Organizing a Transnational Anti-Olympics Summit: An Oral History, Part 1

Compiled by Cerianne Robertson

In July 2019, community organizers from Rio de Janeiro, Pyeongchang, Tokyo, Paris, Los Angeles, and (2032 candidate) Jakarta came together in Tokyo for the first-ever transnational anti-Olympics summit.

Centered around a protest one year before the not-yet-postponed 2020 Olympics, the week-long exchange featured presentations and strategy meetings linking the Olympics to housing and gentrification crises, environmental degradation, policing and surveillance, corruption, and imperialism. The meetings also covered tactics for organizing against the Olympics transnationally and for producing independent critical media.

Drawing on seventeen interviews with nine representatives from participating cities both before and after the summit, the following is an oral history of this unprecedented transnational event. Part 1 compiles reflections from before the summit; part 2 documents reflections from immediately after the event.


Setting the scene: anti-Olympics resistance in Tokyo

Reflections from Tokyo organizers:

I myself have been living in a park in Tokyo. Having learned about evictions of the poor and homeless throughout the world, my comrades and I were deeply concerned during Tokyo’s bidding campaign in 2013.”

“In January 2013, some of us who were living in the parks, together with people active in the anti-nuclear movement which was still very vibrant at the time, got together to flyer and speak out in front of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government office building. I participated in the action and made the flyer. That’s when [Hangorin no Kai] started.”

“There is some membership overlap in Hangorin on Kai and [another leading anti-Olympics group] Okotowalink; some of us are also Okotowalink but Okotowalink members aren’t necessarily Hangorin. While we [Hangorin] are a small group, Okotowalink have organized many international events and are very skilled in moving big events forward. Hangorin tends to focus more on particular areas of our struggle, like issues experienced by homeless folks, tenants in public housing, people with disabilities — and to connect those of us who are considered minorities.”

We’d talked in Tokyo about doing something big around one-year-to-go to the planned opening of the Tokyo Games, and working together with the larger group Okotowalink. The idea was inspired by my experience in Rio — organizers there pulled together a four-day international gathering shortly before the opening of the 2016 Rio Olympics. It was a gathering with many different types of groups and individuals, hosted at a university. I was able to be there and meet activists from many different places and walks of life, so we decided to incorporate the same idea in Tokyo.”

Why organize a transnational summit in Tokyo?

Reflections from Tokyo, Pyeongchang, Paris, and Los Angeles organizers:

To ramp up resistance…

“I was thinking about what are ways that we can ramp up the transnational solidarity. And I was feeling a little bit more urgency around this question of like, yeah we’ve all been talking to each other for like two years now, what can we do? We’ve sort of hit our limit a little bit in terms of what we can get done over fractured Skype conversations. What would it look like to be together?”

“I think coming out of there with at least some sort of set of shared understandings — at least for some of the groups to be like, here are some ideas or here are some things we can work on together outside of just helping each other tell each other’s stories, which is a big part of it as well. But what more action-oriented stuff? Like how can we target the IOC? How can we make them weak?”

I probably wouldn’t know what would count as successful until it ends. It depends what we measure as successful for the movement at large. I think we can create a condition closer to the Olympics actually ending entirely. But it’s also important for us to continue the slow building of our power on a daily basis.”

“I saw what Boston did, when they actually said no to the Olympics, and I’m hoping that we can do the same over here. So learning more about that, how we can make an impact — there’s still time to have an impact on stopping it if we form a big enough movement to do it.”

To show and receive solidarity…

“I’m going to cry a little bit talking about it, but the fact that we’re going to show up to support our allies in Tokyo, that we can show up on the day of that protest with like something close to 20 [people from LA], I think we’ll have 16 or 17 people there. Maybe more, it keeps going up. But we’re going to show up there. That’s very exciting.”

“This is the first time I’ll meet most of the people, so I’m really excited about meeting somebody who shares some of the same goals and visions and outrage. Because it’s really isolating, at least in Japan, to be against the Olympics. People even call me ‘gaikokujin’ — it’s a really horrible word. It’s a ‘non-national’ if I translate directly. The word was used during the war to criticize somebody who is not committing to the national project of war. And when I was called that I was shocked. Like, are you really using that term right now? For what? For not supporting the Olympics?”

[Reflecting on how evictions and the discrimination of unhoused people would not stop for the transnational summit:] “Yes, actually we are hoping that folks will join in support if anything goes down. We believe this upcoming week will be full of good energy and power, so we expect folks to show up for us.”

