The promises could not have been stated more plainly. Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, stepped to the podium at a press event to announce the one-year countdown to the 2020 Olympics. Surrounded by Japan’s political elite, Bach said, “In these fractured times, the Olympic Games are the only thing that brings the world together in healthy competition.”
But he didn’t talk only about the Olympics’ fantastical powers. Bach said, “I have never seen an Olympic city as prepared as Tokyo a year before the Games.”
Bach also assured his corporate partners that thanks to the Olympics, “You will see a great economic impact.” He then put numbers to this promise, claiming that the Games “will contribute 300 billion US dollars [to the Japanese economy] by 2030.”
When Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, entered the room to address the media and various stakeholders at this carefully choreographed event, he stumbled momentarily, sending a collective gasp through the audience. His misstep was symbolic of the fact that sometimes even the most meticulously stage-managed plans can go awry.
Abe stuck to the script that has branded the 2020 Olympics the “Recovery Games,” a reference to the 2011 earthquake, tsunami, and attendant nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. He said, “We want to showcase the affected regions of the tsunami,” but he failed to mention the meltdown. Bach echoed Abe: “You will see that people in the devastated areas will benefit from the infrastructure brought by the Games and they will benefit from the hope that the Olympics bring.”
Conspicuously, none of the many speakers said the words “nuclear” or “meltdown” when discussing why “recovery” was needed. The scene of the disaster was referred to as the “affected regions,” with only one speaker uttering the word “Fukushima.” One might think that the continuing toxicity and displacement are the result of a purely natural disaster. In the face of all of this evasion, Bach made his final promise: “You will see all of Japan united.”
Outside the building, a demonstration told another story. It wasn’t about unity and it wasn’t about nationalism. Instead, it was a display of internationalism. Activists from Tokyo, Los Angeles, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, and PyeongChang (in South Korea) convened for a pop-up protest at the edge of the celebratory Olympic space. All these cities are former and future Olympic hosts.
They protested with drums, a trumpet, and an eardrum-bursting sound system. Banners in hand, they chanted, “No Olympics Anywhere!” the slogan of the first-ever transnational anti-Olympic summit. They were raising their voices against the debt, displacement, and militarization that define the Olympic Games.
Later that day, hundreds of activists came together in Shinjuku—an area of Tokyo synonymous with glitzy consumerism—for a raucous demonstration that filled the streets with drums and chants. “They have all the money in the world, but that can’t stop us if we organize together,” said one speaker. “That’s why we’re here from Tokyo, from Rio, from Skid Row—to say No Olympic Games.” As increasingly curious passersby looked on, activists chanted in multiple languages, punctuated with one main chant: “No Olympics Anywhere!”
After the rally in Shinjuku, activists hit the streets for a march. With a phalanx of police on either side, around a thousand protesters stomped through the neon-lit scrum of shoppers, many of whom waved and chanted in support. Others averted their glance. Most bystanders were intrigued by the transnational spectacle unfolding before them.
Sudo Kumiko, an organizer from Hangarin No Kai, one of Tokyo’s two anti-Games groups, said, “We have no space for nationalism among us.” During the march, Kumiko brandished the Olympic Poverty Torch—a toilet plunger festooned with shimmering ribbons featuring anti-Games mottoes. The torch was originally constructed in Vancouver as a monstrous poverty torch on wheels. The Canadian activists adapted a smaller, portable torch and sent it to the Counter Olympics Network, an anti-Games coalition in London that eventually passed it along to a group of Circassians protesting the 2014 Sochi Olympics. This alternative torch wended its way to Rio and PyeongChang before arriving in Tokyo for this historic anti-Olympics jamboree. Activists gathered at the end of the march for final photos and some celebratory chants. This coming together of people from different countries marks a new chapter in the movement against the harm too often caused by the Olympic Games. People were energized by what this new chapter will mean. One thing is certain: Activists, whether in Tokyo, Paris, or Los Angeles, will not march alone.