family attending 1984 Olympics. Source: Los Angeles Public Library

family attending 1984 Olympics. Source: Los Angeles Public Library

City of Angels or City of Lights?

We may will find out very soon whether Los Angeles or Paris will be awarded the 2024 Summer Olympics and Paralympics. If Los Angeles gets the nod, LA2024 will mark the 40th anniversary of the region’s 1984 Olympics. Reports, however, suggest that the International Olympic Committee is likely to award the 2024 games to Paris and simultaneously offer the 2028 Olympics to Los Angeles. 

Whether LA2024 or LA2028, I’m excited that the Olympics may return to Los Angeles. I’’m happy that LA residents are not afraid to host the games. I also want to counter some recent claims that the Olympics would be a terrible and destructive “invasion.” I think that these arguments are largely unfounded. Emerging as they are from the left, I also think that they can be self-defeating. In my opinion, tarring the Olympics as catastrophe in the making doesn’t advance a progressive agenda. This kind of thinking can undercut our ability to collectively imagine and achieve a better Los Angeles.

The working class loves the Olympics…

During the run-up to the 2024 selection, an unusual number of potential host cities withdrew their bids. Boston, which had been selected as the US nominee, backed out when city leaders couldn’t convince a majority of residents to support hosting the games. Hamburg, Rome and Budapest also withdrew due to public opposition and/or change in municipal leadership.

Polls in Paris have found that upwards of 70 percent of residents support hosting the games. A 2016 poll in Los Angeles showed even more enthusiasm, with nearly 90 percent of respondents in favor.  While all demographics support LA hosting the Olympics, the most enthusiastic support comes from lower-income people of color. The Olympics polled at close to 95 percent support, for example, with poorer, Spanish-speaking Latina mothers. Those most likely to strongly oppose the Olympics are conservative, white, male, English-speaking, baby-boomer, highly-educated, homeowners who have lived in LA 6-15 years, and earn more than $150,000/ year.  

What explains this openness among Parisians and Angelenos? Part of the reason may be that bids by the two finalists rely heavily on already existing facilities, and both cities have experience hosting large events and accommodating visitors. Locals may assume that their region can host the Olympics in a way that brings excitement and an economic boost while minimizing disruption.

I wonder if the differences between attitudes in LA and Boston, or Paris and Rome, runs deeper than logistics. Parisians may be signaling a desire to come together and maintain an openness to the world following terrorist attacks. Los Angeles residents could have a more informal and optimistic attitude than Bostonians.

So why do socialists hate it?

The Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America recently launched a NOlympics LA group. Their campaign to stop LA from hosting the Olympics has been endorsed by several other organizations that work on issues imputing low-income residents.  When I first read the NOlympics site, I was confused. Why was the DSA targeting an event that has wildly high levels of support from working class Angelenos? Are the people deluded?

Many critiques of the Olympics focus on cost overruns and the disuse of facilities after the end of the games. NoOlympics LA argues that even a financially and logistically successful Olympics would devastate Los Angeles. Their site gives five reasons to oppose hosting the Olympics.

First, they argue that the IOC is a corrupt organization that does not “care about the cities they invade. If LA hosts the Olympics, it will be nothing short of a wide-reaching, incalculably destructive media party for millionaires and billionaires.” Even if we assume that corrupt officials, wealthy tourists and corporate sponsors will descend upon Los Angeles, shouldn’t we also consider others who will participate in and attend the event? I get the appeal of ‘the people versus the powerful’ but it seems like the NOlympics effort is more interested in spiting elites than fulfilling the desires of millions of residents.

The IOC has 95 members. More than 15,500 athletes took part in the last summer Olympics and Paralympics. As the African-American newspaper the Los Angeles Sentinel wrote about the 1984 Olympics, “Let us not be goaded into degrading the Olympics… we should respect the potential of each Olympic winner. They could be our children.” Los Angeles has a rich history of Olympic athletes who grew up in or trained in the region. The lives of Olympians like diver Sammy Lee suggest that the Olympics reflect the imperfections and aspirations of society rather than functioning as a uniquely destructive “invasions.” 

