Where now for international resistance to the corporate Olympics?
The International Counter Olympics Network (ICON) was established the day before the Games began in London. This article is based on testimonies by members of anti Olympics groups in cities in different parts of the world, and hopes to contribute to a discussion about how activists can move beyond campaigns against individual sponsors and best enact international solidarity with people struggling against the corporate Games in Sochi, Rio and beyond.
Reactions to and resistance against the Olympic Games take on a specific character at each individual Games, even though there is cross-inspiration taken from activists in different host cities. This is due to many reasons, the most obvious ones being: the state of movements in those countries or cities and how able they are to take on the Olympics, as well as the specific problems that the Olympics brings to the locality and the political context of the city. In London, for example, resistance has been of a very different character to that seen in previous Olympics, such as Vancouver and Athens. There are a number of more academic or journalistic accounts of the Olympics, such as Five Ring Circus and The New Lords of the Rings: Olympic Corruption and How to Buy Gold Medals, and there is some activist literature on actions around the Games, but it would be useful to generate more comparative material from an activist perspective so as to ensure that the ICON movement can be effective. Exploring some case studies from the perspective of activists will help to build up a picture of how these factors have played out for different Olympics.
Only once has a host city rejected the Olympics after they were awarded: Denver, Colorado. Denver won the bid to host the 1976 Winter Olympics. The Games had to be cancelled in 1972 after a successful ballot initiative cancelling the use of state bond money to pay for the Games. Dick Lamm was involved in the campaign to stop the Denver Olympics and was a three term Governor of Colorado at the time of the bid. He is currently the co-director for the Institute for public policy studies at the University of Denver. He explains that people resisted due to the debt other cities had got into and because Colorado’s economy was growing well anyway and did not need the publicity that the Olympics may have brought. The campaign involved a lot of community outreach and door knocking, as well as press work.
But while Denver is the only city to have stopped the Olympics from taking place, there has been organised opposition at every Games in the last 30 years, but on quite a varying scale.
In Nagano, Japan the 16th Winter Olympics was held in 1998. According to Japanese activists, resistance to the Games there was not on a large scale, but there were small scale responses, such as environmental campaigns to save a virgin forest in the Happou mountain area from a ski resort. One MP, Jyuichiro Imai, spoke out against the Games, for which he lost his seat in the following election. In Japan, there was a very thorough campaign to manufature public opinion in favour of the Olympics. The largest advertising company in Japan, Dentsu, which was founded by the CIA after the second world war to develop a psycological media strategy, was responsible for collecting the signatures of two-thirds of the population of Nagano in support of the Games. Locals were often forced or decieved into signing the petition. Dentsu has a monopoly of mass media, the advertising industry and government publicity in Japan. Japanese activists told Corporate Watch that this strategy, together with the broader climate of authoritarian and hierarchical politics in Japan, clearly served to limit resitance to the Winter Olympics in Nagano.
The Games were held in Athens in 2004. The context of the Athens Olympics is explained well by the Greek Kompressor collective, which is a biannual collective publication concerned with urban and spatial matters from the perspective of the antagonist movement. They argue that the awarding of the Games in 1996 was both the pretext and excuse for the acceleration of neoliberal labour practices in the construction sector, which was the largest sector of the Greek economy and has a high percentage of unionised workers. The spread of flexible labour went beyond the construction sector. From the beginning, the facilities were constructed with the aim of being privatised after the Games, even though the privatisation programme has not progressed significantly to date.
Kompressor argue that the post 9/11 context in which the Games took place enabled the security budget to sky rocket, to around 1.2 billion euros, three times as much as the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. This public money was given to major security corporations, such as SAIC and Siemens. The Games were used as an excuse to install a major network of surveillance and control in Athens, the core of which was the C4I system (Command, Control, Communications, Computers and Intelligence). Companies involved in this were Siemens, SAIC, Motorola and Nokia, together with the Armed Forces and the Greek police. The system never became fully operational, but the consortium that sold it to the Greek state still received the majority of the agreed sum for supplying it. Athens was left with a legacy of CCTV cameras controlling the city’s public space and a digital wireless network that the police have used to coordinate their operations during mass demonstrations that have occurred since the Olympics.
