NOlympics 2028: Organizing against the largest event in history

Why is one group so against Los Angeles hosting the 2028 Olympics?

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As the city of Los Angeles prepares to host the 2028 Olympic Games, many activists are arguing that the games will accelerate gentrification, displacement and construction throughout L.A.

From exacerbating the impact of waterfront developments along the L.A. River to promoting the building of student dormitories at USC and UCLA where Olympic athletes will be housed, the city’s claim that they will be able to have a “no-build” Olympics is just the city “blowing smoke,” according to Daniel Durbin, a professor of sports communication at the University of Southern California.

“They’ve already talked about using just west of the L.A. River bed for the Olympic Village,” Durbin said. “The idea that this is just simply going to be a no-build Olympics—that’s another PR move by City Hall. I wouldn’t buy it at all.”

While host cities were once envied, the discussion around hosting the Olympics has shifted sharply. Major news outlets, including The New York Times, have published editorials arguing that it may be time to “rethink the Olympics,” considering the long history of “displacements, human rights violations, health concerns and overspending.”

So, is there such a thing as a responsible Olympics?

While the LA28 planning committee and others affiliated with the games like to promote the idea that the Olympics will usher in tourism dollars and international attention for the host city, opponents view it as more of a moral imperative.

L.A. officially won its bid in 2017 to host the 2028 summer games. That same year, as the city fought against Paris to win the bid to host either the 2024 or 2028 games, a grassroots campaign came together. Officially called “NOlympics LA,” the group comprises members from organizations like the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the L.A. Tenants’ Union and Black Lives Matter.

Although they keep an extensive list of goals that includes everything from stopping the militarization of the Los Angeles Police Department to creating a more transparent local democracy, the organization’s primary stated mission is “to fight tooth and nail for a better Los Angeles instead of allowing the elite to shape the future of our city, while using the Olympics to expose the urgent problems we face today.”

Organizer Eric Sheehan said the group has seen firsthand how issues like community displacement and police violence affect L.A., and they want the city to take responsibility for these issues rather than accelerate them by hosting the games.

“First and foremost, I’d like for them to cancel the Olympics,” Sheehan said. “What we know is that the more people learn about the Olympics, the more they don’t want it and the more they oppose it.”

The group takes particular issue with the city’s claim that these will be “no-build” Olympics — meaning no new facilities will need to be constructed for the games and the city will instead use existing facilities like the newly-built SoFi Stadium and the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. But NOlympics organizers, using their own analysis from a special DSA Olympics committee, said the renovations and possible development of structures including new hotels or Airbnbs will cause massive displacement for homeless communities in L.A.

NOlympics also argues that the city is misusing funds by hosting the games. Issues like the affordable housing crisis, the homelessness crisis, environmental issues and income inequality in L.A. should all take precedence over hosting the Olympics, they say.

The group also said that things like the “beautification” of the city that often takes place during mega-events in L.A. create unnecessary police violence towards homeless communities.

Sofia Guadron, a member of the organization Water Drop L.A., which works to combat water insecurity for homeless people in the city, said she finds it impossible to support the Olympics when she has seen firsthand the consequences of displacement caused by LAPD sweeps during events like the Academy Awards.

“More sweeps are going to continue to happen with more mega-events,” Guadron said. “I mean, even with the Oscars, what happens every year? We sweep people from Union Station, or we sweep people around the area—because, God forbid, there’s visible poverty.”

Guadron said that installing and maintaining clean water fountains around the city is one of the projects Water Drop has been working on for months now. But when the city is spending time and resources planning an event as big as the games, Guadron said other community programs are ignored. Although they succeeded in getting the city to install some fountains, she and other Water Drop workers have already found them broken or dirty.

“If a lot of resources and time and energy [are] being put into a project like hosting the Olympics, other things are going to get ignored or neglected,” she said.

If there are so many arguments against it, why did L.A. choose to host the games at all?

One of the main reasons cities choose to host the games, Durbin said, is for economic stimulus.

“You do have the hope that you’ll get local businesses and SoFi and everything else that’s around will just get a flood of cash,” he said.

At a December 2021 L.A. city council meeting that dealt with the contract proposed by the LA28 organizing committee, several councilmembers said the games would benefit the city economically.

“Local hir[ing] is very important to us,” councilmember Gil Cedillo said, pointing to the economic damage done by the COVID-19 pandemic. “The Olympics provide us [an] opportunity to move our economy forward.”

Councilmember Paul Krekorian, who also chairs the city council’s budget committee, argued during the meeting that, because of the large number of financial protections in place, the risk to the city is limited.

“I just can’t see a significant risk to the city of any exposure at all,” Krekorian said. “If there is any exposure, it’s going to be limited because of our engagement.”

The city council voted 11-2 to approve the contract with LA28.

But Sheehan argues that many of the programs put in place by the city in the past have not been economically beneficial to the citizens it has promised to help during the games.

