The politics of anti-Olympics resistance

By Harold Lavender

Resistance and opposition to events such as the 2010 Olympics doesn’t magically appear. It requires the work of organized movements and communities and dedicated individual activists.

In assessing the possibilities for resistance, the nature of the event itself and its negative impacts on communities are critical. But equally significant are the politics of the groups organizing against the Olympics. What are their goals? What types of organizing methods and tactics have been used? What limits the scope of the movement? Some limits may be self-imposed but many are wider problems external to the movement.

At this point, it is quite premature to draw any balance sheet of the anti-Olympic resistance or its impact. However, important political questions are raised. Will the resistance help inspire and facilitate ongoing community organizing efforts, greater unity and mobilization in future struggles and the development of a new anti-capitalist left? Or will the uptick in struggle fade after the games are gone?

Varied political perspectives

In discussing the opposition to the Olympics, we should remember that it is not singular or uniform. Social movements and communities are not homogeneous. Opponents of the games have varied political perspectives, priorities and tactical responses.

A good deal of the organizing efforts have come from the radical anti-capitalist left and the most affected communities. However, opposition and organizing is certainly not limited to this small milieu.

Radical anti-capitalist and anti-colonial organizers have raised the banner of No Olympics on Stolen Native Land. This slogan has value in taking an uncompromising stand against the games and a principled stand on what people want to stop, including an end to colonial oppression of indigenous people and respect for their self-determination and sovereignty.

However, there is a big difference between saying “No” and being able to stop the 2010 games. Given the vast security preparations, shutting down the games is not a possibility. One key lesson is that the best time to block the Olympics is before the bid is awarded.

The early opposition

The bid originated under the watch of the BC’s labour-supported New Democratic Party. However, the games are now firmly associated with the right-wing BC Liberal government of Gordon Campbell, who launched a massive attack on social programs, welfare recipients and the poor, unions and democratic rights in his first term from 2001 to 2005. Despite being re-elected in 2009, his government currently has very low approval ratings.

Unions, tied to the very limited perspective of electing NDP governments, either explicitly or implicitly supported the games. The NDP and the unions failed to put forward any critique of mega-project developments, either in the Olympics or elsewhere.

In a non-binding Vancouver referendum on the games (with close to a 50 per cent turnout), opponents of the Olympics polled a very respectable 36 per cent, despite being outspent by 100 to 1 and criticized by supposedly progressive politicians like Vancouver Mayor Larry Campbell. The vote shattered any myth that Vancouverites were solidly behind the games. Resident of other municipalities in Greater Vancouver and the rest of BC were denied even this very limited democratic exercise.

Today the warnings of the games critics ring depressingly true, unlike the many false promises of its supporters, whose trumped-up benefits are being daily exposed as nothing more than pie in the sky.

The radical opposition

Most subsequent opposition has generally taken on a non- (or anti-) electoral, non-institutional orientation, preferring instead to work through social movements and direct action. Many radical and young opponents of the Olympics self-identify as anarchist.

Many have been influenced by the experiences and organizing approaches of the last wave of the global justice movement, which in Vancouver has declined in size and influence but never completely disappeared. A certain number of young people are being radicalized around anti-Olympic politics, anti-racist indigenous solidarity and ecological issues.

Anti-Olympic organizing has been an important focus for much, if not all, of the anti-capitalist left in Vancouver. However, concerns around the Olympics extend far beyond the boundaries of anti-capitalist movements.


One reform-oriented approach has been to try to mitigate the negative effects of the Olympics and win some tangible gains in spheres such as housing and civil liberties. The Impact of the Olympics on Communities Coalition (IOCC) has worked on this front.

The original Vancouver bid committee made agreements with stakeholders. The IOCC has attempted to hold people accountable by monitoring and reporting. It has done some quite useful work and held public activities to reach a somewhat broader constituency.

However, the reality is that the so-called Vancouver agreement was worth less than the paper it was written on. The legacy of the 2010 Olympics in progressive reforms, contributions to social justice and respect for democratic rights is negative.

The IOCC, for tactical reasons, started with a neutral stance, but it has become increasingly critical as the reality of VANOC, VISU and all levels of government has sunk in. The coalition is organizing a rally during the Olympics (with the backing of labour), focusing on Vancouver’s dire lack of affordable housing/homelessness crisis and demanding the federal government adopt a national housing strategy.

Anti-poverty activism

Anti-poverty activists are seeking to highlight the extreme disparity between the beautiful, sanitized, trendy image of Vancouver being hyped for the Olympics and the realities of life for many. But there are different approaches.

One effective, if not radical, approach is the Poverty Olympics, which enjoys broad support among residents of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the city’s poorest neighbourhood, where some of the most extreme impacts of the games will be felt. The Anti-Poverty Committee (APC) continues to take a more militant and confrontational approach and is part of the Olympics Resistance Network (ORN).


At certain moments, direct action, creative protests and mass action may interact in very favourable ways. Despite inevitable tensions and differences of opinion, this was very clearly the case in Seattle in 1999 and Quebec City in 2001. These events saw large mobilizations of tens of thousands, including many from labour. In each case, roughly 10,000 people took things a step further to engage in more direct tactics of resistance. Such a scenario doesn’t appear on the agenda for Vancouver, either in terms of numbers or intersections between radical and wider movements. As a result, organizers and participants in smaller actions are potentially more vulnerable.

