Jules Boykoff - The Anti-Olympics

With news breaking today that the offices of the building contractor responsible for construction of one of the main competition venues for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games have been raided by police, amidst charges that it has skimmed-off millions of dollars of public funds, we revisit Jules Boykoff's essay from NLR 67 on anti-Olympic resistance.

Jules Boykoff's new book, Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, a timely, no-holds barred, critical political history of the modern Olympic Games, is out now.



With the Rio Games mired in a series of corruption scandals, and with the looming threat of the Zika Virus, the question of who the Olympic spectacle actually benefits has been raised once again. In Rio the favelas, typically sites for state repression, have been subject to eviction and displacement and protests against the Games have been subject to militarised policing and massive human rights abuses in order to clear the city for the arrival of athletes and tourists with their entourage of corporate sponsors and media executives. What power do ordinary people have to stop the great sporting spectacles from destroying communities and wasting billions in public funds? And, could the Olympics ever be democratised?

The Anti-Olympics


Walking along east Hastings Street in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver one crisp January morning in 2010, I came across a perplexing set of white panels on the outer flank of the refurbished Woodward’s building. The panels featured an explosion of repudiation: stark, black-lettered phrases like ‘HELL NO’, ‘I SAID NO’, ‘NO BLOODY WAY’, and ‘NO WAY JOSÉ’. Four placards simply read ‘NO’. Later I learned that this was a site-specific installation by Vancouver artist Ken Lum for Simon Fraser University’s Audain Gallery, challenging a ‘2010 Winter Games By-law’ passed by the City of Vancouver in the run-up to the Olympics. The by-law outlawed placards, posters and banners that did not ‘celebrate’ the 2010 Winter Games and ‘create or enhance a festive environment and atmosphere’. The ordinance criminalized anti-Olympic signs and gave Canadian authorities the right to remove them from both public and private property.

The following month I returned to Vancouver to see how anti-Olympic organizing was taking shape. Strolling near the Olympic Village in the days before the Games, one encountered a contradiction-laden mélange of genial sports enthusiasm and ostentatious surveillance state. The place was teeming with sprightly tourists, athletes, Olympics officials and journalists with cameras and press badges swinging from their necks; awash with teal, one of the perky, focus-group-tested colours of the 2010 Winter Games. At the same time, it felt like entering some sort of immaculate repression zone. Officers from the newly formed Vancouver Integrated Security Unit—headed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and comprising more than 20 policing agencies—hunkered together on every corner and patrolled the bustling footpaths around the False Creek inlet. Surveillance cameras were pegged to poles at regular intervals around the perimeter. Helicopters whirred overhead. CF-18 Hornet fighter jets zinged by. Ersatz Christo and Jeanne-Claude-style banners, also in Olympic teal, enveloped chain-link fences that channelled people into permissible zones while concealing chunks of so-called public space.

Brawn and brass

The Olympic Games has become the world’s greatest media and marketing event; huge corporations vie for association with the ‘Olympic brand’ in the hope of gaining a worldwide marketing audience of billions. Somewhere between multinational corporation and global institution, the International Olympic Committee sits at the heart of a vast interlocking structure of national and international bodies, sporting associations and sponsoring firms; in recent decades the Games, Summer and Winter, have been receiving the blessing of the UN, which ritually adopts a never-observed resolution on the Olympic Truce with every new Olympiad. The IOC weighs the bids for hosting the Games, put forward by the National Olympic Committees. Based in Lausanne, Switzerland, where it is registered as a not-for-profit NGO, and enjoying tax exemptions wherever it touches down, theIOC made a profit of $383 million on the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics, after routing a very substantial share of the $2.4 billion total revenue to other parts of the ‘Olympic Movement’. It is subject to no independent financial audit; the ultimate destination of much of the revenue that flows into its coffers remains mysterious, the salaries of IOC executives unreported. [1]

The modern Olympics are the brainchild of French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin (1863–1937), an eccentric Anglophile who saw in the sporting culture of Thomas Arnold’s Rugby School the magic formula for Britain’s imperial dominance. [2] Here, in the mix of rigorous discipline with manly self-display, lay the means to reinvigorate the French nation after the humiliation of the Franco-Prussian War. Coubertin was a straightforward adherent to the Social Darwinism of his time: ‘The theory that all human races have equal rights leads to a line of policy which hinders any progress in the colonies’—‘the superior race is fully entitled to deny the lower race certain privileges of civilized life’. He was no less clear-cut on the Jewish Question: ‘clever and shrewd in business’, perhaps, but ‘deep in their hearts they remain Asians’ whose role in history has been ‘insignificant’. [3] His inspired move was to marry imperial athletics with the massive World Fairs of the time—the early Olympics actually took place as sideshows to the Fairs—and to add a topping of pseudo-classical hymns, banners and laurel leaves. In 1896 the IOC, with Coubertin as President, organized the first Games. From the outset, Thomas Cook was official Olympic travel agent; American sportswear entrepreneur, Albert G. Spalding, soon joined the ranks, thereby gaining plentiful opportunities for product placement.