The Olympics in Athens basically saw the intensification of neoliberal processes that were already under way in Greece, which significantly contributed to Greek debt: gentrification, environmental degradation, an increase of homelessness and the fortification of the city with mechanisms of control and repression, including a permanent military presence and measures, such as the demarcation of red zones in public spaces where the gathering of crowds is now banned. The fortification has been used against those resisting austerity measures. The acceptance of this ideology of security, whereby for ‘special occasions’ the army can be deployed, was the main legacy of the Games.
The Athens Games met with a call from Greek anarchists: ‘Let the Olympic Games die in the land they were born’. With activists in prison for protesting at other corporate circuses, such as the EU summit in Thessaloniki in 2003, and hundreds of workers dying in Olympics-related work sites in Greece, in the lead up to, during and after the Olympics in Athens, activists attacked banks, government property, police stations, surveillance cameras, dropped banners and held demonstrations. People rioted against the future visit of US Secretary of State Colin Powell, which led to him cancelling his visit to Greece. However, there was not a large scale mobilisation against the 2004 Games.
In Chicago, an activist network, No Games Chicago, successfully resist the 2016 Olympics bid. They formed because no other already established groups were opposing the bid. Their strategy involved doing research into how previous Olympics had bankrupted cities, providing a report of evidence as to why local people did not back the Chicago bid to the IOC, engaging the community with public meetings and rallies, doing lots of media work, sending delegations to international IOC meetings and sending emails to the IOC members who would be voting on the bid every day for 70 days before the bid decision. No Games Chicago was the only voice against the Games and so took credit for Chicago not being chosen by the IOC.
Their success was confirmed by an official involved in the bid strategy as well as an official from the IOC. They were told that once public support falls for the bid below 50% then it is very unlikely the IOC would choose that city. No Games Chicago were the only ones to inform the IOC that support was below 50%. They were also told that the fact they sent delegations and research to the IOC was very effective. Bob Quellos from No Games Chicago told Corporate Watch that the reasons for Chicago not getting the Games were complex and would never be known to the public due to the levels of corruption involved. He says it will take an international movement to do away with the circus that is the IOC.
In Vancouver the 2010 Winter Olympics was not only a project of social control and gentrification as it is in many cities, it was also a project of colonisation undermining indigenous nations, as the Games took place on stolen native land. The mainstream media hardly covered the vibrant and determined resistance on the ground, which was a response to the plethora of problems either caused, or exacerbated, by the corporate Games. Issues included resource extraction from indigenous lands, increasing homelessness and gentrification of poor neighbourhoods, increasing privatisation of public services, union busting through imposed contracts and exploitative conditions, especially for migrant labour, the fortification of the national security and military apparatus, ballooning public spending and public debt, and unprecedented destruction of the environment.
There were a number of campaigns against the Olympics in Canada running for some years, such as the Olympic Resistance Network, which worked on issues surrounding gentrification, displacement of homeless people and the treatment of indigenous peoples. There were a wide variety of actions, such as a blockade of the Olympic Torch Relay on January 2, which shut down the Trans-Canada Highway, a ‘Take Back Our City’ demo on February 12 with 1,500 people and ongoing protest actions, such as the tent village in Vancouver, which was set up by homeless people to remind the British Columbia government of its promise that the homeless would not be overlooked during the Olympics. There was an international convergence against the Olympics in February 2012, with a people’s summit, autonomous days of action and other events.
Indigenous rights and environmental destruction were key rallying points for protests against the Games, which enabled a cross class/cross political alliance to come together with powerful moral arguments for opposing the Olympics. The unifying slogan ‘No Olympics on Stolen Native Land’ was a rhetorical device not available to Londoners, where arguments about displacement of east end communities and businesses have had to be more sensitive to the possibility of highjack by right wing arguments. This issue also meant there was something to campaign for, beyond opposing the bid itself, which could unite people in a way that individual struggles over allotments and access to local parks cannot.
