Concerns about COVID-19, accusations of racism, and anger about a protest ban hang over this year’s Olympics.
Long before Tokyo 2020 was saddled with cost overruns, scandals over sexism and fears it would turn into a COVID-19 super-spreader event, anti-Olympics activists were already calling the whole thing a disaster.
That was why one year before the pandemic-hit Games were originally slated to open in late July 2020, anti-Olympic activists convened in Japan for the first ever global summit of “NOlympians”, as those opposed to the Games are known.
The pow-wow of NOlympians signalled that once ad hoc localised opposition to Olympic events had gone global.
“We shouldn’t see the anti-[Olympics] movements [as] being isolated and divided according to nations and cities,” said Hiroki Ogasawara, a professor in sociology and cultural studies at Japan’s Kobe University, “because the protest is already worldwide and the Olympics inevitably involve global scale wrongdoings, too.”
Dozens of activists from host cities past (London, Rio de Janeiro and Pyeongchang, South Korea) and future (Paris and Los Angeles) were joined in the Japanese capital by those bracing for a bid by their cities, including Kuala Lumpur and Jakarta.
“That was a pivotal moment,” Jules Boykoff, a participant and professor of politics and government at Pacific University in Oregon in the United States told Al Jazeera. What Boykoff previously called “a moment of movements” had blossomed into a transnational coalition with staying power.
Boykoff, a former Olympic-qualified athlete turned critic, says that because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is “a multibillion-dollar behemoth” those opposed to it have realised, “the only way to fight is to become more mobile with their dissent”.
Founded in 1894, the IOC is a non-profit that serves as the governing body of Olympics committees in each of its member countries with a mission to distribute the billions in revenue from broadcasting and marketing to sports development. Its executive board is formed of members drawn from the global business elite.
In Asia, Japan has hosted the most Olympic events – the Games that kicked off on July 23 were its fourth in 50 years.
While the 1964 Games have generally been portrayed positively – a showcase of the technological prowess and design brilliance of post-war Japan and its debut on the world stage – not everyone holds such a rosy view of later Olympics.
Of the two main anti-Games groups spawned by Tokyo 2020, one is called Okotowa Link, which means “Olympic Disasters”.
The Japanese activists had a litany of concerns concerning the event from the demolition of affordable housing to the removal of street sleepers and the transformation of the world-famous Tsukiji fish market into a parking lot for the National Stadium.
In an era where activism is increasingly global and finding momentum online – from the #MeToo movement to Fridays for Future and Black Lives Matter – it is hard to recall the days when grassroots organising spread one leaflet at a time.
That was how Helen Jefferson Lenskyj and her fellow activists at Bread Not Circuses got their start in the late 1980s when Toronto vied first for the 1996 Games and then for the 2008 event. While her city’s repeated bids called for a sustained campaign, Lenskyj notes how the anti-Olympics movement has since grown.
“It’s definitely gathered strength,” said Lenskyj, now professor emerita of social justice education at the University of Toronto. “With social media and more effective use of the internet, the growing problem of huge debts and expensive venues, the legacy that never materialised, there’s growing disillusionment.”
The Canadian anti-Games activists were the first to launch the Poverty Olympics Torch Relay, in which the torch is fashioned from a toilet plunger. And an annual NOlympics day was marked every late June to galvanise opposition worldwide.
The Games’ human costs, including the massive disruption to the lives of residents and heightened police surveillance, stand in stark contrast with the corporate interests of the Olympics boosters. Typically, they are the business and political elites who have the most to gain from brand sponsorships, white-elephant building projects and lucrative service contracts.
“I call this trickle-up economics,” said Boykoff. “It’s a massive economic juggernaut; the sports are incidental.”
Over the past few years, citizens have become increasingly resistant to hosting the sporting extravaganza, with some Western countries putting the decision to voters in a referendum.
One by one, potential bid cities have been eliminated by “no” votes from Boston in the US to Krakow in Poland.
In 2015, in the leadup to the IOC awarding the 2022 Winter Games, only two candidate cities were left standing: Almaty and Beijing.
Authoritarian countries have long seen the Games as a form of “soft power”, while the IOC has sought to frame the event as a force for good that transcends politics.
In 2001, when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics despite concerns over China’s human rights record, the IOC claimed hosting would help usher in an era of greater freedom.
Seven years later, artist Ai Weiwei, the man who had helped design the centrepiece Bird’s Nest stadium, was persecuted by authorities for his political activism, and Beijing won its bid for the 2022 Winter Games three weeks after a nationwide round-up of human rights lawyers and their staff.
With less than seven months to go, Beijing’s mass imprisonment of Uighur Muslims and its crackdown in Hong Kong are fuelling calls from Europe and North America for a boycott.
Meanwhile, the dwindling number of cities prepared to bid for the event has spurred the IOC to act. Its Agenda 2020 called for transparency, sustainability and flexibility. Critics, however, say the organisation is incapable of genuine reform.
“The IOC has a democratic deficit,” said Boykoff, adding that it was ruled “with an iron fist.”
In response to the rising NOlympics backlash, the IOC has accelerated the process for naming host cities.
In an unprecedented move in 2017, it doled out a twin award to the remaining candidates: giving the 2024 Summer Games to Paris and 2028 to Los Angeles.
And just before the Tokyo Olympics got under way, the IOC announced the host for 2032 – Brisbane in Australia, the only contender. Previously, the host city was selected only seven years before the Games were due to start.
For now, activists’ rallying cry of “NOlympics anywhere” may seem a long shot, but as the memory of two weeks of sporting spectacle begins to fade and Tokyo assesses the Games’ longer-term effect, it seems likely the rumblings of discontent that follow the IOC will only grow – as will the movement.
“The anti-Olympics campaign has a significant impact in raising local residents’ consciousness on what human rights will be violated and what they would have to suffer to have the Olympics,” Lenskyj said.