The Games were postponed during the greater display of manly virtue that erupted in 1914 and languished in the 1920s, though Winter Games were added in 1924. But Coubertin was delighted by the enthusiasm shown by Nazi Germany in its preparations for the Berlin Olympics of 1936: ‘illuminated with Hitler’s strength and discipline’, they should serve as a model for subsequent Games. [4] Equally enthusiastic was Coubertin’s protégé, and later IOC President, the Chicago property tycoon Avery Brundage (1887–1975), who defied anti-fascist protests, telling a Madison Square Garden rally in 1936: ‘We can learn much from Germany. We, too, if we wish to preserve our institutions, must stamp out communism. We, too, must take steps to arrest the decline of patriotism.’ [5] As IOC president from 1952–72, Brundage was an enthusiast for the white-only teams of apartheid South Africa and had an evident fondness for Franco’s Spain, holding the IOC’s 1965 congress in Madrid where the Generalissimo himself read the opening speech. Brundage responded with fulsome praise for Franco’s excellent grasp of the principles of amateurism. [6]Indeed Brundage’s favoured successor Juan Antonio Samaranch (1920–2010), the IOC president from 1980 to 2001, was a Falangist who regarded himself as ‘one hundred per cent Francoist’ up to the dictator’s death. [7]

The Games had been going through troubled times before Samaranch took over: the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City would be remembered for the Black Power salutes of the victorious US athletes, tear-gas traces lingering over the stadium as police brutalized protesting students outside. Black African states organized anti-apartheid boycotts in 1972 and 76, and the massacre of the Israeli team and their Palestinian captors in a bungled operation by German police overshadowed the Munich Games. The response of Samaranch and his colleagues was to scale up the money by auctioning broadcast rights, proclaiming—of course—that politics has no place in sport. The 1984 ‘Reagan Olympics’ in Los Angeles set the trend: a globally televized feeding-frenzy for sponsoring corporations, with a Disney-designed official mascot.

From this point on the IOC became the transnational giant that we know today, sailing on the vast streams of revenue generated by broadcasting contracts and by a corporate-sponsorship programme, TOP, which grants ‘The Olympic Partners’—Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, Dow Chemicals, Visa, Panasonic—the rights to use the IOC’s trade-marked Five Rings and flood global markets with ‘authentic’ Olympic-brand merchandise. Inside the stadium, doping grew so prevalent that even theIOC was forced to take note and establish its own Ethics Commission. In tune with the times, recent Games have combined debt-fuelled credit bubbles with the opportunity of a symbolic embrace by the ‘international community’. The 2004 Games in Athens incurred costs of nearly €7.2 billion, a significant contribution to Greece’s deficit. The 2008 Beijing Olympics offered a spectacular coming-out party for global capitalism’s latest recruit: the opening ceremony alone cost $100 million; naturally the IOC, now led by Belgian yachtsman and sports bureaucrat Jacques Rogge, turned a blind eye to the accompanying crackdown in Tibet.

If the Games have always represented the grand political logic of the day—classical imperialist muscle-flexing, Cold War inter-bloc rivalry, Pax Americana—they now typically also summon an upsurge of political contestation wherever they go. The IOC’s official charter forbids the expression of anti-Olympic dissent, stating in Rule 51, ‘No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’. Nevertheless, when the Olympics touch down in a host city, protest soon follows. Global summits like the WTO and G20 became the focus for a major wave of international activism with Seattle. The Games, too, have been revealed as the avatar of an unaccountable world order of power, wealth and spectacle, wreaking permanent social damage on the urban environment.

Event coalitions

Activists in Vancouver were early adopters of anti-Olympics dissent. Campaigners emerged in 2002—even before the city had won the bidding process—and built momentum right through the 2010 Winter Olympics. And while the Vancouver Sun pegged protesters as a collection of ‘whiners and grumble-bunnies’ who could not ‘hold their tongues even on a special occasion’, anti-Olympics activists produced a spirited critique: taxpayer money was being squandered on a two-and-a-half week sports party rather than going to indispensable social services; civil liberties were being threatened by a massively militarized police force; the Olympics were taking place on unceded aboriginal (Coast Salish) land. [8] Groups like the No Games 2010 Coalition pinpointed the dangers of the Olympic-industrial complex, and began a long-term public-education project to demystify the ostensibly win-win nature of the Games. The Impact on Community Coalition adopted a neutral stance at first, before shedding its non-aligned status once the contradictions of hosting the Olympics became too saw-toothed to downplay. Already extant groups like No One Is Illegal and the Anti-Poverty Committee lent a radical analysis of the Olympic juggernaut, with religious, environmental and aboriginal groups also getting involved. Streams of Justice, the Power of Women Group, No 2010 Olympics on Stolen Native Land, Van.Act!, and Native Youth Movement were other prime movers. Many people in these groups also worked with the Olympic Resistance Network—a decentralized, non-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian alliance.

