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From Los Angeles to Tokyo: Communities are Saying NO to the Olympics

With any Olympic Games comes community displacement, expansion of police militarization, environmental degradation, financial waste, and corruption. Learn about the Nolympics movement.

Image from NOlympicsLA.com

I grew up loving gymnastics. As a former gymnast and fan of a lesser-known sport, I was of course drawn to the Olympics. The Olympics is the premier stage to watch athletes perform at an international level. I loved being able to cheer on America’s “Fierce Five” and Japan’s Kohei Uchimura.

Kohei Uchimura, seven-time Olympic medalist and Goku look-alike.

So, many years later, I was intrigued when a friend of mine told me about a grassroots coalition organizing against the 2024/28 Olympics in Los Angeles. In 2017, I attended my first NOlympicsLA teach-in and I learned about how the Olympics Games are designed to profit the wealthy at the expense and exploitation of local communities. Wherever the Olympics are held, there is displacement, expanded militarized police, environmental degradation, financial waste, and corruption in order to produce massive profits for real estate developers, media, corporate sponsors, and politicians.

And with the Olympics, there is almost always community resistance. Nearly every Olympic Games since the 1970s has had opposition, with Denver residents successfully rejecting an Olympic bid in 1976, Chicagoans organizing against the 2016 Games in their city, and activists in Calgary effectively lobbying against the 2026 Winter Olympics.

Since its inception in 2017, the NOlympicsLA coalition has grown to 30 organizations fighting against the 2028 LA Olympics. And the fight against the Olympics is global. With the 2020 Tokyo Olympics looming (postponed during the global pandemic), the anti-Olympics movement in Tokyo is led by two groups: 東京オリンピックおことわリンク(Okotowalink) and 反五輪の会 (Hangorin no Kai).

Protestors hold signs at a 2017 Los Angeles City Council meeting. I’m in the middle of the crowd holding the white poster! Photo by Marcus Yam (LA Times).

I learned that many of the fears that communities have regarding the Olympics are shared across cities, from Los Angeles to Tokyo.  Here are some reasons why people around the world are saying NO to the Olympics:

Displacement and Rising Homelessness

In Little Tokyo, we have a decades long history of fighting displacement in order to maintain one of the last standing Japantowns in the United States. Recently, Little Tokyo has faced the immense pressures of gentrification, with small businesses being replaced by corporate chains and high rise developments for the wealthy. We see these same pressures in neighborhoods across LA. Hosting the Olympics will exacerbate the already crisis-level issues we face of rising rents, evictions, and homelessness.

According to a report from the Centre on Housing Rights and Evictions, more than two million people have been displaced since 1988 due to Olympics-related projects. While most of that displacement is from the destruction of homes in order to build stadiums, accommodations, and hotels, the Games also lead to rising rents and subsequent homelessness due to real estate speculation.  

In the period between receiving the Olympic bid and hosting the Olympics, Sydney saw a 40% increase in rent with triple the rate of homelessness, Vancouver saw a 30% increase in rent and a doubling in the rate of homelessness, and Newham, London saw a 40% increase in rent with seven times increase in homelessness.

NOlympics organizers and tenants outside the LA Memorial Coliseum, 2017. Photo from NOlympicsLA.com.

The displacement of low-income residents in LA has already started. While the 2028 LA Olympics does not technically require new venues, the Games have already been used as justification for projects that spur displacement. Most egregious so far is the proposed demolition of 32 rent-stabilized apartment units across the street from the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in order to build The Fig hotel. LA City Council members justified this development by saying: “this community requires additional hotel rooms…to prepare the City for the growing tourism sector … at the 2028 Olympic and Paralympic Games.” That same year, LA saw a 16% increase in homelessness.

Tokyo is no exception to this. Most infamous is the Kasumigaoka public housing complex, which was demolished to make way for the new National Stadium. Heartbreakingly, two of the women forcibly displaced from the Kasumigaoka apartments were experiencing eviction for the second time. Their first was for Tokyo’s 1964 Olympics.

One of those women has joined the opposition to the Games: “In order to challenge the Olympics the community has to unite and fight.”

