Organizing a Transnational Anti-Olympics Summit: An Oral History, Part 2

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 (then-scheduled) start of the 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.


Reflections from Tokyo, PyeongchangParis, and Los Angeles organizers:

General reactions…

“The whole week was really encouraging. It passed so fast. I was tired throughout the week, I was doing a lot of things, but it’s not the kind of tiredness that I felt in some of my past activism experience, where we did so much and it felt like not much changed. I feel like there’s a shift at least in the activists, sort of the mood of possibility, like the expectation of possibility, because we made something different possible. And thanks to all the international delegates who came to join us, we really got a lot of media attention. So that was amazing.”

“I feel like at a broad level it was successful. I feel like I got a good sense of the basics and some of that just came out of the clarity and the consensus around not wanting reform. The process of writing the joint statement pulled out a lot of really interesting things.”

“It has fueled my imagination. Meeting people was great, because I could feel the enthusiasm.”

After finishing the very busy week, it just feels like things have run through us very quickly, but with the help of great energy from everyone, we somehow moved things forward while being pushed forward by them. We still cannot believe we’ve done it, and are wondering what we should do next.”

“It was great. Because I met so many people from many countries and I learned about so many different perspectives. I liked the point that people want to abolish the Olympics. I was kind of impressed by that.”

“I think the moment was really great because the anti-Olympic Games [movement] is getting bigger, I can feel that. I think we witnessed the moment together and it was really great. I could feel the enthusiasm from people from LA and Rio and other people, and it was great. And the process of sharing our experience, I think that’s kind of an accomplishment already. And it was interesting that LA people, Hangorin no Kai, and others are all kind of related to the anti-gentrification movement. So it was great to share that perspective, that different perspective, which is showing that actually the essence of the Olympic Games, nowadays, in the contemporary cities, is now about development and gentrification.”

“Initially we were very wary of how things would go between Korean, English and French, and Japanese, but we got tremendous support from so many people who volunteered to interpret and translate. We really couldn’t have made it if it wasn’t for the interpreters. We are so grateful for everyone who supported this gathering through interpretation and translation.”

On benefits of meeting in person…

“Skype is obviously great. But I tap out after like an hour, two hours max. It’s just like, you can’t. Yeah it’s like I have to pee, I get fidgety. It’s different. Whereas it was like, oh yeah I could sit and talk to Frédéric in this park for two hours. You know it’s easy, and I was like, oh that was just two hours and, yeah, the kind of quality and depth of the conversations you can have is really different.”

It’s important to recognize that it’s not easy for people across the ocean to meet. But nevertheless we are making it happen, and it’ll counter the digital culture. For example, it’s difficult for folks to meet M, [an unhoused woman who experienced two evictions from parks and fought off a third, inspired by Vila Autódromo’s resistance ahead of Rio 2016]. It’s probably even more difficult for her to meet folks from Vila Autódromo and it still hasn’t happened, but we probably got so much closer to the possibility. The IOC couldn’t possibly do this, you know, and this communication via real physical presence may be going against the current tech culture, but to be present with a real physical human being has a tremendous power. It’s our dignity and a proof that we exist. To be there and to feel the others’ presence is such a strong thing, unconditionally.”

“Meeting and talking to people who have been the most directly impacted. So like, unhoused folks and folks who have been evicted, and folks who would maybe not be as easy to get in touch with over Skype or email, but to actually be able to have those direct conversations and hear about those experiences from the source, was really critical and felt really special and different. It’s like, oh I would not have had this conversation over email. And also in talking about sensitive stuff, things that maybe would not have come up in an email.”

On favorite moments…

“I think of all the things it was the street demonstration. Everyone took to the street and chanted together in the city. It made a huge impact that we all clearly stated NO OLYMPICS in the middle of Tokyo. It was really incredible that we were able to create the atmosphere to show that people from all over the world are against the Olympics. The discussions were great, I wanted to hear more stories from everyone who was there. Also, I think bringing international comrades to meet with people who were evicted from Meiji Park was great. I think people were able to learn from the homeless folks directly and those who were evicted were able to feel concretely that they are connected to the world. The same feelings I had when I went to Rio – we were able to share what it is like to be evicted from home, and we were very empowered by this.”

“The housing event was my favorite just because there’s interaction, where you really learn from one another.”

“I think overall the stuff that felt the most meaningful to me and where I felt like I was having these, ‘oh I could fucking die happy right now’ moments, were a lot more of the smaller, more intimate and conversational events. So, the night picnic in Yoyogi Park was really incredible. The Homes not Games event was really incredible. The last evening in Mitake Park was really incredible.”