In addition to the the athletes, millions of people will attend Olympic events. The large majority will be locals (80 percent of tickets to the 84 Olympics were sold to Southern California resident), who presumably will enjoy attending the games. Fun and happiness and pleasure are values that we don’t pay enough attention to in politics. In the words of the old socialist anthem,

“Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses."

Opponents might, however, argue that ‘bread and circuses’ is the better metaphor for the Olympics, that it will be a cause of and cover for all kinds of oppression. Nolypmics LA’ second reason to oppose the Olympics is that it “will most likely be used as a pretext for developers and politicians to advance projects that will increase real estate values and commerce in certain areas, not benefit the current residents.” The LA Olympics plan is light on new construction, so it will not be directly displacing residents. It’s unclear whether the Olympics could accelerate commerce and development beyond current trends. But since Los Angeles is marked by persistent segregation, poverty and housing shortages, more commerce, especially in lower income areas, wouldn’t be a bad thing.

Their third, and in my mind, strongest objection is that the Olympics will bring an “increased incentive to crack down on all forms of protest, and the increased emphasis on nationalism provides an opportunity to frame those individuals and actions as a threat to national security.” I looked back at newspaper reports on the 1984 Olympics. There were controversies over protests and use of public space, and a heightened focus on security and policing.  In the run up to the Olympics, mounted police were deployed to skid row. An LAPD spokesperson told the LA times: “we’re going to strictly enforce the law.. Some of those who are borderline cases are going to be stopped more often.” During the games, vendors seeking to sell unauthorized Olympic merchandise had their products seized. 79 tourists from Tonga were arrested by the INS on suspicion that they would try to stay in the country after their visas expired. Some members of the Revolutionary Communist Youth brigade were arrested after a protest in Hollywood broke out into scuffles. The ACLU had to negotiate with police to allow a larger march by critics of the US’s policy in Central America to proceed during the Olympics. These incidents are all troubling, but they are not outside the norms of police-community relations circa 1984, and given the scale of the Olympics, they don’t rise to the level of an “invasion” or ”mass violence.”  

Some critics believe that the 1984 Olympics was a significant breaking point in police-community relations, and that tactics pioneered during the games helped cause LA’s 1992 civil unrest. This theory doesn’t seem to be born out by the history.

There was a heavier than usual police presence in south Los Angeles during the Olympics. In his autobiography Chief: My Life in the LAPD, Daryl Gates devotes a chapter to the Olympics, filled mainly with worries about terrorism and squabbles with LAOOC organizer Peter Ueberroth. He brings up gangs in the context of his concern that they might get hired by terrorists, and writes: “we would send our gang details our to clean up the streets around the Coliseum.. run the gangs right out of the area with a few well-chosen words, and post enough police to discourage them from returning too soon.” As far as I can tell, however, there weren’t mass raids or arrests. Some South LA residents did complain when police levels were drawn down after the games. Gates covers Operation Hammer (an aggressive LAPD anti-gang campaign that started in 1987-1988) in another chapter, but doesn’t link it to Olympic innovations. In case Gates had forgotten (or didn’t want) to connect these dots, we can turn to Mike Davis’ lengthy discussion of Operation Hammer in City of Quartz. Davis doesn’t discuss the Olympics either, but engages with LA’s long history of segregation, repressive police tactics, lack of jobs for African Americans, the crack epidemic, and the history of black and Latino gangs.

The Olympics seems to have been a blip in a long history of problems with policing in Los Angeles rather than a key training grounds for repression. Law enforcement, public safety and civil rights and liberties are vital issues. We have made some progress on them, but there is still a need for more reform.  I think that it diminishes them to cry wolf on the Olympics.  