Olympics Resistance Network

Real advances in organizing, however, are taking place. For a number of years, opposition and resistance was sporadic and not well coordinated. This changed with the formation of the Olympics Resistance Network in 2008, which has held together despite some ups and downs.

Participants include radical social organizations, the best known being No One is Illegal and the APC. It based itself on organizing concepts from the global justice movement, acting as a decentralized network rather than a centralized organization. It aims more at facilitating autonomous actions than leading actions in its own name. It has a clear basis of unity but this doesn’t mean everybody thinks and acts the same.

Respect for diversity of tactics is one of the hallmarks of this type of approach. It reflects the reality that in any substantial movement a very wide array of tactics will be used. People don’t necessarily agree with every tactic used, but choose which activities they participate in and actively support. But there is a strong will to solidarize with all those facing repression for their activity against the Olympics
The ORN has been successful in providing a framework for getting things done. It has provided a vehicle for criticism of the Olympics and for responding to ongoing developments. Its websites have a great of information. Its activists have organized speakers tours, made contacts with anti-Olympics organizers in other places, and researched and exposed corporate sponsors. They have organized some local actions.

The ORN call for actions in opposition to the torch relay produced some successes. The movement was buoyed when 400 turned out in Victoria for the opening of the torch relay, forcing its rerouting. Numerous other actions took place in communities across the country, even if generally small in scale. Indigenous communities offered some positive examples showing that the torch relays were not welcome, forcing rerouting and drawing attention to key issues such as missing and murdered women.

Anti-Olympic convergence

The ORN is organizing an anti-Olympic convergence. Mass leafleting and postering is helping spread the word. The size of the convergence is not yet clear. However, it creates a potentially dynamic space where people from different communities from Vancouver and afar can link interrelated struggles and organizing efforts.

Days of action could feature a variety of actions of different character and different levels of confrontation. Stop War will highlight Canada’s military participation in Afghanistan, while others will focus on corporate sponsors. Some actions will have a more openly defiant and confrontational character (reflecting the approach of some direct action anarchists currents), including a snake march to clog the arteries of capitalism.

A good deal of advance preparation has gone into the possibility of a police crackdown during the convergence and days of action. This ranges from street medic training and organizing legal defense to promoting knowledge of legal rights and fundraising for people who may be arrested. The B.C. Liberties Association has helped train legal observers to monitor the actions of the police during games.

The work of the ORN faces some limitations in reaching beyond the radical milieu. It has been subject to a campaign of vilification in the corporate press, which has made it difficult to get endorsements from moderate forces and community groups. The insular radical cultures and deliberately provocative style of some radicals can also further the separation from less radical milieus. However, there has been real outreach through some excellent community organizing work with affected groups, widespread education and considerable work in specific milieu’s including the campuses.

Mass mobilizing

Many organizers want a mass mobilization during the Olympics. How can this best happen?

A discussion in the ORN led to the initiation of an independent group to organize a mass-oriented family-friendly festival and march. The 2010 Welcoming Committee came together in the fall of 2009. This arrangement has worked well and created a space where people involved with ORN can work with others. It has broadened participation to include groups such as the Council of Canadians and has facilitated endorsement for actions from a wide range of organizations. It is a positive step towards unity in action.

Anti-Olympic organizing can have a positive role in bring together communities, uniting in action and fostering a new left. Many hope such organized efforts will strengthen efforts against the Campbell government in BC, but this is not self-evident.


BC’s Campbell government bought labour peace by signing long contracts with public sector workers, which expire after the games later this year. There is every indication that the government will try to fight its budget deficit by attacking public sector workers with a wage freeze and rollbacks, and substantial cuts to public sector jobs and services. There could be a significant confrontation later this year between the government and public sector unions.

However, labour and anti-Olympics organizers are far apart, especially at the upper levels of the labour bureaucracy. A great many workers are fed up with the Olympics. BC paramedics waged a prolonged strike while continuing delivery of their essential service. Last year, the BC government recalled the legislature to force an end to their strike. These workers were clear about the link to the upcoming Olympics. But collective worker opposition has largely been squelched and is expressed mostly on an individual basis.

Some currents in the movement don’t see this as important, but others have worked to make as many links as possible. Such links between labour and community activists will have to be forged and strengthened to defend public services. Otherwise, both the unions and those who rely on public services may well be defeated.

For a non-sectarian, grass roots opposition

Grass roots-oriented social movements have been the backbone of resistance to the Olympics. Strengthening the links between these movements and uniting behind common struggles is pivotal.

But there also needs to be space for reflection, discussion, disagreements and debate. Unfortunately, today such discussions are often limited only to small pockets in which people work together politically and interact.

Social movements are central to building resistance and fighting for social justice. However, it is a problem when social struggles such as the anti-Olympics movement are marginalized from the formal political system and no one will support the views of the social movement.

In some other countries such as France, organizations such as the New Anti-Capitalist Party play an important role in providing a wider political framework for struggles. There is not yet a dynamic towards a new mass-based anti-capitalist party rooted in struggle in BC and the Canadian state. But efforts to build non-sectarian political formations could play a positive role in this direction.

Harold Lavender is an editor of New Socialist.