“There was a moment at the Homes not Games event where A, who speaks Japanese, Korean and English fluently — she was the translator in our small group and she came up to me and young Leonardo and was like, what part of LA do you guys live in? And we were like, oh we both actually live in Boyle Heights. And we were starting to explain where it was, and she was like, oh Boyle Heights, you guys kicked out the galleries. And it was just too cool, like, whoa you’re in Japan and you know about the work that we’ve done. That has traveled around the world. That was very cool.”

“On Saturday we visited the food sharing events with homeless people. And it was good, I think. Misako-san and Hangorin no Kai already work a lot with homeless people and they tried to share the experiences of the people who got evicted, and they invited them to the dinner. So I think it was great. And it was kind of a great chance to understand what’s going on. It was a great chance to talk with marginalized people. And the great thing about Hangorin no Kai is they never objectify the people who are marginalized. They try to become a friend, so I think that kind of attitude is really important. I really admire that.”

“There are so many things I liked about the gathering but the most important thing was the bond we formed. We became much closer. And even among Japanese activists, we knew each other before, but we got to meet you international delegates who I had only known names or not even names. And I think that makes a big difference. Like, when you organize a big project that’s how we get to know each other. And we trust each other in a way because it’s a quite difficult political battle, and if you don’t trust each other, it’s hard to work and work through that part of it.”

“The two fieldtrips were well prepared. And all the other teach-ins — they really, really did a good job of showing the international community what’s actually happening. Listening to the podcast by Dave [Zirin] and Jules [Boykoff], they talk a lot about what’s going on with Fukushima and the development site in Tokyo, and they could say, I saw this with my own eyes. And that’s big, right? Instead of saying, ‘well I heard this is happening,’ it’s ‘well I saw it.’ [If] people can talk first person to tell people, it’s more convincing.”

“[The welcome picnic at] Yoyogi Park was our first real introduction to everyone. Even though we had seen some folks at the symposium, I feel like the conversation didn’t really open up until that park night. The introductions lasted like an hour, and everyone was just like, why are you here, why did you travel from other parts of Japan or other countries to be here, and that was powerful. You just had a lot of different types of stories. You know whether it was unhoused people, whether it was people that were living in kind of some sort of political exile or under very secretive terms, to someone like me who’s very not secretive and very open about our politics publicly. There were a couple of candles, I feel like that definitely had a romantic energy to it. Knowing that it’s hot, the cicadas are out. None of our cameras could pick up anything. Some of the best moments are moments that we don’t have any real documentation of. For different sensitivities usually.”

“There was the Shinjuku protest and that was I think the highlight for most people. All of our people were out there, all the LA people were out there, the French people had gotten in, the Korean folks, E from Jakarta was there. Obviously all the different folks from all over Japan. You know, you have ideas of things in general in your head and I think most things exceeded our expectations, and that was one of them where it was just very dramatic.”

On the media…

“We had tens of thousands people gather for anti-nuclear rallies and demos but mainstream media has ignored it. But because we chose the right time in a way, one year before the Olympics so the media attention was on the Olympics and international eyes were on Tokyo, I think we were exposed to a much wider audience than I even expected. The Tokyo newspaper, Tokyo Shimbun — it’s local but has quite a good reach throughout Japan because it’s one of the rare, more political leaning newspapers. And they did have a regular front page, celebration-type Olympic coverage, but in the back it’s social. And it had big pictures of the press conference and demo, and it really gave a good summary of what happened, what the issues are. It was as big as the front page coverage so it was pretty good.”

This time around, the big piece RioOnWatch [published] was really great, and it was also crucial that Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff put out a lot of writing. Japanese media too. Especially the Tokyo Shimbun newspaper wrote an extensive article a week after our event, and we were contacted for several interviews, so we can feel that we had an impact and shook the media. In terms of our own media strategy, we didn’t really have time until now but want to work on a good report-back zine about this week of events. Our work tends to be somewhat modest, but just as we made a zine after [our 2016 visit to] Rio, rather than targeting big mainstream media, we want to make something that reaches folks in our neighborhoods and other activists, in order to connect our effort to something that comes next. The media activities during the week was great, so I want us to continue this moving forward.”

“I had mainly been thinking about the role of the film crew as like, oh the importance of documenting this and sharing it, and again, the point I brought up earlier about making sure this trip isn’t just preserved in amber, that it has a life outside of those ten days. But having the film crew, having on their agenda those specific interviews, and meaning that that sort of forced time for individual conversations that we didn’t, in a lot of cases, didn’t really have otherwise.”