Shinjuku, 2019. Photo from NOlympicsLA.com.

Police Militarization

The Olympics puts pressure on the host city to portray a positive image in order to appeal to tourists and commercial interests. The media, corporations, and developers want to sell an image of beaches and celebrities, rather than the reality of homelessness, street vendors, and protestors in the streets.  People who do not fit that image of Los Angeles are policed and displaced.  

Right now, our country is in a mass uprising in response to the murders of Black people by the police. In LA, Black Lives Matter (BLM) has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to demand justice for George Floyd and to defund the police, with local community groups like Nikkei for Civil Rights & Redress and Nikkei Progressives being in solidarity. However, any success to defund or decrease the police is threatened by the Olympics, which expands policing and has already committed at least six billion dollars towards policing and surveillance for the 2028 LA Games.

BLM-LA co-founder Dr. Melina Abdullah at 2017 forum about LA’s 2028 Olympics: “Any time you talk about putting more resources into policing, you’re talking about taking those resources away from things that actually make the people that we care about safe.”   Photo by DSA-LA.

When LA hosted the Olympics in 1984, it was the largest and most expensive policing ever imposed during peacetime in the United States, with one Japanese reporter saying: ''It's almost like a military base.'' Police Chief Daryl Gates imprisoned for weeks thousands of Black and Latinx Angelenos suspected of being in gangs, dubbed the “Olympic Gang Sweeps.” The funding and military resources provided during the 1984 Games did not go away and resulted in the LAPD being one of the largest, most militarized police forces in the United States.  

In Japan, we have seen similar efforts to increase policing and surveillance.  As early as 2016, Tokyo’s government ramped up sweeps targeting homeless people, especially near the National Stadium. In 2017, Japanese legislators justified passing brutal anti-terrorism legislation by citing the upcoming Olympics amid widespread public opposition, concerns from the United Nations, and protests against turning Japan into a “surveillence state.” The legislation expanded legal wiretapping and added hundreds of new crimes to law.  

Criminalizing Immigrants and Deportations

The 2028 Olympics is also designated as a National Special Security Event, which gives the Department of Homeland Security, including Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), jurisdiction of over 700 miles of Southern California.  

Alex Vitale, now popular author of The End of Policing, said this about the 2028 LA Olympics: “You can expect to see a major presence from the Border Patrol [...] They are likely to carry out identity checks in bus and rail stations far removed from the venue sites as well as provide extensive surveillance capacity.”  

Image from Densho.org

As Japanese Americans, we have a history of organizing in solidarity with immigrants facing persecution, from our work to support the Muslim community and against immigrants being incarcerated in ICE detention centers. The current immigration struggles parallel our history with WWII internment and we must fight any increased criminalization of immigrants, which includes the Olympics.

Street protest in Shinjuku, Tokyo, 2019. Photo from NOlympicsLA.com.

Even now, I feel an emotional attachment to the Olympics. I still have fond memories of watching Nastia Luikin at the 2008 Olympics and Simone Biles beat countless world records. But, even the greatest athletes performing at the highest levels do not justify the amount of destruction and violence that goes into hosting the Olympics.

Los Angeles is facing a number of critical and urgent issues related to poverty, affordable housing, homelessness, and mass incarceration. We are many months into a global pandemic with record breaking unemployment rates and a looming great recession. All the while, LA expects to spend $7 billion on an Olympic Games. Addressing these crises must be our priority, and for our city’s leaders to waste this much money and energy on any other goal is unconscionable.

Many people believe that the Olympics are inevitable, but what 2020 has taught me -- under an unlikely global pandemic and mass political uprising --- is that anything is possible. Our communities are worth fighting for. Say NO to the Olympics.

Interested in fighting against the Olympics? Join us!

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Article featured in this issue:
In Lieu of the Olympics
August 8, 2020

Here's an issue in lieu of the pomp & circumstance that we were expecting right around this time of the year. From retrospectives and lists to an honest assessment of why the Olympics aren't good for local community, we bring you an issue of Olympic proportion.

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