BidWeek: The IOC Has Changed, Shouldn’t Anti-Olympic Activists Change Too?

Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone

BidWeek – Reporting From Toronto, Canada –  Recently, anti-Olympics activists have forced massive reform within the Olympic Movement, and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has responded to concerns by significantly changing the way it selects host cities for the Games.

The activists have accomplished so many important goals, proving that their efforts are valid, change is possible and the Olympic Games can exist in our fragile twenty-first century.  But they continue to make many of the same old arguments and call for #NOlympicsAnywhere – the end of the Modern Games.

Isn’t it time for opponents of the Olympics to change too?

In 2015, anti-Olympic activist group No Boston Olympics leveraged social media and smart public relations techniques to topple Boston’s fledgling 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games bid before the project even arrived at the starting gate.

In retrospect, July 2015 marked a significant watershed moment for the Olympic Movement when the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) terminated Boston’s battered bid and focused instead on a possible future Games in Los Angeles – the city now considered a poster-child for the way a sustainable Games should be organized in the future.

After Boston’s demise, other hopeful international Olympic bids fell like dominoes, triggering the rapid change within the IOC as the organization struggled to attract and retain credible bids.  It was a reactive and painful transition, but we’re now at a point where the IOC has addressed the criticism from activists and only time can tell if everyone ends up with the results they want and need.

NOlympicsAnywhere protesters on the streets in Tokyo in July 2019 (Photo: NOlympicsAnywhere/Twitter)

NOlympicsAnywhere protesters on the streets in Tokyo in July 2019 (Photo: NOlympicsAnywhere/Twitter)

Indeed, due to the lengthy time-cycle required to plan, bid for, and then organize a Games, it could be nine years before we get a complete picture of the results.  Tell-tale milestones are anticipated along the way.

Anti-Games activists, however, refuse to wait.

Leaders in that movement still call for the complete eradication of the Olympic Games, and to emphasize their goals activists organized in masses this summer in Tokyo one-year ahead of Japan’s 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Though all editions are being targeted, many of the Games’ opponents are focusing their criticism on Los Angeles 2028, ironically the same Games their own movement inadvertently steered the USOC and IOC into creating and those Games that were designed to solve the challenges of hosting the world’s largest international event.

LA has proposed a no-build Games.  No new venues or Games-specific infrastructure will be constructed – possibly for the first time in Olympic history.  Athletes and media will be housed in existing university accommodations at UCLA and USC.  Events will be staged in some of the best in-use facilities in the world, or in temporary structures across Southern California.

There can be no ‘white elephant’ legacies that Olympic opponents have criticized in the past – and with no permanent structures scheduled for construction in a set time box, the high risk of associated cost overruns has been virtually eliminated.

LA 2024 Olympic bid supporters rally at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to launch international campaign February 2, 2017 (USOC Photo)

LA 2024 Olympic bid supporters rally at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum to launch international campaign February 2, 2017 (USOC Photo)

The LA 2028 Games will be organized in a way we’ve never seen before.

In June, a joint Italian bid from Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo was elected to host the 2026 Winter Games with a similar model that emphasizes a “use what you have, where you have it” mantra to organize the event.

IOC President Thomas Bach described this new flavour of bid as part of a “revolution,” and the IOC’s new adapted bid process to support the model as an “evolution of the revolution.”

It’s a huge win for the anti-Olympic activists, and they’ll long be remembered for their pivotal role in keeping the Games viable for the twenty-first century.

But they don’t see it that way.  It’s not what they really want.  It’s not #NOlympicsAnywhere.

Instead, activists have tweaked their laundry-list of concerns, taking some focus off complaints about massive over-spending and catastrophic economic loss realized in recent past Games and instead itemizing “debt, displacement, militarization and green-washing” as their main concerns.

IOC President Thomas Bach signs host agreement with Milan-Cortina 2026 (IOC Photo)

IOC President Thomas Bach signs host city agreement with Milan-Cortina 2026 (IOC Photo)

So, why would they rather deprive the world of the widely recognized benefits of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, instead of waiting to see if the transformation of the hosting model – one that they worked so hard to create – is effective?

Why not instead focus efforts on the specific issues, win the same success they earned with their cost and sustainability grievances, and still preserve the Games?

It’s simple.  They do not value the Games.   Not at all.

“I don’t think we have to admit that the Olympics have positive benefits,” Anne Orchier, a NOlympics LA spokesperson and member of the Democratic Socialists of America said during the demonstrations in Tokyo.

“What has worked in an increasing number of cities is rejection, is people coming together and saying ‘no’, so actually to us saying ‘no’ is the most realistic plan because that’s the only thing that has worked,” she added.

Her organization is currently working to have the Los Angeles Games cancelled.  LA was awarded the Games in 2017 as part of a double allocation with Paris for 2024.