“We have written a text which is going to appear in the press, to say that these events happened in Tokyo. Because there is no major coverage about the event in France. No coverage at all. So the goal is to show that something happened — not a little thing but a really important thing.”

On what we learned…

“Basically what’s going on over here [in LA] is what’s going on all over the world.”

“In contrast to the LA coalition, Hangorin is a very small group and we always doubted we could pull this off, and always thought there were so many things we couldn’t do. But exactly because our group is small, so many people contributed for many tasks and we didn’t have to take a lot of risk. It was a very important lesson learned, to actively cooperate with each other. Hey look, we can actually do this.”

“It was so crucial and important to have you guys in Fukushima and seeing that firsthand. So, [one] category of things that we learned was experiential realities — things that are not objective facts but that we had to see for ourselves and feel. Like feeling, okay what does it feel like in July in Tokyo? What does it actually feel like to be outside? Things that we had heard about or got ideas about, but having that sort of experiential learning, now we all know. We know how fucking miserable and dangerous it feels to run around here.”

“I learned a lot from what our Korean friends said about the oldest forest which was destroyed for a ski slope, and the ecological point is very important too in our mobilization [in France]….The action [in Korea] shows the IOC absolutely do not care about ecology. And this is important to help our argumentation.”

“The biggest thing that I learned — and it was really interesting — was, well it’s many people’s analysis but it was just a comment from Jules [Boykoff]: that how the anti-Olympics struggle has become, and maybe it has always been and we finally realized, that it is a class struggle. And I learned that especially from people from LA, so many of them come from the socialist movement. And it does make sense because, like Jules’ analysis shows, the Olympics take money and resources away from the poor and the ordinary people, and bring it to the rich. It’s the ultimate capitalist machine, which Jules has talked about many times before. But if I look at who is struggling against the Olympics, who is most affected, throughout the past areas it’s clear — it’s a class divide.”

On changes we could make for next time…

“Just having more space for structured conversations. And having more events in that style. And having more explicitly social events – I thought they did a really great job of balancing that out too, and it’s not to totalize and say there were no conversations but I think my goal would be to have the balance lean very heavily towards having these more internal dialogues. Long reflective planning sessions and then maybe have one sort of presentational style thing. Maybe open to the public in a targeted [way]. That was one of the things that made me really happy about the Homes Not Games event. There were folks in that room and [those] conversations who were not necessarily organizers but were people who had been displaced and unhoused people, and folks who were talking about their experiences. So, that’s something that I feel like would be important with those types of events. We wouldn’t necessarily advertise. And that’s how I think the Homes not Games event came together. It’s my understanding it wasn’t advertized to the public, but they had proactively invited people who they would knew would be interested in it.”

“I would have planned the interpretation and language situation more carefully. I would have communicated to each participant what it takes to interpret, and how helpful it is to have script in advance.”

“Another thing maybe I’d do is maybe give a break every two days or three days. I know people can’t stay that long, I understand it. Or we would have divided our tasks more evenly.”

We had too many Jules Boykoff events. Because you can just read the book. It was great but it was kind of a waste of time. The sharing tactics session was great, and we needed a little longer I think. And sharing about the gentrification issue was also great, and we wanted to share more, but probably if I were to hold this kind of event, we would do it a little longer.”

“To be fair I don’t know how much time would have been enough time — we probably could have talked for ten days straight and it wouldn’t have been enough. But, there was less conversation-based interactions that I think ideally I would have wanted or anticipated going in.”

On maintaining momentum…

“What I don’t want to happen is to be like, oh my god that was an amazing trip and experience and kind of like, keep it in amber. It needs to have a life beyond the trip. I feel like if we don’t keep things in motion quite enough, in that sense, it’s where things get fungible. Like how fast do things actually have to move? How fast can they move? What does it look like to keep that momentum across all these different cities and across this transnational work? It’s very new for me. So, figuring out what that pace looks like, because, and I recognize my tendency is to be like, oh if things aren’t all happening immediately and right away, then they’re dead and we’d never bring them back, which is not true. My hope is that communication and work with those groups will become more frequent and consistent post-trip, but I don’t imagine it’s going to be like the same fever pitch that we have here in LA.”

“What I think is necessary is to make some kind of collective decision to do something together within the next year or so. To make a gathering space rather than staying separated.”

“Under the banner of NOlympics Anywhere, we should involve people in Milan, and hope to make concrete goals and strategies to move things together. I’ve experienced sometimes when we say ‘let’s do something together across borders,’ we just say it without getting down to concrete work. Things like this happen. So we should work on something practical together.”

