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The Olympics Is a Racket

Jules Boykoff

The world’s top athletes coming together in a spirit of friendly competition is a beautiful vision. But the Olympics have become a machine for the ruthless extraction of profit at the expense of working-class people.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach in Lausanne, Switzerland, 2020. (Denis Balibouse / AFP via Getty Images)

Interview by
Meagan Day

The Olympics are upon us again. It’s a beautiful thing to watch the world’s best athletes come together in the ultimate showcase in human athletic achievement. Sports are powerful, and there’s no greater display of that awesome power than the Olympic games.

But ​​with that power comes great responsibility, “and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has not lived up to that responsibility,” says Jules Boykoff, a former professional and Olympic soccer player and researcher who focuses on the politics of the Olympic games.

The Olympics are a prime example of what Boykoff calls “celebration capitalism.” The IOC, political power players, and megacorporations use the occasion as a pretext to funnel massive amounts of money to local and international elites while stiffing athletes and harming working-class people in every Olympic city. The games are an extreme intensifier of inequality: some people’s homes are razed to make space for temporary structures, while others rake in millions and live permanently at five-star hotels.

Jules Boykoff is a professor of politics and government at Pacific University. He is the author of Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics and NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond. Jacobin’s Meagan Day interviewed Boykoff about who gets rich from the Olympics, who get screwed over, and what activists are doing to stop the racket.


MD

First, let’s talk about Tokyo. What’s the story behind the Tokyo games, and why did you write an op-ed in the New York Times arguing they should be canceled?

JB

The backstory with the Tokyo Olympics is essentially that they were built on a double lie.

In 2013, when then–prime minister Shinzo Abe was standing in front of the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) voting members making the pitch for Tokyo to get the 2020 Olympics, he was asked about Fukushima, which in 2011 had experienced the triple-whammy earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear meltdown. He said at the time that everything was “under control,” and voting members then voted for Tokyo. But things were not “under control” in Japan. That was the first lie.

The second lie that formed the foundation of the Tokyo Olympics was that they pitched it with the idea of it being the “recovery games,” meaning the Olympics would be a way of helping the disaster-affected areas recover. Nothing of the sort has happened. I’ve interviewed people in Japan, including Kansai University professor Satoko Itani who said that hosting the Olympics actually brought some of the cranes and other materials away from the affected areas.

When the International Olympic Committee handed the games to Tokyo, they did so because they viewed Tokyo as “a safe pair of hands.” But since then the organizers in Tokyo have been bobbling the Olympic torch. It’s been a debacle from the beginning, from hiring celebrity architect Zaha Hadid to design a stadium that was ultimately scrapped because it was too expensive to the plagiarism scandal surrounding the first logo they rolled out — not to mention that there are credible allegations moving their way through the French courts that Tokyo bribed its way into getting these Olympics.

In my op-ed for the New York Times, I was speaking mostly to the fact that medical officials inside and outside of Japan were clamoring for the games to be canceled. It just doesn’t make sense to hold an optional sporting spectacle during a global health pandemic. In addition, the general population in Japan was against hosting the Olympics. Around that time, there were surveys that showed that in the neighborhood of 80 percent of people in Japan did not want the Olympics in the summer.

But I think what’s more important about the Tokyo moment is that it’s stripped the varnish off the Olympic project and allowed people to see it for what it really is, which is essentially an exercise in trickle-up economics, where the money flows upward into already well-endowed entities like the International Olympic Committee, and well-positioned political and economic elites.

When I wrote that essay, I was also hoping to open up a wider discussion about what the Olympics are in the twenty-first century, and how in fact they become a way to hurt working people in every  host city while helping those who are already doing quite well economically.

MD

How did the Olympics evolve into a profit-hungry global brand?

JB

The Olympics were started by a French aristocrat named Baron Pierre de Coubertin, who basically built the Olympics on a bed of contradictions. One is that from the beginning he said the games were supposed to be about peace, but at the same time one of the reasons that he thought the Olympics would be a good idea is that he felt the games would toughen up the youth for war. France had just gotten drubbed in the Franco-Prussian War and he was a crotchety old baron who felt it was because the youth were too “flabby.”

Another contradiction was that the Olympics were supposed to be this universal display of prowess for the world, but women were excluded from the beginning. The baron was a notorious sexist who said that women’s job at the Olympics was to place the laurels on the heads of the champions or to produce baby boys that could one day make their way to the Olympic games. He talked about bringing countries from Africa into the games, but because Africans were “lazy” and the games would help them.

