Image: A woman with a covering over her face holds a sign that says “What Will the Olympics Stand for This Summer,” during 2008 San Francisco protests against the Beijing Olympics. Image courtesy of Ricardo Mendonça Ferreira, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Every two years, the world’s attention turns to the Olympic Games. Athletic competitions are the center of the action, but the Games now involve political action, city-reshaping projects, and dazzling cultural displays. However, the Games are not without controversy or opposition. Activists have opposed the hosting of a rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics, set to begin later this week, as Japan continues to face a covid-19 crisis. The following is the first in a collection of essays that places controversy around Tokyo 2020 in context, exploring scholarly work on opposition to the Games, urban transformations central to the contemporary Olympics, protest at the Olympic Games, and more.

Since the early days of the Coronavirus pandemic, many in Japan and around the world have called for the Tokyo Games’ cancellation, citing the risk to public health and escalating costs. But the one-year postponement did little to ensure a safe event, as Japan’s vaccination rollout progresses at a snail’s pace and much of the country remains under a state of emergency. More recently, competing athletes have reported COVID infections upon arriving in Japan, which remains under a state of emergency due to high case counts. In early March, Japanese officials barred foreign travellers from entry into Japan. Then, in early July, after hinting that domestic spectators might be allowed to attend events, officials announced in early July that all spectators would be prohibited from venues. With this announcement, officials revealed athletes would play to empty stands in the venues, many of which are new, built specifically for the Games. The Japanese public remains dissatisfied, with a growing number expressing opposition to the Games. A May poll conducted by Kyodo News shows 59% of respondents support cancelling the event. Just weeks before the Games begin, an Asahi Shimbun survey indicates more than 80% of the Japanese public oppose hosting the Olympics.

From exorbitant costs on what will be empty venues, pandemic-related public safety concerns, and a lackluster pandemic recovery, the Tokyo Games have come to represent a confluence of grievances also seen in past Olympic Games. Whereas in the past more isolated issues inspired local opposition seeing Tokyo undertake the world’s biggest show amidst a lockdown and state of emergency has helped broaden the cause of Olympic opposition beyond Japan. This opposition is part of a long and controversial history of anti-Olympic sentiment.

Since its inception in the late nineteenth century, the Olympics have been both a target of protest and dissent. As a high-profile global event, issues from geopolitical conflict to human rights concerns often receive significant attention. However, as an urban spectacle, the Games routinely prompt local issues from housing displacement, evictions, redirected public dollars, and heightened policing. COVID adds a new target of opposition for the Tokyo Games, as the postponement of the unpopular event saw costs soar and lives threatened. This short piece overviews the key issues dissenters cite in their opposition to the Games as well as the forms these movements have historically taken.

Dissent varies widely from city to city, reflecting unique political structures, social norms, and material conditions. As the Olympics grow in physical size, its impact on local communities, the natural and built environment, and financial resources has become more pronounced. Past scholarship reveals five areas central to resistance efforts:

  • Cost: While the real price tags for Games remain obscured under accounting maneuvers, the 2016 Oxford Olympic study concluded no single Olympic Games came in under budget. Security, venue construction, and infrastructure improvements are central aspects of all Olympics, but how cities pay varies drastically. In Athens and Sochi, the national governments picked up most of the tab while Games like Atlanta and Los Angeles relied on private funding. Anti-Games advocates, vigilant about the misdirection of public dollars, have drawn attention to the use of taxpayer dollars for Olympics-related projects.
Image: Looking out onto the field, overgrown with grass and shrubs, at the the Olympic Softball Stadium in Helliniko Olympic Complex, Athens. Image courtesy of Evanonthegc, CC BY-SA 4.0.
  • Venues and infrastructure: In the early years of the Olympics, competitions took place primarily in existing venues,Later in the twentieth century, as cities saw the potential windfalls of hosting the Games, bid planners put forth more elaborate, extravagant proposals, often underwritten by local governments, with the promise that the event would spark investment. Lacking long-term legacy plans, purpose-built venues often sat empty following competitions. Citing cases like these, critics maintain hosting the spectacle is an unworthy gamble that risks public resources.
  • Security concerns: The threat of terrorism and violent disruption to the Games have sent costs skyrocketing, costs disproportionately borne by taxpayers. Given the high stakes of hosting the Games, heightened security presence has become the norm. Under the guise of safety, however, municipal and national governments have approved laws that curtail civil liberties like assembly and protest, as well as temporary surveillance measures targeting groups deemed threatening to the Games.
  • Displacement: Hosting the Olympics is understood to be a catalyst for urban development, an opportunity to attract investment, and a chance to remake the urban landscape. As such, communities deemed “undesirable” or impediments to development are frequently displaced, permanently removed, or priced out of their homes. Depending on the political and economic systems of the host nation, removal happens in a variety of forms, from forced, violent displacement to longer-term dislocation resulting from increasing rents.
  • Public input and democratic participation: Despite cases of widespread public support for hosting, bidding for the Olympics has never been a grassroots affair. Olympic bids are usually spearheaded by private sector leaders, entertainment moguls, and sporting industry officials, who seek to spark investment, or government leaders hoping to benefit from the prominence and renown hosting the event affords. As growing proportions of hosting budgets come from taxpayer dollars, activists have called for greater transparency related to bid details. With the event’s impact felt well beyond the stakeholders and attendees and decades after the competitions end, civil society groups are calling for more transparency and public participation in the planning process.

Resistance groups have taken various forms, from targeted efforts to change specific venues to broader, diverse coalitions challenging entire bids. The political scientist Matthew Burbank examines “piecemeal resistance” efforts, or sustained campaigns targeting specific aspects of bid plans. He also notes the particular difficulty opponents to the Olympics face within civil societies that support the Games. Resistance to specific aspects of bid plans have included homeowner opposition to the siting of specific venues, as was the case with the Atlanta tennis venue, and movements to prevent the use of public dollars on the Games. In the leadup to the 1977 selection of Los Angeles as 1984 host city, the pervasive anti-tax sentiment roiling much of the US forced bid leaders to eschew the use of taxpayer funds for the event, effectively promising a privately financed Olympics. Piecemeal resistance to Games-related projects have ranged from stopping the construction of highways, urban renewal projects, and neighborhood clearance.

Across the board, resistance coalitions have only once achieved success — stopping a bid from taking place — after the IOC names an Olympic host. In the years before the Denver 1976 Winter Games, a coalition of Colorado environmentalists and taxpayer groups gathered enough signatures to place an amendment on the use of public dollars for the Olympics to a vote in the 1972 elections. The ballot measure passed, forcing the city and state to rescind their agreement to host the event. Andrew Zimbalist and Chris Dempsey examine the Boston coalition of small-government conservatives, greenspace advocates, and anti-capitalist leftists who successfully mounted a pressure campaign against the Boston 2024 bid. Anti-Games coalitions like these exist in other cities, each reflecting the host city’s intricacies and social climate. According to social theorist Tom Mertes, the broad-scale opposition against the Olympics shares much in common with the diverse formation of the global justice movement, with the ‘ongoing series of coalitions”, fleeting alliances, and emphasis on insecurity and issues of structural inequality. The political scientist Jules Boykoff, a prominent Olympic critic, has chronicled how this “movement of movements” organizes with increasing solidarity across a wide range of issues and mobilization strategies in a host of urban and national contexts to reshape popular conceptions of the Olympic Games.