“I want the Olympics to be a thing of the past by the year 2028, but anyhow, I think we will continue fighting next year, though we don’t know exactly what we’ll do. And I want everyone to use this Tokyo gathering as a step towards something bigger. Not by doing the same thing exactly but to create bigger waves. But while we are building a bigger movement, I want us to also explicitly create spaces where the folks who are hardest hit can speak out, on their own terms. This is something I feel we could have done better this time. Especially for folks who live in Meiji Park, this big international event might have looked a little daunting, because this was going to be a space a lot of people who aren’t usually able to meet each other would meet. So maybe some folks felt intimidated by the scale and assumed goals. So we wish we could make more space for people to chill with everyone and talk freely. I want us to do it next time. And I also want others to be creative and make spaces like this.”

“The possibility of coordinated actions is really exciting. For me too, just creating an ongoing space for sharing strategies and other opportunities to work together, whether it’s targeting the IOC, or anything else, is also incredible. Just to have an international network of people who are organizing in similar ways and share similar politics, there are so many possibilities there. I think figuring out, more this question of what we do from a media standpoint, in terms of how do we leverage this transnational network to kind of insert our narrative into mainstream media. How do we use it to create our own media? How do we connect the work that we’re doing here? That’s probably the other big frontier for me. I’ve been wanting to do another Disasterpiece Theater for a while, in collaboration with the Korean folks. Because the Disasterpiece Theater around Rio, I thought that was really powerful: creating those very tangible connections between the organizing we’re doing here, and the struggles here and the struggles elsewhere.”

We have all these awesome partners around the world now that we feel really close with. How can we apply that to local coalition partners who live down the street from us, but who it might be hard to engage with? Hopefully going forward, certain groups feel a little bit more energized in the (NOlympics LA) coalition in general — like people from different coalition groups that came on this trip. That was always part of the goal, to have at least those individuals be more plugged in to what we’re doing.”

It seems we got to where we wanted to be in not being afraid to challenge each other’s ideas. And having more back and forth between different groups. I think other members of the group were more concerned about just getting a baseline of political common ground, and I think we thought that would be harder to get, which it didn’t end up being: it was like, oh we’re actually a lot more politically aligned in a lot of ways. [Before the summit] it was hard to tell because of such language barriers where certain people stood on certain things, but once we were all together it was clear that we’re all explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-gentrification, anti-Olympics, obviously. And if there’s a theoretical understanding and like a personal kind of bond and connection it’s like, what’s next? And I think that’s what we’ll be doing for the rest of this year probably, indefinitely.”

“So much happened in such a short period of time and there was an intensity to it with the weather and the ambition of it. I think the hard part of it is coming down off that cloud and being like, how do we process this in a volunteer organization? You know, we were doing actions and stuff this [first week back] already — back to usual. How does this all fit in? How do we keep this cohesive as an idea? How do we make this not just some big sprawling mess?”

“The fact that we’re talking about this IOC [series of visits to each scheduled host city], that that’s even a possibility that we could coordinate a series of actions. We’ll see how it goes but I don’t think we would be realistically having that conversation a year ago.”

“We need more support. South Korean society still believes in the Olympic Games, and that’s really difficult to break up. We need more of an international movement to confront people’s mindsets about the Olympics.”

“The next step for us is to really make it known that the Olympic Games is a political subject in the public debates. We are going to use this event to make a push, to make us visible in the political debates on this subject.”

“I think one of the things we can start right away is developing this international online space, where people can get into the system from their part of their world, sharing more information and learning from it.”

“Balancing the fight here and the transnational fight. Because there are dangers to leaning too — and this is something that we talk a lot about in the Tenants Union, too — there are dangers about leaning too far into one at the expense of the other, where like, if you’re just totally focused on just local conditions and you lose sight of that big picture then you’re sort of fighting a losing battle. You know you’re missing out on opportunities to gain power. But, if you’re so focused, and this is what I think [an LA Tenants Union member] called ‘activist tourism’ or like ‘organizing tourism’ or something. And this is something we have to balance in the Tenants Union because there’s a lot of folks who travel, who do a lot of building these connections nationally and transnationally. But it’s hard – if that reaches a certain stage where you’re exclusively organizing outside where you live, then you’re not actually, you’re just like a traveling – it’s only valuable if you have insights and work that you’re committed to where you’re based.”

“We didn’t expect solidarity messages from Hamburg and Budapest over Twitter, and we just didn’t think this many people would agree with us when we raised our voice. I want to turn this experience into strong power to fight.”