Assessing resistance in London
Returning to London, even though the range of tactics of resistance has been impressive and has often strengthened community organising on issues beyond the Games, it has been characterised by small, single issue campaigns focusing on a narrow set of aims. Campaigning started before the bid was won and continues nearly eight years later at the time of writing during the Paralympic Games (see the section on London resistance for an overview of the tactics used and the range of issues addressed). Campaigning tools have involved petitioning, judicial reviews, public meetings and lobbying. Less common have been large scale demonstrations, occupations of sites under threat and rarer still has been direct action against the infrastructure of the Olympics.
The fracturing of dissent into small, local campaigns without an overarching strategy or organisation has been a source of weakness and not a source of strength through multiplicity of struggle. The difficulty faced by the Counter Olympics Network (CON) and previous umbrella anti-Olympics groups, such as No London 2012, to bring cohesion to the realm of Olympic protest has highlighted this effect. Further problems have occurred where the limited aims of small groups have been set against each other, such as the Lammas Land group and allotment holders.
In order to understand why it has been hard to organise against the Olympics in London, a number of factors need to be considered. The last ten years or so has seen aggressive intelligence led policing, which has been the culmination of a police strategy started in about 1996 -1997, initially aimed at anti-fascists, and aimed at isolating and harassing key organisers, and discouraging others from becoming organisers. So in a sense key activists have already been policed out of the Game(s).
There is no London or country wide grassroots organisation capable of mobilising the numbers necessary to carry out a concerted campaign around the Olympics. Or, if there is, then the Olympics has not been high on their agenda. This is not to deny individual groups have not been active, but this has lacked the effectiveness of actions in other countries, such as in Vancouver or Chicago. This is down to many factors, such as campaigns being initiated very early on in the process, having a big enough capacity to sustain daily actions, having uniting slogans to rally behind and so on. Importantly, in London it seemed that the Olympics was another issue to add to an already long list of urgent campaign tasks, rather than being a useful tool to galvanise support for and strengthen grassroots and anti corporate movements. This did happen to some extent of course, partly because the Games helped to draw more attention to the problems companies, such as Atos, necessitate.
Quantifying the ‘Olympic effect ‘has been harder than expected. Beyond the obvious cases where people have been directly made homeless (Clays Lane) or gentrification been blatant, (Tony’s Café) it has been hard to attribute wider examples of gentrification within the five Olympic boroughs directly to an Olympics effect. For example, on the Brown Field estate in Poplar, council flats are being demolished and replaced with mixed use housing which actually lowers the number of social housing places available and sets into motion long term demographic changes that are key to gentrification. However, it is likely that others factors are driving this process alongside the Olympics and this can obfuscate its role.
The Olympics often encompasses a very wide range of local and regional issues as well as broader ones, such as anti-corporate campaigns against the likes of BP and other companies. All together, this represents a massive challenge for any city, especially since this is on top of any existing struggles. In some cities it may represent an opportunity for like minded people to rally round these issues where before there was no initiative or need to do so, which forges allegiances and creates more options for resistance in the future. In other cities it is simply another thing to have to work on on top of the many other under-resourced and under-peopled struggles and campaigns.
Looking at how people have organised in different cities around the Games can show people in other countries something interesting about the state and quality of activism in other cities. Strategies may be too region specific to simply copy in your home town, yet taking note of patterns of how corporations and the IOC react and repress is essential.
In London, most counter olympics activists have been realistic about what was likely to be achieved through organising against the Games in general and around specific aspects, such as evictions. Once the bid was won, most people realised that they could only win small local gains, yet many still felt it would be useful to have a Counter Olympics Network and link up with other campaigners in their local areas and also connect with people in other cities in other countries. Many activists in London had in mind longer term goals of bringing people together to work on issues after the Games and after the ‘legacy’ period of the Games, by using the Olympics spectacle to draw attention to long standing issues, such as nuclear power. Yet it is important to acknowledge the significance of choosing to engage in an inevitably defensive campaign, especially since the city in which the Games takes place may well be chosen by the IOC partly according to their predictions about how much resistance there will be on the ground.