While the material realities are the most common grounds for opposition groups, movements have routinely drawn attention to the Olympics’ cultural, symbolic, and financial ties. Human rights activists stalked Beijing’s Olympic Flame as it travelled around the globe protesting China’s control of Tibet. While targeting the Chinese government’s actions, protestors depicted the IOC’s complicity in the human rights abuses by cooperating with China. In “The Anti-Olympics” Boykoff traced the myriad Vancouver activist networks, from indigenous groups to anti-poverty advocates, whose radical critique of the 2010 Winter Games centered the cultural narratives and histories of the city’s marginalized communities. A Southern California campaign opposing LA’s Olympic aspirations has targeted the IOC’s sordid legacy of white supremacy and social Darwinism, and the enduring legacies of imperialism and conquest still present in the gentrification, evictions, and deportations seen at Games time. By connecting the experiences of those living in Olympic cities — marginalized residents’ encounters with housing precarity, expanded state surveillance of BIPOC communities, and austerity budgets — to the Olympics’ troubling past, activists and opponents seek to merge the present challenges locals face with the Olympic project writ large. Destabilizing the IOC’s efforts to shed past errors broadens the historical lens used to analyze the contemporary spectacle.

Even before COVID unsettled Tokyo’s Games, the future of the Olympics was in question. In the mid-2010s, Boston organized a bid for the 2024 Summer Games, ultimately winning the US Olympic Committee’s nod to advance to the international bidding competition. In 2014 and 2015, a coalition of concerned Bostonians of all political stripes and backgrounds organized to stop the bid from advancing, holding rallies, lobbying officials, and taking to more militant means of dissent. Ultimately, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh rescinded his support for the bid, effectively ending the quest for the Games; the USOC selected Los Angeles as its replacement. The concerns of Boston activists were shared by locals in other 2024 bid cities. Hamburg, Rome, and Budapest initially expressed interest in hosting the 2024 Summer Games before sustained citizen opposition forced local leaders to rescind support, leaving only Paris and Los Angeles in the running. To ensure cities stepped forward to bid for the 2028 Olympics, and to avert a public relations nightmare, the IOC awarded Los Angeles, the 2024 runner up, the 2028 Games.

This episode portends a precarious path forward for Olympic leaders. While still too early to gauge COVID’s impact on the Olympics, Tokyo’s nightmare scenario has only hurt the IOC’s cause in the long run, exposing the unseen risks and “winner’s curse” plaguing host cities. Weeks before the start of the Games, Japan’s largest nurses organization called for the Games’ cancellation. Citing virus concerns, more than 10,000 volunteers — crucial to staging the event — abruptly quit in protest. The uncertainty of the past year has revealed the scope of the Games’ social impact, thereby aiding the cause of Olympics resistance. Calling attention to these events, activists from LA to Tokyo have laid bare the concrete interconnections between the Olympics and the wellbeing of local communities in hopes of reshaping the public imaginary of the Olympics and its toll.

Recommended Readings

Jules Boykoff. 2011. “The Anti-Olympics.” New Left Review 67: 41–59.

Jules Boykoff. 2020. NOlympians: Inside the Fight Against Capitalist Mega-Sports in Los Angeles, Tokyo and Beyond. Halifax ; Winnipeg: Fernwood Publishing.

Matthew J. Burbank, Charles H. Heying, and Greg Andranovich. 2000. “Antigrowth Politics or Piecemeal Resistance?: Citizen Opposition to Olympic-Related Economic Growth.” Urban Affairs Review 35(3): 334–57. 

Egidio Dansero, Barbara Del Corpo, Alfredo Mela, & Irene Ropolo. 2012. “Olympic Games, Conflicts and Social Movements: The Case of Torino 2006.” Pp. 195-218 in Olympic Games, Mega-Events and Civil Societies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Richard Giulianotti, Gary Armstrong, Gavin Hales, and Dick Hobbs. 2015. “Sport Mega-Events and Public Opposition: A Sociological Study of the London 2012 Olympics.” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 39(2): 99–119. 

David Whitson. 2012. “Vancouver 2010: The Saga of Eagleridge Bluffs.” Pp. 219-235 in Olympic Games, Mega-Events and Civil Societies. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Daniel Cueto-Villalobos is a PhD student in the Department of Sociology at the University of Minnesota researching urban development, social movements, and the politics of the Olympic Games.