To jump ahead a bit, there was a pivot toward what you might call the Disneyfication of the Olympics. Most Olympic scholars will tell you that pivot happens 1984, but I would tell you something a little bit different. I think 1976 is actually the key year for understanding the way the Olympics have played out the way they have.

Two things happened in 1976. First, the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal went way over budget. The mayor of Montreal at the time said that it would cost $125 million. It ended up costing $1.5 billion. They didn’t pay it off for thirty years. That really put the fear of God in a lot of these other big cities that didn’t want something that would spin out of control in terms of the costs.

The other thing that happened for the 1976 Winter Olympics is that Denver was actually supposed to get those Olympics. But there is no such thing as a 1976 Denver Olympics, and that’s because people across the political spectrum jumped up and said no.

There were environmentalists who were concerned about the environmental damage of hosting a winter Olympics on their ski slopes, and there were also fiscal conservatives who didn’t want to spend money in a way that made no sense. They knitted together this interesting coalition that got a ballot measure passed saying that Colorado would spend no public money on the Olympics. And the IOC knew that if there was no public money, there would be no Olympics, so they moved the games to Innsbruck, Austria.

Those two moments from 1976 set the table for what then happened in 1984 at the Los Angeles Olympics, which is the year most people who study the games will point to as that pivotal moment toward commercialization.

In Los Angeles, Mayor Tom Bradley remembered Montreal vividly and didn’t want to put any public money into the games. This was during the Reagan era, and they were neoliberalizing everything with a pulse. So sports businessman Peter Ueberroth decided that this would be a good opportunity to show everyone how great privatization and neoliberalization were, and they essentially privatized the games.

In order to get more money for the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, Ueberroth created a program where the who’s who of corporate America at the time all kicked in millions of dollars to become corporate sponsors. Prior to that, hundreds of corporations would each put in a little bit, but Ueberroth made it more of an exclusive club.

The IOC was watching Ueberroth in Los Angeles and they realized it actually worked, so they started their own program, the Olympic Partner program. Today that program has big entities like Coca Cola, Airbnb, Dow Chemical, Alibaba, and so on. It was this pivot in the ’80s that moved us toward what we see today, this infusion of corporate money and this desire of elites to use the Olympics to remake a city in their preferred image.

MD

Who gets rich from the Olympics, and how?

JB

There’s a lot of money sloshing through the Olympic system. The issue is that it tends to slosh upward into the pockets of those who are already rich.

Let’s start with the IOC, the group that oversees the Olympics, based in Lausanne, Switzerland. They have in their reserves around a billion dollars or so according to public records. And they do really well out of the Olympics. Every time the Olympics come around, 73 percent of the IOC’s revenues come from broadcasters, like NBC in the United States. Another 18 percent comes from the corporate sponsors. Overall they get an infusion of billions of dollars every time there’s an Olympic games. And there’s a thoroughgoing lack of accountability regarding where this money flows. The IOC is the most pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructure in the world.

The broadcasters also do extraordinarily well. NBC just announced in the past week that they had record ad sales for the Tokyo Olympics. So even though there’s disgruntlement around the games, that doesn’t stop ad sales. The broadcasters make millions upon millions with the Olympics.

Then there are local political and economic elites who are well positioned. The Olympics create a state of exception in the city that in the past I’ve called celebration capitalism, kind of the whipsaw inverse of Naomi Klein’s disaster capitalism. You have a state of exception, except it’s a social celebration of the Olympics, and it involves public-private partnerships that are massively lopsided in favor of the private entities.

Tokyo, for example, instituted a new rule in advance of the Olympics that said you could build up to eighty meters high in a particular historic district. Previously the maximum height was fifteen meters. To build the national stadium in this district they needed to go higher than that, so they needed a new law, and that new law also benefited private developers.

A lot of people think that another group that benefits is athletes, but that’s questionable at best. There’s been really good research done just in the last year by Ryerson University and the athlete-led group called Global Athlete. They compared the National Basketball Association, the National Football League, the National Hockey League, Major League Baseball, and the English Premier League of football. In all those leagues, the athletes got between 45 and 60 percent of the revenue. For Olympians it’s 4.1 percent. So the money is not going to the worker athletes. It is going to these other entities.

While athletes may not benefit, the individual members of the IOC are living the high life. They’re the ones living rent-free at a five-star hotel in Switzerland. If you’re on the executive board, you get a $900 per diem. Henry Kissinger, arguably one of the biggest human rights abusers in the history of the world, is an “honor member” of the IOC.

Another group that benefits is the security industry. Each Olympic host uses the Olympics like their own private cash machine, getting all the money they need for special weapons for the supposed purpose of securing the games. But they don’t box those up after the games are over. Those weapons become part of everyday policing in the Olympic city. In Los Angeles in 1984, they got all of these special weapons for the Olympics that then became part of the so-called War on Drugs, really the war on working-class people across Los Angeles.