On the other hand, some CON members have had a positive experience of what they managed to achieve in London. Julian Cheyne from CON argues:
Despite the blanket media coverage of London 2012 and the tensions surrounding the massive security operation with its attendant threats against anyone who might be perceived as a danger to the Games, the Counter Olympics Network successfully organised two protest torch relays in East London just before the Games, followed by a march and event in Bow attended by around 600 people. It drew together a wide range of organisations including local, anti-corporate and anti-cuts campaigns, trades councils and supporters from a range of political parties. Protests against sponsors have continued throughout the Games with a particular focus on Dow, Atos, BP and Rio Tinto with imaginative events such as Greenwash Gold, the Atos Games and Dow die-ins.
Collectively CON and the different campaigns successfully challenged the IOC and the London Games organisers over their false claims about costs and benefits, their alliance with unethical and destructive corporations and the militarisation of the Games. The negative impacts on local communities were highlighted by vigorous groups, including campaigns against the placing of missiles around East London, including on top of two blocks of flats which one group tried to prevent by going to court, against the seizure of open space at Leyton Marsh where some Occupy protesters ended up going to prison after camping at the site and against the closure of a tow path which forced cyclists to use busy roads.
The British media, in characteristic style, sought to portray these as small and marginal groups and produced cover to cover stories about the Games. However, even at the height of the medal euphoria the Guardian could only claim in a poll that 55% of Britons thought the Games were worthwhile. The foreign media were present and asking questions about the Olympics in a way the British media simply failed to match. Far from being marginalised these campaigns successfully created their own agendas. Dow even felt it necessary to hire investigators to check out the opposition, and raised issues which will last long into the future. As part of this ongoing campaign CON was delighted to be able to host representatives from Rio and No Sochi and has now launched ICON, the International Counter Olympics Network, which will continue to foster the links created with past and future Olympic cities.
Activists involved in the resistance to the Olympics in Vancouver argue that international systems of social control (immigration systems, the police etc.) are experimented with and implemented differently via each Olympics. This means that, even though we can learn from the methods and analysis of struggle against the Olympics in other countries, our methods should be born from our surroundings and the contexts that we generate.
Before the Games took place, activists in Canada argued that if the 2012 Winter Olympics went unchallenged, Canada would receive positive international exposure, investment and corporate invasion. They claimed that opposition could at least help to limit the impact of the Games on some communities and environments via disruption of the Games, even though it was unlikely that collective resistance would be strong enough to stop the Olympics. In addition, due to the variety of groups and issues involved, the potential for a broad movement could at least resist the worst aspects of the Games and serve as a catalyst for resistance beyond the Games. They saw the 2010 Games as such a good example of corporate power and class conflict that any opposition should involve anti-capitalist analysis in order to broaden understanding of capitalism.
Widely disseminating the relative successes of different campaigns, comparing the issues faced and cooperating internationally can help to build the International Counter Olympics Network (ICON) movement. Even where there have been strong grassroots movements, such as in Greece, the Games and its security legacy was not stopped, so more cooperation is essential. One of the key lessons is that action has to be taken very early, before and during the bid stage of one of the largest corporate billboards on the planet, which means if the Games are taken on a case-by-case basis there is not usually enough time to swot up on the relevant issues and the repression that surrounds Olympics activism to make resistance successful. A global campaign may be one way to make this possible, but there is a lot of work to do if we are to do more than simply encourage corporate sponsors not to take their Olympic tax break. One of the most blatant corporate playgrounds in the world needs to be resisted if we are to have the right to our cities in the future.
 C.A. Shaw, Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games (Canada: New Society Publishers, 2008)
 Andrew Jennings, The New Lords of the Rings: Olympic Corruption and How to Buy Gold Medals (London: Pocket Books, 1996)
 For activist accounts of actions around the Games, see sites such as Games Monitor www.gamesmonitor.org.
 Kompreser Collective (2012): Athens 2004, City: analysis of urban trends, culture, theory, policy, action, 16:4, 461-467, http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13604813.2012.696907  http://325.nostate.net/library/spreadsocialrevoltenglish.pdf