The activism in Vancouver has been closer to the conception of organizing that Tom Mertes described in the global justice movement—‘an ongoing series of alliances and coalitions, whose convergences remain contingent’—than to an older model of mobilizations based on ongoing social solidarities. [9] In fact, it might be more accurate to call anti-Olympic resistance an ‘event coalition’ since the activism is barely sustained through time and from site to site. Aware of this distinction, activists concertedly called their actions ‘a convergence of movements’ around ‘the Olympic moment’ rather than a ‘social movement’—a term that tends to flatten out heterogeneity and overstate continuity. [10] Movements are finding ways to organize with greater flexibility, spontaneity and lateral solidarity, and anti-Olympics resistance in Vancouver provides a prime example of these dynamics.

In February 2003, Vancouver voters were presented with a plebiscite to gauge public support for hosting the Games. Though pro-Olympics boosters spent $700,000 persuading the public—140 times more than the ‘no’ side—only 26 per cent of those eligible voted in favour, on the basis of a total turnout of 40 per cent. [11] This weak yet media-trumpeted endorsement of the Games did nothing to stunt dissent. An uncommon blend of activists joined forces—indigenous dissidents, anti-poverty campaigners, environmentalists, anarchists, civil libertarians and numerous combinations thereof—resulting in a cross-cutting solidarity in opposition to the Games. Resistance went far beyond the NGO circuit, taking the form of a two-track fight-back, with one wing working inside the institutional corridors of power and another applying pressure from the outside through direct action.

Indigenous resistance

Indigenous activists played a vital part. It is worth underlining that First Nations have a unique relationship with the Canadian state in British Columbia. When British colonies became confederated as Canadian provinces in 1867, London had already signed treaties with aboriginal groups in alignment with the Royal Proclamation of 1763, which declared that only the Crown could obtain indigenous lands. When British Columbia joined the Confederation in 1871, only fifteen such treaties had been agreed, leaving aboriginal title to the remainder of the region unresolved. With the exception of Treaty 8, negotiated in 1899, and the Nisga’a Treaty, which was completed in 2000, aboriginal title has still not been legally extinguished in British Columbia. [12] Lacking treaty relations, British Columbia remains—according to indigenous intellectual Taiaiake Alfred—‘in a perpetual colonialism-resistance dynamic’. [13] In 2010, this dynamic was evident in full-force in anti-Olympics activism.

In what became known as the Eagleridge Bluffs Blockade, environmental and First Nations activists teamed up to oppose the expansion of the Sea-to-Sky Highway connecting Vancouver to Whistler. In late May 2006 First Nations elder and activist Harriet Nahanee was arrested along with veteran environmentalist Betty Krawczyk. Despite their age they were both unceremoniously tossed into jail. In February 2007, with Krawczyk and Nahanee still languishing behind bars, two activists disrupted the ‘Olympic Countdown Ceremony’ staged by the official Vancouver organizing committee (VANOC). Anti-poverty campaigner David Cunningham and aboriginal dissident Gord Hill spontaneously hopped onto the stage, seized the microphone and led chants of ‘Homes not Games’ and ‘Fuck 2010’. Tragically, Harriet Nahanee had contracted pneumonia in jail and died a month later. In March 2007, activists caused a stir when they made off with the gargantuan Olympic flag that had been hoisted at City Hall. Shortly thereafter, a photograph of three masked activists posing in front of the flag with a photograph of Nahanee was released by a group calling itself the Native Warrior Society.

First Nations peoples had good reason to be sceptical that they would be treated with respect during the Olympics. For the closing ceremonies of the 1976 Summer Games in Montréal, nine First Nations agreed to participate in a ‘commemoration ceremony’, in which their 200 representatives were joined by 250 non-indigenous dancers sporting costumes and paint, in an effort to pass themselves off as First Nations people. According to the Games’ Official Report, the ‘sumptuous procession’ was ‘made even more exciting by the play of lights and the theatrical music based on André Mathieu’sDanse sauvage’. [14] In the end, as one critic noted, ‘non-Aboriginal performers dressed and painted to look like “Indians” led the Aboriginal participants through their own commemoration’.[15] Nevertheless, leaders from the Lil’wat, Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations agreed in 2004 to work together on hosting and assisting the 2010 Games—the first time the IOChad permitted aboriginal people to be official host partners. The official mascots were also First Nations-inspired: Miga, a mythical sea bear; Quatchi, a sasquatch; and Sumi, an animal spirit.Indian Country Today, a weekly that focuses on indigenous issues across the Americas, declared that the event was ‘a showcase for Native culture’, where ‘the vibrant and integral involvement of Native people in the Games’ was evident. [16]

Anti-Olympics activists were quick to point out that even though the Olympic charter endorses ‘promoting the preservation of human dignity’, the IOC chose to hold the games on unceded Coast Salish territory. Thus, the spectre of dispossession haunted the Olympics and ‘No Olympics on Stolen Native Land’ became one of the leading anti-Olympic slogans. Despite massive financial inducements, 80 of the 203 indigenous bands in British Columbia flatly refused to participate. [17]

To read the full article for free on the New Left Review website click here.