Anne Orchier, spokesperson for NOlympics LA and member of the Democratic Socialists of America during a press conference in Tokyo, July 2019

Anne Orchier, spokesperson for NOlympics LA and member of the Democratic Socialists of America during a press conference in Tokyo, July 2019

Orchier argues that the Games are not a positive influence for all youth, especially impoverished young people who would rather keep their homes than welcome an Olympics with out-of-reach ticket prices to their city.

A 2017 poll commissioned by the Los Angeles Olympic bid committee found that 83 percent in the region were behind a possible Games in California; an IOC poll found that number to be 78 percent.  Last year a survey launched online by NOlympics LA revealed that 47 percent of respondents opposed the Games.

The latter results were gathered using a methodology that isn’t typically employed by major polling firms, but what makes the NOlympics LA results an even poorer fit is its packaging of the prime question with other queries that are designed to help respondents ‘learn’ about hosting the Games.

Those questions probed for responses based on unfavorable statistics about past Games that were based on the old hosting model, before the IOC revolutionized the process with ‘Olympic Agenda 2020’ reforms in response to the downfalls of huge construction projects.  The survey, that didn’t mention any of these new reforms that made LA 2028 a reality, was clearly designed to spin the results in a purposeful direction.

It seems that the NOlympics groups have yet to adjust to the IOC’s changes, instead leaning on an old set of rules that have served them well in the past.

Orchier said “What we have seen from history and from working and talking to other organizers in other cities is that reform has consistently failed.”

IOC Proposes Opening Olympic Bids To Multiple Cities, Regions or Countries As Part Of Sweeping Changes

“There have been many anti-Olympic groups that have tried to negotiate, that have asked for reforms, that have been told they are going to get reform and then reform doesn’t happen.”

But now reform has happened, and in a big way – right at the top.  It has been written into the IOC’s own charter.  And the unprecedented election of Milan-Cortina 2026 to host the Winter Games with a widespread regional footprint designed to significantly reduce costs and risks is proof that the reforms are being implemented and accepted by the IOC.

I’ve covered a dozen Olympic bids, first-hand, and that 2026 campaign with rival Stockholm-Åre was unlike any other in the past.  While I was on the ground in both Italy and Sweden, traveling hundreds of miles to visit existing facilities – all while IOC spokespeople were constantly on-hand to laud this ‘new norm’ – the change was abundantly clear.  The change is real.

“The people who are driving [the Olympics] have no incentive to reform.  And all of the things we are mentioning – displacement, militarization, environmental degradation – these are not side effects, these are the plan.” – Anne Orchier of NOlympics LA 

The activists’ concerns about debt have been addressed in the new Games concepts, and with the IOC’s contribution of hundreds of millions of dollars towards organizing the Games.

Militarization?  That’s an issue of public security, safety and human rights that is much bigger than the Olympics – and something that varies and should be dealt with at a national level.  But activists have a right to be concerned and can target their outrage accordingly.

Green-washing – a term coined to describe the misleading environmental claims of organizations regarding products or corporate operations – is another valid argument raised by activists as it pertains to past Olympics.  But again this is a much bigger international issue and targeting to eliminate the IOC, an organization that endeavors to be at the forefront of green initiatives, doesn’t seem to be the right play.

Instead, a Swedish 16-year-old girl has proven to be more than capable of leading the charge on the management of pollution and global climate-change, and Greta Thunberg doesn’t need to hijack the Olympic stage to command massive international attention.

A Milano-Cortina 2026 Olympic bid promotional banner in Livigno, where snowboard and freestyle ski events are proposed (GamesBids Photo)

A Milano-Cortina 2026 Olympic bid promotional banner in Livigno, where snowboard and freestyle ski events are proposed (GamesBids Photo)

In Los Angeles, NOlympics organizers know that the playing field has changed and so must their tactics as they continue to lead a charge to end the Games planned for California, and other places around the world.  They know there are now answers, and possible solutions to their concerns.

Many NOlympics LA organizers are members of the Democratic Socialists of America who focus on the problem of homelessness in LA and across America.

So it comes without surprise that activist are now focusing their arguments on the risk of resident displacement as a result of the LA 2028 Olympics.  They claim that the no-build Olympics will still result in residents losing their homes to demolition or neighborhood gentrification.

Displacement has been a problem as a result of past Games – in Rio, in London and even while preparing for next year in Tokyo.  Those Games were big build projects, before the IOC forced bids to commit to more sustainable plans.

But this is where it becomes a stretch.

NOlympics LA officials claim planned hotel construction in the city for the Games will cause displacement of residents, even as LA 2028 insists there will be no such Games-specific construction.  Activists rely on developer planning documents that cite the upcoming Olympics, along with other tourist demands that show a need for additional accommodations in the area over the next decade.

