Lessons from the Winter Olympics

Jonny Coleman

5 min read

Pyeongchang Provides Another Cautionary Tale for LA 2028

The Pyeongchang Winter Olympics came and went with a resounding "huh?" The coverage ran the gamut from bizarre to contradictory to incoherent, from "Is this going to lead to nuclear war or eternal peace?" to "Is Lindsey Vonn gonna fall?"

The fanfare was antiseptic and the seventeen day events' dominant narratives were banal. The attendance and broadcast numbers were underwhelming. There was more development of the rather dull Russian doping narrative, but otherwise, journalists oddly opined at how "boring" and scandal-free they were. But the realities lurking just off camera during and sometimes in plain view, point to a string of failures that have plagued the Olympics, both Summer and Winter, for many years and which do not bode well for Angelenos in 2028.

Spontaneity and political protest inside the Games were in short supply but controversies and protest outside the Games were not. What was actually lacking was more robust coverage of all the ways in which this year's Winter Olympics were a failure both to the host city and, by extension, the people who live in these cities. NBC's coverage was milquetoast, often veering into self-parody of American ignorance.

For starters, the Pyeongchang Games saw local politicians fully abandoning any environmental promises made during the bidding process once the Games came to town. The grossest example was razing an ancient forest and turning it into a ski run. Because the politicians who broker these public-private partnerships are rarely accountable by rule of law, they can just renege on any promises they made to cement the deal. We see this happen again and again and again.

The Pyeongchang Games also went wildly over budget, to the tune of almost $6 billion over the original estimated cost. But, then again, going wildly over budget is the Olympic norm. What's perhaps saddest about all this waste is the argument that it's "innovative" to build a stadium for a one time use and not just overwhelmingly unnecessary and destructive. The Pyeongchang Games also exploited thousands of volunteers, many of whom quit or protested. Likewise, Tokyo is trying to keep its costs down by not paying highly specialized volunteers, like interpreters.

What should really alarm Californians of all political persuasions is that the Tokyo 2020 Olympics appear as if they will be going over budget by about $14 billion ( from $6B to $20B), and we've still got a few years to go there. How over budget will the LA 2028 Olympics go? We have no idea, because there still is somehow no budget for the LA plan, and City Hall essentially handed the IOC a blank check, so now the public is on the hook for overages, regardless of how high they skyrocket.

That matters because LA already has a funding and diversion resource problem, of course. There's always enough money for projects as long as they involve the cops or corporations (public-private partnerships, anyone?) but never enough for housing, education, medicine or other social services. Of the $1.2B approved for Measure HHH, it seems inevitable that a large chunk of that will go to law enforcement, who already get almost $2B a year (twice what Measure HHH hopes to recoup over a decade). If the games go several billion dollars over budget, this will essentially undo decades-long legacy mega-projects like HHH that are still inadequate at "fixing" homelessness. The realignment of financial priorities around the Olympics makes absolutely no sense and exposes our politicians' clear hypocrisies. It favors an event for wealthy tourists over the needs of Angelenos, across all axes. Anthony Rendon couldn't sign off on SB562 because it wasn't financially sound, but he could endorse the Olympics, even though it's budgetless and therefore the definition of irrational financial brinkmanship. It's absurd and an affront to our intelligence, and they're banking on the fact that people largely aren't paying attention.

But there's more than resource diversion. Pyeongchang also showed us that climate change and planning events this far in advance just don't work. Garcetti et al. haven't calculated the risk of extreme weather affecting both turnout and the actual athletic performances, in some cases putting athletes in unnecessary added danger. It begs the questions: how hot will it be in Los Angeles in August 2028? Will we have enough water? Will we be able to sustain the crushing environmental impact and will the IOC's pledge to improve the "legacy" of the Olympic footprint actually move the needle? A major rupture of the southern San Andreas fault (of which we're overdue) could happen tomorrow or ten years from now. How will the essential infrastructure of the city be impacted by Los Angeles' contractual obligations to the IOC? If earthquakes become more frequent due to sea level rise, what will Los Angeles look like as athletes, spectators, and media swarm the city? No one at City Hall has answers for these questions, because no one there cares to know.

Also lacking in most mainstream Pyeongchang coverage was how the Olympics adversely affected local businesses. Contrary to what Olympic boosters will have you think–small businesses, the middle class, the working class, indigenous people and the unhoused routinely get hosed when the Olympics come to town, and there's nothing to suggest from this years Games that the IOC seeks to change that. Their concern has never been on the actual residents of the host city.

Instead, the Pyeongchang Olympics showcased military technology–like the Orwellian "1,218 drones joined in a mechanical murmuration". We saw how militarization played out for Los Angeles after its last Olympics in 1984, and there's nothing to suggest it won't be just as bad - if not worse - in 2028.

And the boost in militarization isn't an accident or some indirect, unplanned consequence. The Olympics are really about expanding military and political power and for corporate interests to extract wealth from local communities. Pyeongchang exhibited how power always co-opts the Games as a forum for political theater, using this entertainment spectacle as a Trojan horse for political maneuvering. The same thing is playing out here in L.A., as the Olympics are the vehicle through which Eric Garcetti will build his national brand as he eyes Feinstein's seat or (laughably improbable) the White House. The Olympics are also double as a means to distract from the fact that he's been an abject failure in affecting any positive change as it relates to housing, immigration, homelessness, or police violence.

So how will our depleted local media corps continue to frame the LA Olympics in the next decade as the Olympic brand continues its slow spiral down the drain? Will we continue drinking the Kool-Aid being served by millionaires and billionaires or address how all sorts of people will be hurt through its reckless process? Will we not connect the dots between what's happened in other nations and not admit we are just as vulnerable–if not more so–than anyone else?

The LA Times has been running an important series on criminalization of the unhoused this past week. But missing from their stream of perspectives is reflection on the effects of the Olympics on the unhoused population. That isn't being factored into their work–or even acknowledged despite the concurrence of another city's Olympic struggles–and points to a broader neoliberal tendency to silo analyses of particular social problems from the underlying causal relationships between issues.

But the evidence shows that in city after city, and now confirmed again in Pyeongchang, that the Olympics literally displace millions of people, and they also push out discussion of human rights to the culture's fringes. The IOC's job is to produce a TV show, after all. Their motive is not to make sure Angelenos are protected throughout the process. So who will?