To bond and form relationships…

“Being there, meeting, and making really human connections help us, give us hopes, give us a little more dedication to the work we are doing. It’s just making it all a human process. And if I know that I got to know you, if I got to see you face to face, when LA has to fight again I feel like I would be more willing to meet you and participate in your resistance.”

I’m looking forward to meeting people beyond the internet, sharing meals, strolling the city, and just communicating with folks and things like that. Then of course we can share our various experiences, bring new ideas. I’ve learned and been inspired a lot in Rio and Pyeongchang, so hopefully new ideas and strategy will come out of it. I’m excited.”

“It’s very important to meet the people personally because we have to work in the long-term distance, long-term mobilization, and so it’s very important to build confidence between us. We can do all kinds of virtual encounters, meeting by Skype, etc., but nothing can replace the physical meeting. We have to meet personally with people to know them.”

To overcome language barriers…

“We have to share the one-year-after report from the Pyeongchang Olympic Games. There hasn’t been a chance to share it because of the language barriers — we’d have to translate it to Japanese and that takes a long time. So we thought this [in-person summit] would be the perfect opportunity to share our ideas about and assessment of the Pyeongchang Olympic Games.

I’m not particularly good at communicating in English both verbally and in writing, so if I meet folks in person there is a lot [more] that can be felt and understood about each other. We have a lot of things we can experience together in the same space which we cannot necessarily do via emails and Skype. Meeting in person allows us to get a sense of what each of us thinks, and we can build a living network where our daily lives come into play on top of the themes of our work. I think it is crucial that we create this kind of space.”

To connect marginalized communities…

“That is one of the key aspects of the anti-Olympics Games alliance: that we are listening to the people who are marginalized. That’s the key. So if we listen to those marginalized people through this alliance, I think that could be one of the successful outcomes. Because as you know, the Olympic Games wants to exclude homeless people, they want to exclude poor people, they want to exclude disabled people. So our goal should be noticing those marginalized groups through our meetings. So I’m looking forward to listening to the homeless movement in LA.”

We are hoping to connect more with people who are surviving similar circumstances in different cities, since every city that hosts mega event experiences similar situations. We hope to make a bigger movement between these cities.”

To learn

“[Resistance in Paris] is not very strong, it’s really quite weak. Especially regarding what you in the United States have succeeded to do. We are not able to do so much at that moment, so it will be very interesting for me to learn all about what you’ve done in the US for the mobilization.”

“The goal for us is to learn. We really want to learn how to make a successful mobilization. We would like to learn how it could be possible to be more efficiently organized to succeed in our organization. How can we manage to work together? How can we help each other? How can we succeed to share best practices? That’s our goal.”

“I want to learn from other organizers about how they do things.”

To build a shared analysis and structure…

“What is it that we need to build or what is it that we can build together that will resist the Olympics — a machine of sorts that will resist the Olympics in a meaningful and powerful way, not just in individual cities but as a whole? In some ways, what is the response to the fact that, you know, the IOC and Olympic boosters — they’re organizing on a transnational level so it’s like, it is sort of incumbent on us to do the same if we actually want to stop them. I don’t think we can have that infrastructure and that machine unless we have sort of like a strong and shared political analysis.”

“[Looking at past Olympics] I saw this disconnection, this discontinuation of the Olympics resistance movement. But with the internet and everything I’m starting to see more networks and people really sharing the knowledge, and now, I see that physically the international community is coming together. So I hope that this will really be a moment when activists and scholars internationally can connect — instead of the separate disconnected resistance, making a continuation so that it has more power and it has more voice.”

What could be possible to build as an international mobilization, not only in Paris, in LA, in Tokyo, etc., but an international organization to show to the international public that the Olympic Games are not only a ‘NIMBY’ issue — a ‘not in my backyard’ issue? It’s an international issue. The IOC is an international issue, not only a local issue.”

To influence mainstream media and produce our own documentation…

“Hopefully the media — in America at least where we have more influence — will start rethinking Tokyo 2020 and start looking at some of the holes that we’re trying to help expose. There’s also all the documentation, all the stories from Tokyo, from Paris, from Korea that we’re going to capture and try to bring back. So that way even if the press doesn’t really cover us the way we want or cover us at all, then it is our documentation, our telling of the story, what we want to do with that knowledge, that we can control in a lot of ways.”