The fourth reason given to oppose LA2024 is that Olympic jobs “will lead to massive influx of out-of-town temporary workers, which puts local workers in a difficult negotiating position and by creating an additional category of workers, ultimately weakens protections for and increases the likelihood of exploitation for all workers.” An economic impact study commissioned by the LA2024 Olymoic committee found a “low estimate of $4.38 billion in worker earnings and 62,456 full time (temporary) jobs.” While these jobs will not solve unemployment and underemployment in Los Angeles, they will be a good thing. LA2024 will need to sign labor agreements with local unions, and they will be representing the interests of their members and other workers. Plus labor and immigrant rights leader Maria Elena Durazo is one of the vice-chairs of LA2024. I don’t see any evidence for the xenophobic claim that out of town workers will hurt the interests of local labor. In fact, if we look at the 1984 Olympics, it is safer to assume that local young people will be trained to fill some of these positions.

The final reason that the No campaign gives to oppose the Olympics is that it will divert resources from addressing homelessness, poverty, our affordable housing crisis, and police and prison abuses. “We believe that resolving these crises as quickly and humanely as possible should be our city’s priority, and that for our city’s leaders and elected officials to waste this much money and energy on any other goal is unconscionable.” I agree that these challenges should be priorities. But the idea that we can only tackle one set of issues by ignoring everything else is naive because of how issues are interwoven; misleading because LA voters just voted to tax themselves to fund housing and services for the homeless- while also overwhelmingly support hosting the Olympics; and self-defeating.  Why should we believe that a city plotting a destructive and oppressive Olympic invasion can effectively address the public interest in any other field?  

For a “Permanent Olympics”

In the wake of the 1984 Olympics, the South-Central Organizing Committee, a civil rights and anti-poverty coalition, pushed for a ‘permanent Olympics’ to continue the good planning, coordination and investments seen before and during the event. Their lead organizer argued that “The Olympics, and also the Metro Rail (subway) project has shown things can happen if enough people want them to. It eliminates all the excuses.”  They sought “long term support not only for jobs, but also for better health care, education and recreation in the city’s poor areas.” This level of investment in the region’s low-income residents and neighborhoods didn’t materialize. The relative failure of the Rebuild LA initiative launched after the 1992 civil unrest (and partly inspired by the success of the 84 games) shows the limits of private sector-led promises to tackle complex urban challenges.

But surely the progressive position is that we can do more with the Olympics, and make it better, rather than that we should never host an Olympics ever again? Let me use housing to illustrate this point. LA2024’s original bid book placed the Olympic village (housing and services for athletes) in the Piggyback rail yards near the LA river. They never specified how many homes would be built, or how much would have been market vs. deeded affordable units after the games. We know that the site was intended as space for 16,500 athletes, which translates to thousands of new homes plus retail, office space, and public parks. LA’s revised Olympic bid moved the olympic village to student housing being built by UCLA, eliminating construction of homes that could be turned over to the general population after the games. Paris’ Olympic plans, on the other hand, “will deliver 5,000 new homes in the areas that need them most.”

Even if LA gets the 2028 Olympics, I doubt that it would be possible to return to the original Olympic village/ housing plan. There are barriers to acquire the land from its railroad owner and to develop the site, and it runs counter to the LA2024 plan of minimizing new facilities. But to buy (or eminent domain) land on which to construct badly-needed homes, that would be a worthy socialist campaign. It would be an example of society doing something positive on a scale commensurate with the challenges we face.  

 A better Olympics

I support Los Angeles’ bid for the 2024 or 2028 Olympics partly because it shows that the region has the spirit and capacity to accomplish something that is both logistically complex and small-d democratic, in that it celebrates sports and allows millions of people to participate as fans. I also hope that the Olympics will help reinforce that LA is a region rather than just a parochial collection of cities and neighborhoods. Writing just after the 1984 Olympics, Peter King and Robert Jones noted that residents had discovered that “the walls that they built both literally and figuratively, and the walls that their own cities have built politically, are not as real as they imagined.”  Given the authoritarian nationalism rising at the federal level in the United States, which is already reducing the number of international visitors to Los Angeles, holding the Olympics in LA would also be a chance to welcome the world.