Jules Boykoff's new book Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics is now available to purchase via the Verso website with 30% discount, free worldwide postage and free bundled ebook.

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[1] Tripp Mickle, ‘IOC cashes in on Beijing’, Sports Business Journal, 13 July 2009; Christopher Shaw, Five Ring Circus, Gabriola Island, BC 2008, p. 72.

[2] ‘Arnold, the greatest educator of modern times, is more than any other responsible for the present prosperity and the prodigious expansion of his country. With him athletics penetrated a great public school and transformed it; and from the day on which the first generation fashioned by his hands was launched on the world, the British Empire had a new look’: Coubertin, ‘The Olympic Idea’, Discourses and Essays, Stuttgart 1967, p. 8; quoted in Ljubodrag Simonovic, Fascism and Olympism, p. 14, available on theCirque Minime website .

[3] Pierre de Coubertin, ‘Histoire universelle’, vol. 2, p. 447.

[4] Hans Joachim Teichler, ‘Coubertin und das Dritte Reich’, Sportswissenschaft, 1982, p. 12, quoted in Simonovic, ‘Fascism and Olympism’, p. 3.

[5] Brundage extols Hitler’s regime’, New York Times, 5 October 1936. The 20,000-strong rally ended by singing ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’, ‘Deutschland Ueber Alles’ and the Horst-Wessel song. As he had told the Chicago Association of Commerce in 1929, Brundage looked forward to ‘the development of a new race of men, actuated by principles of sportsmanship learned on the playing field . . . a race physically strong, mentally alert and morally sound: a race not to be imposed upon.’ Cited in Maynard Brichford, ‘Avery Brundage and Racism’, University of Western Ontario paper, October 1998, p. 131.

[6] ‘Proclamation of Opening by the Head of the Spanish State, Generalissimo Franco’; and ‘Address by President Avery Brundage to 63rd Session of the IOC’, Bulletin of the International Olympic Committee, Lausanne 1965, pp. 64–66.

[7] The son of a textile magnate, Samaranch married into old money and was rewarded in 1991 (by Felipe González) with an aristocratic title for his life’s work. See Andrew Jennings, ‘Why Juan Antonio’s right arm is more muscular than his left’, transparencyinsport.org; Dave Zirin, ‘Burying Juan Antonio Samaranch’,Huffington Post, 22 April 2010.

[8] Barbara YaffePM’s strategy of controlling message fails to silence opponents’, Vancouver Sun, 12 February 2010.

[9] Tom Mertes, ‘Grass-Roots Globalism’, NLR 17, September–October 2001, p. 108.

[10] The term ‘event coalition’ is from Sidney Tarrow, The New Transnational Alliance, Cambridge 2005. See also the discussion on new organizational forms in Donatella della Porta and Sidney Tarrow, eds,Transnational Protest and Global Activism, New York 2005.

[11] Helen Jefferson Lenskyj, Olympic Industry Resistance: Challenging Olympic Power and Propaganda, Albany 2008, p. 65.

[12] See Hamar Foster and Alan Grove, ‘Trespassers on the Soil’, BC Studies, no. 139–9, 2003, pp. 51–84; Cole Harris, Making Native Space: Colonialism, Resistance and Reserves in British Columbia, Vancouver 2002. There are currently sixty First Nations in the province participating in various stages of the BC treaty process. See www.bctreaty.net.

[13] Taiaiake Alfred, ‘Deconstructing the British Columbia Treaty Process’, Balayi: Culture, Law and Colonialism, vol. 3, 2001, p. 42.

[14] Comités d’organisation des Jeux Olympiques, Montréal 1976, Games of the XXI Olympiad, Official Report, vol. 1, Ottawa 1978, p. 306.

[15] Janice Forsyth, ‘Teepees and Tomahawks’, in Kevin Wamsley, Robert K. Barney and Scott G. Martyn, eds, The Global Nexus Engaged, London, ON 2002, p. 72.

[16] Hans Tammemagi, ‘Olympic Games a Showcase for Native Culture’, Indian Country Today, 24 March 2010.

[17] Kim Pemberton, ‘Aboriginal Groups Divided on Whether to Support Olympics’, Vancouver Sun, 6 February 2010.

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