On Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee will rubberstamp the plan to hand Paris the 2024 Summer Games while Los Angeles will host in 2028. Given the lack of bids from democratic countries and the increasingly frequent torpedoing of bids by activists and referenda, Olympic boosters are surely thrilled to lock down Paris and LA, two cities in democracies with storied Olympic histories.
After all, the IOC has received negative attention – and rightfully so – for bestowing the Games on authoritarian regimes. Olympic honchos even handed Beijing its second Games – it will host the Winter Olympics in 2022 after staging the Summer Games in 2008 – despite the fact that China is a serial human-rights abuser. As Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said: “The reality is that the Chinese government’s hosting of the Games has been a catalyst for abuses.” No matter to the IOC, despite its own charter’s celebration of human dignity and non-discrimination – apparently, the Games must go on.
But a key point often lost in the criticism of the IOC’s tolerance of tyranny is that by hosting the Olympics, democracies become more authoritarian. Staging the Olympics in places like Beijing and Sochi clearly does not help the cause of democracy and human rights, but neither does hosting the Games in Los Angeles, Vancouver or London.
We are already seeing this democracy deficit in Los Angeles where the city council rammed its Olympic endorsement through a process that largely boxed out public participation. During the city council meeting that approved the 2028 Games, anti-Olympics activists were not allowed to make public statements. City council president Herb Wesson contended that “public comment on this item has been satisfied” as boos from activists rung through the room.
Yet a cavalcade of Olympic athletes, including swimmer Janet Evans and track star Carl Lewis, were trotted out and allowed to speak at length. At one point Lewis said “this isn’t just about the Olympics Games. This isn’t about sports.” He alluded to social problems in LA and added, “Why can’t we use the 2028 Olympics to solve it all?” Unfortunately, such exaggeration only amplifies already unrealistic expectations.
Like a greyhound fixated on a rabbit, city council officials pressed their case, becoming openly irritated when concerned citizens packing the chamber guffawed or hissed. At one point city councilman Joe Buscaino lost his cool: “I’m tired of these people coming to us and questioning our decision making.” An anti-Olympics activist shouted in response, “It’s called democracy.” Buscaino then sputtered out a mash-up of Olympic pabulum: “What these games will do is create jobs and weed out poverty and put Los Angeles on the map.” Hold on. Is “weed out poverty” some sort of sloppy code for ramping up gentrification? And the Games will “put Los Angeles on the map”? LA is already a city known around the world.
The Olympics can also make host cities more authoritarian by affording an excuse to militarize and bolster their police forces. Angelenos should be familiar with the process. In 1978, the IOC handed the city the 1984 Summer Olympics. Earlier that same year Daryl Gates was named police chief. He not only helped author epic-fail acronymic humdingers like CRASH (Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums) and DARE (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), but also pioneered “Olympic Gang Sweeps” ahead of the Games. Gates deployed Special Weapons and Tactics units trained in paramilitary methods as a one-size-fits-all force to carry out drug busts, crack down on gangs, and intimidate dissent before and during the 1984 Olympics
The result was bracing. Days ahead of the Games’ opening ceremony the New York Times reported “if there is a distinctive sound so far to the 1984 Summer Olympic Games, it is the chop-chop noise of helicopter rotor blades whirling in the warm southern California air.” One Japanese journalist said of LA under Gates: “It’s almost like a military base.” If 1984 was successful, for many Los Angeles residents it was a terrifying brush with success.
Gates’s theory of militarized policing is a legacy of the 1984 Games, a prominent element of all subsequent five-ring festivals.
Just ask residents of Vancouver, host of the 2010 Winter Games. Authorities formed the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit – made up of more than 20 policing agencies – to patrol the Olympic zone. Military helicopters and CF-18 Hornet fighter jets monitored from above.
London 2012 security officials riffed from the same script, even purchasing a Long Range Acoustic Device, a military-grade weapon used in Afghanistan and Iraq. Surface-to-air missiles were ratcheted to the roofs of apartment complexes. Aerial drones and elite police units buzzed about. Thousands of military personnel flooded the streets of London, giving the event an overtly camouflage sheen.
Let’s be clear: much of the equipment purchased for Vancouver and London was not boxed up and returned to sender. For example, the security cameras installed for the Vancouver Games stayed up afterwards, blending into the already existing architecture of surveillance and policing. For Los Angeles, the bottom line is that the Olympics promise to intensify the militarization of policing in the city and that communities of color and marginalized groups will bear the ferocity of this uptick.
The Los Angeles 1984 Games, with its $225m surplus, have bottle-fed the legend that the Games can be a fiscal success. Today, even some Olympics critics are saying that the LA 2028 bid carries little financial risk for the city. But focusing on finances deflects attention from the authoritarian tendencies the Games help install. Behind the shimmering scrim of podium platitudes lurks a harrowing history. The authoritarian downsides have become an ingrained feature of the Games, not merely a bug. Forget the five-ring hype: the truth is that democracy and the Olympics really don’t mix.