This doesn’t mean that the Olympics is a great institution, or that the LA2024 plan is flawless. There is room for pressure and persuasion to improve how LA hosts the Olympics, and how it will impact us. Here are a few suggestions:
    1.    Price ticket so that lower income residents (who are biggest supporters of hosting the Olympics) can afford to attend. LA officials have said that they are basing their ticket pricing on the 2012 London Olympics. The London Olympics had some programs to encourage attendance by ordinary people, include a ‘pay your age’ program for younger fans and discounts for seniors. We should extend this type of plan for all lower-income fans. Maybe a ‘pay your wage’ plan so someone making $12 an hour could get a ticket to some events for 12 bucks.
    2.    Plan for an Olympic legacy by considering how to spend any surplus and how to use updated facilities. The LA84 Foundation has donated millions of dollars taken from the surplus revenues from the 1984 Olympics to support youth sports. Park facilities and athletic opportunities are not equitably distributed in the region, so funds from a future Oylmpics could help bridge these gaps.      
    3.    Learn from the Paralympics in order to advance universal design and accessibility in the LA region. While the city of Los Angeles was forced by a lawsuit to invest over a billion dollars to make sidewalks more accessible to residents using wheelchairs, there are still major barriers in public places and in many private buildings.
    4.    Support female athletes fighting for equal pay.
    5.    Ensure that rights of assembly and free speech are not suppressed. Los Angeles police have a history of mismanaging protests such as at the 2000 Democratic national convention, although the lack of problems at the recent large Women’s March suggests that the city should be able to handle demonstrations in a more respectful and effective manner.
    6.    Connect with visitors. In a world of resurgent nationalism, some have argued that cities can help uphold cosmopolitan and progressive values. Advocates and residents should take advantage of the Olympics- in between having fun- to share ideas with international guests.
    7.    Think regionally. Los Angeles faces many challenges that will not be worsened by - or solved by- the Olympics. We can be inspired by its cross-jurisdictional ambitions, and learn from its limitations. How can the LA region do more to expand our housing supply, transition to clean energy and transportation, and share resources so that greater LA is more prosperous, inclusive and sustainable?

I'm sure there are more areas for improvement and accountability. Critics and watchdogs are also useful; they raise questions and provide debate and oversight. So it’s not terrible that the DSA and others are opposing the Olympics in Los Angeles.  

I wanted to provide a counterpoint because I believe that we need to expand our capacity to implement ambitious change in the Los Angeles region. The Olympics are just sports, but they are also a test case for coordination and planning and for shaping an event that can advance a cosmopolitan openness and allow people to have fun.  

In the lead up to and beyond the Olympics, I hope that many residents and organizations that consider themselves to be progressive in their perspectives will embrace an imaginative and critical optimism with regards to the infrastructural, political, social and environmental opportunities for a better LA.

Mark (there are my personal thoughts, not LAplus positions)

A number of the sources for this piece are old news articles that I can’t directly link to. They include:

Larry Derfner, “Recalling The Olympics As 'The Miracle Of L.A.’” Los Angeles Sentinel, December 20, 1984. B4
Janet Clayton, “Group Sets Its Goal: a Permanent 'Olympics’” Los Angeles Times,  July 23, 1984, B1
Peter King and robert James, “The Games: It's Over--But How Did It Happen?”  Los Angeles Times,
Aug 13, 1984, 11.
Los Angeles Sentinel. “The Olympic Torch.” July 19, 1984, A6.
Kevin Roderick, “L.A. Polishing Its Image for Olympic Visitors” Los Angeles Times, July 21, 1984, OC B14
William Overend. “Judge Scolds Investigators for Treatment of Souvenir Peddlers.” Los Angeles Times, July 31, 1984, A3.
Jill Stewart and Laura Becklund. “Tongans Angered at INS Arrest of 79 Olympics Tourists.” Los Angeles Times, August 13, 1984, OC A5.
Kenneth Reich. “Coalition Revises Protest Plans: Seeks Police OK for Anti-Reagan Demonstration.
Apr 12, 1984, H5.
Evan Maxwell, “22 Arrested in Melees During Youth Protest.” Los Angeles Times, August 7, 1984, A14.