“I would point to the group of minority Black-owned businesses that sued after L.A. ‘84,” Sheehan said, “...because the programs that they were signed up for did not benefit them and a lot of them shuttered,” Sheehan said. According to the L.A. Times, twelve minority-owned companies filed a lawsuit against the ‘84 Organizing Committee for $17 million in damages for contract violations and won.

“They can talk a big game all they want,” he said. “But where are the quantifying reports of the economic benefits that they’re talking about?”

And promises of economic stimulus are difficult to square with host cities that fell into debt, Durbin said.

“You really sign away your city and put it into potentially immense debt before you ever even have the Olympics,” he said.

There are a few reasons why a city fights so hard to host the Olympic games, Durbin said, like gaining notability and esteem as a global city.

“Historically, when you bid to become an Olympic city, you hope to do those exact things,” Durbin said. “You help extend your prestige, you extend your brand globally.”

Durbin also said it’s hard to tell how many Angelenos actually support the games.

A survey from Loyola Marymount University and KPCC, which was heavily publicized by the city, found that 88 percent of a sample group of 2,000 Angelenos support the 2028 games. But another survey of more than 1,000 people commissioned by NOlympics found that only 26 percent were in support of L.A. hosting the games while 47 percent were in opposition.

“You can’t get 80 percent of the people in Los Angeles to agree that the Pacific Ocean is west of Los Angeles, for crying out loud,” Durbin said. “You’re not gonna get 88 percent of the people to agree that the Olympics should be there.”

Is this new? Were these issues present during the 1932 or 1984 games?

Issues like police violence and displacement have been points of contention in the City of Angels long before L.A. placed a bid for the 2028 games.

In 1932—when L.A. hosted its first games—the Olympics were nowhere near as significant and well-known as they are now. Presidents did not yet attend the games by this point.

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Segregation was still rampant in the city during the Olympics. Only white people were allowed to attend the games as spectators. Some events required Black athletes to play in separate leagues and matches.

Despite this, the Los Angeles Times called the games the “first Olympiad unsullied by racial differences.”

The 1932 games were also deeply affected by the Great Depression. Barry Seigel, a journalist and author of “Dreamers and Schemers: How an Improbable Bid for the 1932 Olympics Transformed Los Angeles from Dusty Outpost to Global Metropolis,” explained that the economic turmoil surrounding those games created great unrest in the lead-up to the Olympics.

“There were demonstrations in Sacramento,” he said. “People [carried] placards saying ‘Groceries not Games, Groceries not Games.’ There were some street demonstrations in Downtown L.A. where people were throwing rocks through windows of storefronts which featured promotional posters for the Olympics.

“There was this idea, this notion of, ‘How are we having this athletics carnival and the people are suffering and starving through it all?’” Seigel said.

In stark contrast to the depression-era games of 1932, the 1984 games in L.A. came at the height of the Olympics’ popularity, when major companies like Coca-Cola were sponsors.

While the city pushed to use existing athletic structures like the Coliseum for the event, the 1984 Games also added to many of the issues that NOlympics organizers argue against today.

The city significantly ramped up its police presence in neighborhoods with Olympic events, including South Central L.A. Days before the Games, The New York Times published an article detailing the arsenal of federal agents, bomb squads with K-9s, paramilitary hostage rescue teams and “antiterrorist specialists” in L.A.

The article referred to the games as the “largest and most expensive [security net] ever imposed on a peacetime enterprise in the United States.”

Some sociologists believe that the 1993 Rodney King riots were directly correlated with the city’s increased police presence ahead of the 1984 games.

Sheehan also cited events ranging from Operation Hammer, an L.A.P.D. project that was meant to crack down on gang violence in the city but eventually became rampant with police brutality, to the conflicts at Echo Park Lake that took place this past year when protestors clashed with police after a homeless encampment was cleared.

“We’ve already seen the violent displacement of folks from Echo Park, from MacArthur Park,” Sheehan said. “There’s a way to look at the way that they’re clearing out homeless folks as eugenics, as an attempt to sanitize the image of the City of Los Angeles. And so we can expect lots more of this violent policing of unhoused folks in the lead up to the 2028 games.”

Looking to the future: what will happen when L.A. does host the games?

Despite the protests of the NOlympics organizers, it seems the games will continue as planned.

But the debate surrounding the games is only becoming more heated. Experts are torn on whether they can even turn a profit, according to Durbin.

“It’s not as good a bet as it might have been 30 years ago, but it’s a bet that a lot of mayors are willing to make,” he said.

A lot remains on the line for Angelenos if the games go on as planned, including the budget.

In his interview, Sheehan asked Angelenos who favor hosting the games in L.A. to reconsider.

“Let’s look at the history,” he said. “Let’s look at whether or not other places have actually benefited from holding an Olympics, and ask ourselves whether or not a two-week TV show that will make NBC billions of dollars is worth that.”