Their new call to action is “Homes Not Hotels.”

They cling to this far-fetched Olympic risk even as they relent just a bit.

“We’re not saying Olympics cause gentrification, but they accelerate it,”  Orchier told Curbed.

What seems to be ignored, however, is Los Angeles’ booming tourism resulting in part from the film industry, professional and amateur sport, theme parks, beaches and… the weather.

LA 2024 StubHub Velo Sports Center - Olympic Track Cycling; Paralympic Road Cycling

Olympic Track Cycling and Paralympic Road Cycling at LA 2028 will be staged at the existing StubHub Center (LA 2028)

The claims also contradict frequent reports by tourism agencies and the same anti-Olympic groups that the Games actually cause a reduction in the number of visitors during and surrounding the event.  Are private developers actually building hotels solely for the Olympic and Paralympic Games?  Not likely.

The IOC has addressed what it can – what is within its control.  And be clear, it’s just a start and much follow-through is needed in the years to come.  Groups such as NOlympics still have a big role to play in keeping the equation balanced, and mutual goals in range.

But activists are now becoming opportunists, using the popular Olympic stage to push forward other agendas.  Ironically, they hope to do this by destroying that same platform.

Imagine if instead the activist organizations targeted the Hollywood film industry to further their goals.  Certainly movie studios are a huge reason for tourism and hotels in Los Angeles – and the construction of facilities and production of films could result in displacement, gentrification and be associated with green-washing.

Do we see a call for #NOMoviesAnywhere?  Think of how that would impact the economies and cultures of the world – and the quality of life for those who live in it.

Then, consider this:

Behind every Olympian are hundreds of thousands of athletes who compete for the same opportunity at the continental levels, the national levels, the regional levels, within their cities or at their schools.  Those athletes, along their families and friends and fans, all benefit from each unique accomplishment and associated inspiration.

These athletes, as many Olympians attest, leverage their on-field experience of discipline, focus and dedication to drive off-field success in any chosen area.  Hundreds of millions around the world have improved their quality of life through sport.

The Olympic Refugee team tours Rio ahead of their events at the 2016 Olympic Games (IOC Photo)

The Olympic Refugee team tours Rio ahead of their events at the 2016 Olympic Games (IOC Photo)

But without the Olympic Games, many of these sports opportunities simply would not exist.

Through the Games themselves, the IOC receives billions of dollars in broadcast and sponsorship revenue from mostly private sources – and redistributes 90 percent of these funds to support the intangible infrastructure of international sport.  In many cases, the funding is contributed to help financially challenged nations develop their own Olympic programs and to join wealthy nations on a more level playing field.  More funds go to important charitable causes.

Olympic funding supports anti-doping efforts and the international courts that work to enforce necessary rules that govern play among more than 200 competing nations.

With the international sport infrastructure in place, individual nations often provide public funding for their Olympic programs to deliver training, education, facilities and more – and they do this because it is understood that sport is a crucial part of the cultural fabric of their country.

Sport can provide opportunities for those who have lost hope, to which members of the IOC’s refugee teams from the 2016 and 2018 Games can attest.  Many other Olympians from nations around the world would agree that the Olympics have had a positive impact on their lives.

The Paralympics create great value and opportunities to many people with special abilities, and those benefits expand well beyond the Games themselves.  Improved, accessible infrastructure and a legacy of greater understanding impact so many who are not even involved in the Games themselves.

The Paralympics would not be possible at the current scale if not for the support of the Olympic Movement.

Try to imagine a world where the Olympic Games ceased to exist today.

#NOlympicsAnywhere.

Amid the monumental reforms made by the IOC this year that could forever change the way Games are hosted, and help guarantee that there will be an Olympic Movement for future generations, Orchier had this to say at a press conference in July:

“The people who are driving [the Olympics] have no incentive to reform.  And all of the things we are mentioning – displacement, militarization, environmental degradation – these are not side effects, these are the plan.  That’s the intention so they cannot be negotiated away because that’s the purpose.  It’s not a trade-off.”

No, that’s not an old quote, it is the current ill-informed perception of the anti-Olympic movement.  It must change.

Certainly the Olympics are beset with a myriad of problems.  Not all bids are right for their cities and not all cities are a fit to host the Games.  But the answer is not, and cannot be to abandon the Movement that represents some of our civilization’s greatest accomplishments over the centuries.

Wouldn’t that be a step backward for humanity?

Robert Livingstone

About Robert Livingstone

Robert Livingstone is a senior editor, award-winning journalist and author, covering Olympic bid business as founder of GamesBids.com as well as providing freelance support for print and Web publications around the world. He is a member of the Olympic Journalists Association and the International Society of Olympic Historians. Follow him @enotsgnivil