When Muriel Bowser was sworn in last Friday as the new mayor of Washington, DC, she made clear in her inaugural address outlining her vision for the future of the city that a major goal of hers was “winning the Olympics for Washington, DC, in 2024.” This reveals a set of priorities that is deeply disturbing.
The Olympic Games—time and again, according to a slew of academic research—have revealed themselves to be defined by debt, displacement and the militarization of public space alongside attendant spikes in police brutality.
In the Washington, DC, area, debt, displacement, the militarization of public space and police brutality are otherwise known as “a Wednesday.” But with the Olympics these processes are always accelerated and intensified, making this a proposal from Mayor Bowser that’ll careen the city toward a precarious future for its most vulnerable residents. The Olympic Games inevitably induce a state of exception where the normal rules of politics do not apply.
For a city already experiencing gentrification at gunpoint, with a conspicuously parked police van for every new bistro in town, the prospect of hosting the Olympics should be terrifying. As Daniel del Pielago who is an organizer with a leading, deeply rooted community organization called Empower DC said to us, “We know that hosting the Olympics is yet another tool to push out black and low-income residents from DC. We continue to see our so called leaders prioritizing events and stadiums over the lives of the city’s most vulnerable residents.”
Washington, DC, sits on the United States Olympic Committee’s shortlist of candidates to host the 2024 Summer Games, along with Boston, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Last month the cities’ bid committees convened in Redwood City, California, where they pitched their shiniest presentations to the USOC. DC’s five-person contingent included high-powered banker Russ Ramsey and billionaire Wizards and Capitals owner Ted Leonsis—as well as Mayor-Elect Bowser, Olympic gold medal–winning swimmer Katie Ledecky and former NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue.
The USOC, which is allowed to put only one city forward to the International Olympic Committee, will make its decision perhaps as early as this week. The IOC, in turn, will pick the host city for the 2024 Summer Games in 2017, giving the “winner” seven years to prepare. Along with Los Angeles, Washington, DC has emerged as a leading contender. Meanwhile in Boston and San Francisco, activists have spoken loudly and clearly that the USOC can take their Games and shove them. Activist action absolutely matters as the IOC always factors in local support when selecting the Olympic host city.
DC’s neoliberal privatization project, with lower-income black and brown residents pushed to impoverished suburban enclaves, has met with community resistance by organizations like Empower DC, One DC and others. The Olympics would provide a pretext to roll over both community organizers and a new generation of activists speaking out against connected issues of displacement and police brutality, like a tank. Based upon what we’ve seen during the Brazilian World Cup and Olympic preparation in Rio, not to mention Ferguson, it might even be with an actual tank.
While Olympic boosters are claiming the Games will cost between $4 and $5 billion, this is about as realistic as someone running a two-minute mile. Every single Olympics since 1960 has gone over budget, and at a whopping average rate of 179 percent—and that number doesn’t even factor in the greatest heist of them all, the $51 billion Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014.
So who is the DC2024 Games committee? The group’s chair is multi-millionaire investment banker Russ Ramsey, with Wizards and Capitals billionaire owner Ted Leonsis acting as vice chair. They’ve already raised $5 million to push their bid. Ramsey and Leonsis are joined by a quirky hodgepodge of venture capitalists and local powerbrokers, including celebrity chef José Andrés, Washington Mystics President Sheila Johnson and a former DC Mayor, the person who ushered in the city’s age of gentrification, the famously bow-tied Anthony Williams.
Williams recently wrote in The Washington Post that hosting the Games would give DC an “economic lift.” Contradicting a strong and growing body of economic research that finds the exact opposite, he argued, “Bringing the Olympic and Paralympic Games to Washington—literally hosting the world would boost the whole region but particularly some of the places in our city that need it the most.” Meanwhile, as Holy Cross economics professor Robert Baumann has asserted about mega-events like the Olympics, “There is no economic rationale to host one of these things.”
Yet this hasn’t stopped politicos from across the ideological spectrum from supporting DC’s five-ring escapade. The bipartisan bedfellows pushing for this project are, on the face, bizarre. Linking arms, we have new DC Mayor Bowser; Tea Party darling Jason Chaffetz, the incoming chair of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, which oversees DC affairs; as well as Newt Gingrich, Howard Dean and Bob Dole. They appear in a short, slickly produced video along with liberal demigods John Lewis and Eleanor Holmes-Norton. The DC2024 committee not only puts the faces of two civil-rights icons at the center of their PR push but also slakes people’s thirst to see Republicans and Democrats working together on anything. This messaging is a product of the combined efforts of President Obama’s re-election guru Jim Messina and Mitt Romney’s campaign manager Matt Rhoades, who have combined forces—and funds—to push the bid.