MD

But it’s not just the case that some people get rich off the Olympics. It’s also the case that some people end up worse off than before the games. Who gets screwed over, and how?

JB

Simply put, working-class people do not benefit from the Olympics. They’re told that they’ll benefit from the Olympics when they’re in the bidding stage, in an attempt to get the local population on board, but the benefits are always overstated.

I know this because unlike other people who write about the Olympics, as part of my work I have actually moved to the Olympic city and lived there long term, talking to working people on the ground about how the Olympics affects their lives. I lived in Brazil in 2015 and 2016, and London in 2012. In my research and writing, I approach the Olympics from the bottom up.

When I talk to working people, the stories are harrowing to be honest. There are four negative trends when it comes to the Olympics, which lead us to a really clear picture of who doesn’t benefit.

The first trend is overspending. They always say the Olympics are going to cost only so many billions, and they always cost exponentially more. They spiral out of control. Every single Olympics has cost overruns from 1960 on, and taxpayers tend to pay that. The second trend is the militarization of public space. Like I said before, everyday policing in the wake of the games always involves higher technology and more resources for police to crack down.

The third trend is gentrification and displacement, the forced eviction of everyday working people to make way for Olympic venues. In Beijing, 1.5 million people were displaced. In Rio de Janeiro, where I lived, 77,000 people were displaced to make way for the Olympics.

And behind the numbers are incredible stories. In Rio, I got to know quite a few people who were evicted, their whole lives were just turned upside down. One of them is a woman named Heloisa Helena Costa Berto, an Afro-Brazilian practitioner of the Candomblé religion. She was a big part of the community in Vila Autódromo, a working-class favela along the Jacarepaguá lagoon that was demolished for the Rio 2016 games.

Her orixá, or goddess if you will, was along the water where she lived. ​​So it wasn’t easy for her to get up and move to another part of the city. Her whole life, her spiritual life and her community life, were right there in Vila Autódromo. Before the Olympics started, we stood together and peered through a chain link fence at where her house had been, and it was a parking lot outside of a media venue. Her whole life got turned upside down for a temporary parking lot.

And the fourth trend is greenwashing, or talking a big green game but then not following through. To return to Rio, people I spoke to there were thrilled at the possibility that the Olympics would actually lead to the cleanup of the notorious water body Guanabara Bay. Some Olympic events were going to be held there, and Olympic boosters promised that 80 percent of the water that flowed into that bay was going to be treated. None of that happened; 169 million gallons of untreated sewage were flowing into the bay every day when the Olympics started.

So again, who loses is the working class — people who are told their environment will be cleaner and safer in the wake of the games. Even though they couldn’t afford a ticket to the Olympics, there was supposed to be what they call a “legacy” for the city. Unfortunately that legacy turns out to be false promises, a big hoodwink on the part of the organizers of the Olympics.

There are so many other groups that lose out. For example in Atlanta, in advance of the 1996 Olympics, the city took it as an opportunity to destroy public housing. The country’s first federally subsidized public housing project, which was called Techwood Homes and was established during the New Deal, was demolished to make way for the Olympics.

Another example is that the mentality of the security forces is often to “clean up” the city for global media public consumption, and that often entails cracking down on sex workers, making their lives even less safe. And for some cities it also entails mistreatment of homeless people. Again in Atlanta, they arrested nine thousand unhoused people. The same thing happened in Vancouver for the 2010 Olympics, to the point where activists called it the “Olympic Kidnapping Act.”

Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, has said that bringing the Olympics to Los Angeles would help the city eliminate the problem of homelessness by 2028. That’s ludicrous; it’s definitely not happening. It points once again to the false promises around the Olympics that are endemic to the project, and also the fact that there’s a massive democratic deficit.

The people who sign the host city contract in the beginning give enormous power to the IOC and cede enormous power from the city. And then they’re long gone by the time the Olympics show up. Garcetti is not going to be mayor of Los Angeles in 2028 when the Olympics roll around. That always happens. They use the Olympics as a political trampoline and then move onto the next thing, leaving behind the detritus for the next people to sweep up.

Housing prices go up in city after city, even in the so-called success stories. In Barcelona, housing prices went up. In London, in the boroughs around the Olympics in 2012, housing prices went through the roof. I interviewed people when I was living there who got priced out and had to move. The rough sleeping population in London in those same boroughs went up because of the processes we’re talking about. Is the Olympics the sole driver? No, but it definitely contributes in a major way to these social problems.

