The 1988 Seoul games saw widespread human rights violations, including sweeping poor, disabled, and unhoused people into brutal prison camps and away from public view. Barcelona ’92 facilitated a huge land grab that paved the way for ongoing, accelerated gentrification and touristification. Atlanta ’96 was yet another showcase of cruelty to the poor, remembered more for the media circus around security guard Richard Jewell than for the destruction of public housing or its anti-homeless campaign.
Some 1.5 million residents were displaced for Beijing 2008. Favelas were flattened for “white elephant” stadiums, which sit empty after events end, destroying the homes of 77,000 people and accelerating policing, ahead of Rio 2016. People are still being evicted over lies related to Olympic development in East London for 2012, and most can still recall the civil rights fiasco of Sochi 2014, where homosexuality is still criminalized and where, before the games, suspected LGBTQ residents were attacked and disappeared by the local government — leading to no condemnation by the IOC, which stated that the only human rights protections in the Olympic Charter are for athletes and members themselves. An ancient forest, considered sacred by many South Koreans, was eviscerated for Pyeongchang ’18 to make way for a ski run that would be used twice.
The IOC Is Scared
The tens of thousands of athletes, workers, and volunteers for each cycle suffer because of the games, too. Athletes across all sports, many of them children, are hyper-exploited — psychologically, physically, sexually, and economically. SafeSport, the Olympics’ self-reform response to decades of reported athlete abuse, has done nothing.
Worker exploitation outside the field of play is just as rampant. Crackdowns on informal economies surge, from street vendors to sex workers. From the roughly 100,000 volunteers needed for Tokyo 2020 (many of whom recently quit) to the needless deaths of builders of Olympic structures hurried to meet rigid deadlines, exploitation of every imaginable type spikes in the years leading up to all Olympics. Small businesses are devastated, as cities are rewired to serve only global brands. Labor unions are undermined by Olympic sponsors like Airbnb, as apartment buildings get converted into illegal de facto hotels (without unionized labor). It turns out the Olympics are terrible for labor and don’t “bring jobs.” They just end up displacing preexisting tourism.
Then there’s Tokyo “2020.” In 2013, just two years after the devastating Fukushima nuclear explosion/earthquake/tsunami, the city was “awarded” the 2020 Olympics. The games were courted by a right-wing Japanese government and sold as a “comeback event” for the country. The problem is that the Fukushima region hasn’t recovered. In the meantime, Japan has run up an Olympics tab of over $26 billion USD, ballooning from original estimates of about $7 billion.
Olympic operating budgets are largely works of fiction and do not represent the totality of resources and infrastructure sinkholes that the Olympics require. Beyond this, they fail to account for the years of wasted state resources never included on the budget lines. The amount the last Japanese Olympics, held in Nagano in 1998, went over budget will never be known, because the documents were shredded before auditors could get their hands on them. These are the types of numbers that can torpedo entire economies, like they did in Montreal ’76 and Athens ’04. The ruling powers just choose to ignore it.
Since the Tokyo bid was granted, the period between when a city is chosen to host the games and the games themselves has lengthened significantly. The location of the 2032 games, Brisbane, Australia, is about to be announced, without the usual bidding-cycle fanfare, because practically no city wants to bid for these events anymore. The number of bids that have been killed by popular referenda or otherwise in the past decade has exploded; there simply isn’t an appetite to enter the bidding cycle for the vast majority of cities. This amount of time between the bidding cycle and the event itself — almost double what it was in 2013 — is still troubling: the forces behind the displacement, violence, and militarization in a city can go twice as hard.
But this prematureness also points to something else: the IOC is scared. They’re losing bidders and trying to lock in as many games as they possibly can. The detriment of their arrival has become too obvious to ignore, and resistance to the games is becoming commonplace.
The Tokyo “2020” games were also heavily backed by the Japanese private security industry. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics featured mass displacement and were the impetus for the creation of the two Japanese private security titans, ALSOK and Secom. Today, ALSOK and Secom are two of the main backers and benefactors of Tokyo 2020. They’ve spent the past decade helping lobby to create new surveillance and policing legislation, which will be used for much more than the Olympics, and which will help normalize new police technology.
Part of this effort has been weaponized against the poor, as unhoused people have been displaced from public view; parks and other cherished cultural spaces have been erased and commodified; and the country overall has been handed to the IOC and the corporate brands, policing, political, and developer interests they serve. A huge part of any Olympics is the severe erosion of democracy in a city or region by the time the opening ceremony comes around versus when the bidding process starts.
This was all before COVID, before the Olympics were the last major event in the world to postpone or cancel in 2020; before the Japanese government obfuscated pandemic realities in an attempt to soothe public health concerns; before it diverted countless resources away from the global health emergency toward the Olympic project; before the head of the Japanese Olympic Committee (JOC) stepped down for misogyny; before the IOC punished countless black and intersex athletes for marijuana, swim caps, or having disqualifying hormone levels.
In the past sixteen months, as the IOC has dropped all pretense of caring about athletes, the host nation, or global public health, the better part of planet Earth has gotten a true taste of what the Olympics have always been: incompatible with the decent world we’re trying to live in. One doesn’t have to think too hard about the Olympics before the magic dissolves. And the men behind the curtain are just a committee of aging, power-hungry extranational oligarchs. The games are their two-week-long party, made possible by politicians and developers looking to gentrify and militarize their cities.
Some propose hosting the Olympics in a permanent location, but doing so would render the Olympic design meaningless. The Olympics are and have always been a tool for development, extraction, and social cleansing. And the games, like the athletes, are just a prop to allow wealthy, connected people — interested in powers far more iniquitous than unity and sportsmanship — to take control. At no point did the IOC, JOC, or anyone involved show the faintest hint that these are institutions or endeavors capable of negotiation or reform.
You can’t reform the Olympics. The Olympics are showing us what they are, and what they’ve always been.
As calls to cancel Tokyo 2020 (and, later this year, Beijing 2022) grow louder, we should also demand the abolition of the IOC and the Olympics as we know them. It’s not “where” that constitutes the main problem with the Olympics. It’s “why” and “on whose terms.” If we can imagine an international sporting event that is community- and worker-controlled, and not with the baked-in intention of profit, it shouldn’t really matter where it is. Until then, the Olympics shouldn’t be anywhere.