It’s certainly understandable that people would want to see politicians working together on anything in this town. No doubt some of these folks see the Olympics as a way to show off the city to a global audience. But we should not be led astray by this idiosyncratic band of believers. The price to everyday people living, breathing and being pushed out of the city would be horrific. Bowser’s remarks in making their pitch to the United States Olympic Committee should be particularly chilling. She said, “We’re used to putting on national security events; we can move the people; we have a lot of existing facilities and infrastructure. We put on a good case for DC being the American city.” In other words, we know how to carry out a crackdown.
We can thank Ted Leonsis for laying bare the logic that drives Games boosters. He said in 2011, “Economic Success has somehow become the new boogie man.… This is counter to the American Dream and is really turning off so many people that love American and basically carry our country on their back by paying taxes and by employing people and creating GDP.” This gets the Olympics argument perfectly. John Carlos, the 1968 Olympian, once said to us, “They only hold the Olympics every four years because it takes four years to count the money.” In other words, the Olympics will surely bring in money, but for whom? In Leonsis’ mind, it’s money for him, and there is nothing wrong with that because he thinks it’s his class of people that are “carrying the country, employing people and creating GDP.” In other words, what’s good for Ted Leonsis is what’s good for Washington, DC… even though he lives in an $8 million home on the Potomac River in Maryland.
Leonsis has blended trickle-down economics with dimestore bloviating. Instead of making the positive case for the Games, he has instead chosen to bluster: “This is about bringing the world to Washington and bringing Washington to the world. The idea of fostering unity could leave, for the whole of mankind, the greatest Olympics legacy ever. Only Washington could do this.”
As is always the case when the Olympics come to down, the foul stench of land-grabbing pervades this project. A George Washington University professor recently stated about the area along the Anacostia River: “It’s very similar to the London setup…. It’s a plot of land that’s been kind of wasteland, and people said, ‘We want to develop that because it’s on the water.’ Just like Sydney, where they developed that waterfront land, it’s there for the taking.”
This brazen land-snatching is also symbolized by the proposed site of the Olympic Village, the place where the athletes stay during the Games. DC2024 has reportedly suggested building the Village in Hill East, an area to the south of RFK Stadium that is the current location of the DC General homeless shelter. The Washington Post wrote, “Housing built there for athletes could then help alleviate the city’s affordable housing shortage.” Yet similar promises that the Olympic Village would magically turn into high-quality, low-income housing has been made in seemingly every Olympics in history, and it never happens. One can practically imagine the officials of ancient Greece swearing that the Temple of Zeus would become quality multi-family dwellings after the last race. For the London 2012 Olympics, the Olympic Village was sold at a taxpayer loss to Qatar’s ruling Al Thani family’s realty company. “Affordable” homes in Olympic Park rent for $2,000 to $2,700 per month. And let’s not lose sight of the fact that DC2024 is saying nonchalantly that a homeless shelter will be destroyed for the Olympics.
Longtime DC movement leader Reverend Graylan Hagler got it exactly right when he told us, “The obsession that develops to accommodate the Games in local communities has always had a dramatic effect upon the poor. The poor are always displaced, and the homeless are removed from the city where the Olympics occur because the powers to be want to sanitize the venue so that those venues become artificial and deceptive places to enjoy the Games.” He pointed to Atlanta, the last US city to host the Summer Games back in 1996, where homeless people were scooped up and booted from the city in order “to create a superficial and untruthful story of Atlanta’s prosperity.” Reverend Hagler added, “We need jobs and affordable housing for poor and working-class people in Washington, DC, better schools and political leaders who advocate for and protect poor and working-class people.”
Dominic Moulden, resource organizer at ONE DC, a grassroots community-building group, told us he was approached to sign on in support of the DC2024 Games, but emphatically declined. Moulden, who has organized in DC for nearly three decades, asked, “Why would any organization promoting racial and economic equity in DC support the Olympics, which clearly create lasting inequity and maintain the structures of social dislocation?” He vowed, “ONE DC will organize, protest and raise our resident-led voices against the displacement and policing of longtime DC residents and all residents if there are plans for the Olympics in DC.”
In November 2014, the Washington Post reported that DC2024 honchos “took members of the U.S. Olympic Committee on helicopter rides over the Mall and the Anacostia River to show off the city.” Nothing could be more appropriate in symbolizing this bid. From a helicopter, it’s a grand idea. From the street, it’s a cash grab. It’s using sports, civic pride and people’s thirst to see something—anything—bipartisan come out of this town into a smash-and-grab operation that will remake the city for the benefit of the people Leonsis believes “carry the country on their back.” This orgy of corporate welfare they propose reveals that it’s actually Leonsis, Ramsey and their ilk who are being carried. If the Olympics come to DC, it will be schools, social services for the poor and anyone affected by police violence who will suffer under that weight.