MD

As cities clamor and prostrate themselves for the opportunity to host the games, local countermovements are arising more frequently. Where did these start, and where are they strongest now?

JB

Anti-Olympics activism goes back decades. The first time that Los Angeles hosted the Olympics in 1932, the Great Depression was going pretty strong, and there were plenty of protesters there with signs that read “Groceries Not Games,” pointing out the misspending and the opportunity costs involved in the Olympics.

In the 1920s and ’30s, people created alternative games. The Women’s Olympics were declared because women wanted to show that they were perfectly capable of participating in and excelling at sports. There were also the Workers’ Olympics, organized largely by socialists and communists in Europe.

These were enormous affairs, not just like going to the park with your friends. We’re talking about like two hundred thousand people showing up at events for the Workers’ Olympics, for example. They were a very organized alternative to the Olympics that could be read as a protest of what they called at the time “the bourgeois games.”

Denver in the lead-up to 1976 was a critical moment for anti-Olympics activism, as I mentioned before. Certainly there were campaigns in the ’90s: in Chicago and Toronto there were successful movements to stave off the Olympics from coming to their city. But I think the pivot point in terms of leading to the present state of anti-Olympics activism was Vancouver in the lead-up to 2010, where a vibrant and fascinating coalition of everyone from indigenous groups to anarchists to lawyers came together. They were bound by a diversity of tactics agreement, where they agreed to never say anything negative about the tactics of other people in the coalition to the press, instead keeping it all in-house. And they were tremendously successful in pushing back against the Olympics.

Every city’s anti-Olympics movement has its own character. In London, in advance of the 2012 games, activists emphasized anti-corporate politics, as corporations were taking on these new roles in the Olympic project — like for example BP coming in as a “sustainability partner” of the London games.

When Sochi hosted the Olympics in 2014, many people were extremely unhappy about the ridiculous anti-LGBTQ law that had passed in Russia, which was both terrible on the face of it and also clashed mightily with the Olympic Charter. They couldn’t protest in Sochi. There was one action by the group Pussy Riot and it was promptly and heavily repressed. So people protested in cities all over the world instead.

In Rio, prior to the 2016 games, you had a very organized group, the Comitê Popular da Copa e das Olimpíadas, or the Popular Committee of the World Cup and Olympics. They had lots of events, tons of political education going on, and street protests galore, including one very vibrant protest during the Olympics, met with a big police presence and lots of tear gas.

That brings us up to the present with Tokyo and Los Angeles. Until July 2019, anti-Olympics activism was basically a game of whack-a-mole, meaning a group would pop up in a host city, and then fade away. These were activists who were already busy on issues like housing and policing. When the games came, they would knit together a coalition because the Olympics made all of these problems worse. But when the games were over they would go back to their normal organizing and for the most part wouldn’t worry about the Olympics anymore.

That changed in July 2019, in large part because of the work of NOlympics LA, as well as their counterparts in Tokyo, two groups called Hangorin no Kai and OkotowaLink. They decided that in order to fight the peripatetic grift machine known as the Olympics, they needed to get more transnational and mobile themselves. And so they organized in July 2019 the first ever transnational anti-Olympic summit.

There were talks, there were lectures, there were street protests, there were knowledge sharing sessions, and there were strategy sessions — and that lasted a whole week. And also people got to know each other better. There were people there from Tokyo, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, Pyeongchang, Seoul, and London. There were people from future cities, past cities, prospective cities, and then Tokyo, the current host city.

The idea was to take the moment and make it into a movement, one that has legs that moves from Olympics to Olympics. And so that’s kind of what we’re witnessing right now. We’re in the early stages, but it looks very promising.

MD

The idea of the world’s top athletes coming together in a spirit of cooperation and friendly competition to showcase the height of human athletic achievement is actually a beautiful one. Can we have something like that without creating a monster resembling the Olympics?

JB

Well, it’s true that if you read the Olympic Charter it contains lots of lovely, wonderful ideas. The problem has always been that to the extent that they are realized at all, they happen astride all of these other negative externalities we’ve been talking about.

I played sports very seriously for a huge portion of my life. I’m not some crotchety academic who hates sports and sits around scheming ways to ruin them. I believe deeply in the power of sport, and I believe that with that power comes great responsibility, and the International Olympic Committee has not lived up to that responsibility.

I think there are alternatives, and we saw that in the 1920s and ’30s with the alternative games I mentioned. Those allowed all people to participate, and didn’t have these negative externalities. Right now, the economic benefits don’t stay in the community. Economists call it leakage, where the money all ends up leaking out, right over to corporate headquarters. If you can create an event where the economic benefits stay within the community, then that would be a very powerful thing.