Like a plane flying slowly and inexorably toward a mountain, the Olympics are crashing into Los Angeles in 2028. Despite the fact that Olympic games historically leave their host cities with debt, displacement, and militarization, Olympic bidders, rebranded as LA28, have trumpeted a 2016 poll showing that 88 percent of Angelenos want the games to come to LA. But a new poll released on Tuesday casts doubts. The survey of more than 1,000 respondents—commissioned by NOlympics LA, an anti-Games group—found that 47 percent oppose hosting the 2028 Games in Los Angeles while only 26 percent are in support. More than a quarter of respondents remained neutral.
The gaping discrepancy between the new NOlympics LA survey and previous polling points to the urgent need for Los Angeles to finally—as other cities around the world have done—hold a public referendum on the Games.
Hosting the Games is a big deal—on this boosters and critics agree. The poll released on Tuesday found that 54 percent of respondents were not closely following the city’s Olympic machinations, while only 1 percent identified themselves as following “very closely.” Referenda force both proponents and critics to sharpen their arguments to air them in the public sphere, and compel residents to reckon with this sports juggernaut before it rolls into their town.
In September 2017, the IOC took the unprecedented step of awarding two Summer Olympics simultaneously, handing Paris the 2024 Games and LA the 2028 Olympics. Since then, NOlympics LA has ramped up its efforts to raise questions about the economic and social costs that the Olympics would likely inflict on the city, as happened with recent hosts like Pyeongchang, Rio de Janeiro, Sochi, and London. (It was in May 2017 when NOlympics LA emerged from the Housing and Homelessness Committee of the Los Angeles chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America.)
The group has criticized Olympic organizers for failing to issue a final budget for the ostensibly $5.3 billion Games (although we do know that California taxpayers are on the hook if the Games—as is likely, if history is any guide—bust their budget). Activists have also decried the democratic deficit the Games have brought. At the LA City Council hearing that ratified the Olympics, critics were prevented from testifying. One councilman even blurted, “I’m tired of these people coming to us and questioning our decision making.” NOlympics LA has targeted Mayor Eric Garcetti who, as a possible 2020 presidential contender, has spent enormous chunks of time away from Los Angeles, appearing conspicuously in Iowa and New Hampshire. They’ve even started a “Where’s Garcetti?” website to track the mayor’s whereabouts.
Meanwhile, here in the United States, the Olympics are in disarray. There’s the horrific sexual-abuse scandal involving USA Gymnastics and Larry Nassar. The US Olympic Committee refused to open an investigation when accusations emerged in the press back in 2016. As a result, the USOC’s upper leadership has been shuffling around like an abuse-induced game of musical chairs. Last week Senator Richard Blumenthal floated the idea of revoking the USOC’s tax-exempt status and rescinding its antitrust exemption if it does not convincingly address its epic fail on sex abuse. This proposition should be taken seriously.
Five-ring fanatics may quibble with NOlympics LA’s polling methodology or downplay the value of their results. Anne Orchier of NOlympics LA was well aware of polling’s limitations. She told us, “To be clear, we do not believe that any poll or survey, including ours, is a substitute for real dialogue about how these Games will impact the most vulnerable and marginalized people in our city.”
The poll’s divergent findings make sense since previous polls were carried out before Los Angeles was granted the Games and they did not raise the issue of whether people’s support could be influenced by the fact that tax dollars would be used to fund and thus put at risk. Also, NOlympics LA poll designers offered an option to declare oneself “neutral,” which many respondents took (as opposed to saying “don’t know,” which is often the option provided, and people are not as inclined to say they don’t know).
Their poll highlights a hard truth: The public has had scant chance to weigh in on the Olympics. Public referendums are the new zeitgeist in Olympic bidding. Calgary has a plebiscite planned in November for the city’s 2026 Olympic bid. NOlympics LA’s new poll demonstrates a clear need for such a public vote, and thanks to the unorthodox 10-year lead time for LA28, the city has plenty of time to stage one. The fight for a referendum is now fully engaged.