The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hosts use the Olympics to bolster police power — harming civil liberties

The planned use of AI video surveillance at the Paris games fits into a long tradition

Civil libertarians are furious after the French National Assembly passed a law allowing artificial intelligence video surveillance during the 2024 Paris Olympics, and history shows they're right to be wary. (Francois Mori/AP)
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When the French National Assembly approved the use of artificial intelligence video surveillance at the Paris 2024 Olympics on March 23, it made France the first European Union country to legalize such a wide-reaching AI-powered surveillance system and left civil-liberties advocates livid. They argued that the move not only undermines the E.U.’s AI Act regulating the technology, but also greenlights potentially massive privacy violations inside France.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International Secretary General Agnes Callamard blasted the law’s potential to “amplify racist policing and threaten the right to protest.” Callamard’s fears are justified. In the past, the Olympic Games have opened the door for laws that infringe upon civil liberties and the right to protest.

Local and national security officials over the past several decades have used the Olympics to generate huge sums of cash and secure special tools and laws that would be difficult to acquire during normal political times. These new laws can stay on the books and technologies remain in the hands of the state after the Games, reinforcing police power and squelching political dissent. As a result, the Olympics help normalize technologies and practices that undermine human rights, despite the Olympic Charter’s stated commitment to “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

Policing and surveillance have not always been so central to the Olympic project. At the Stockholm 1912 Olympics, which many view as the best-organized Games to that point, police played a minor role. The final report for the Games noted that at the marathon event, only 100 police officers and 300 soldiers monitored the route. Police were at the Games mainly “for the purpose of admonishing the public to observe correctness of behavior towards the competitors, so that there would be no disturbance of the peace.” The highest-profile police action at the Games may have been the popular tug-of-war event. The Swedish team was composed of police officers who defeated the British squad — made up of London police officers — to win the gold medal.

Yet at the 1936 Berlin Olympics — known as the Nazi Games — security forces were ubiquitous at the Opening Ceremonies. Guards monitored every entrance. Police swept the stadium for explosives. German police created a criminal yearbook of sorts, with photographs and descriptions of grifters who might try to swindle Olympic visitors. But the Gestapo also shifted emphasis, surveilling Olympians, such as the African Americans who they feared would interact with White German women or express anti-Nazi dissent. The Gestapo created a special postal inspection unit to intercept letters sent to athletes in the Olympic Village informing them of Nazi atrocities and imploring them to speak out.

While the Nazis used the Olympics to fortify fascism, more liberal nations also embraced the Games as a way to cultivate the techno-tools of social control. The Tokyo 1964 Olympics brought a glimpse of the future. In the wake of those Games, a member of the Olympic organizing committee founded ALSOK, Japan’s biggest private security firm. The country’s security industry was reportedly “born as a legacy of the 1964 Games.”

Olympics-driven security and surveillance intensified after the 1972 Munich Olympics where members of a Palestinian militant group snuck into the Olympic Village and kidnapped 11 Israeli athletes and coaches. This eventually led to a gun battle where all the Israelis, five Palestinians and a German police officer were killed. Organizers of the 1976 Montreal Olympics responded four years later with what they described as a “vast security machinery.” Still, the approximately 18,000 police and military officials monitoring the Montreal Games were minuscule compared to today.

By the beginning of the 21st century, host cities and countries were routinely passing special security laws linked directly to the Olympics.

The 2000 Sydney Summer Games were underwritten by “Olympic Security Legislation” that broadened policing and surveillance powers that remained on the books in the wake of the Games. Scholars MacIntosh Ross and Michael McDougall note that, beginning in 2000, an Olympic Games Knowledge Management Program facilitated information sharing among Olympic hosts. This helped normalize a significant — and increasingly militarized — security apparatus, while framing the scheme as a positive legacy.

Then came 9/11. Salt Lake City hosted the Winter Olympics only five months after the terrorist attacks, and, unsurprisingly, security measures skyrocketed. The United States was already inclined to ramp up security measures after a bomb exploded in Centennial Olympic Park at the 1996 Atlanta Games, killing one person and wounding more than 100. But now the freshly-passed USA PATRIOT ACT was in full effect, replete with enhanced surveillance powers. The U.S. government designated the Olympics a National Special Security Event, jump-starting a “unified command model” that blended federal, state and local policing units. Years later, National Security Agency whistleblower Thomas Drake revealed that the NSA allegedly conducted “blanket, indiscriminate surveillance” during the Olympics.

During the Cold War, Olympic security was mostly viewed as a national-security matter focusing on state adversaries and domestic dissidents. Now in the 21st century, the threat of terrorism from nonstate actors trying to use the Olympics to promote various ideologies became the justification for increased security measures.

Under this new outlook, the Olympics turned into a way to bolster state power through the procurement of special equipment and laws not normally allowed. The Olympics became a pretext for soft-launching surveillance technologies that stayed in place after the Games. Officials argued that terrorism necessitated this security architecture, but it could also be brandished against activists pushing for social change.

Just look at the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics. To securitize the Games, the Canadian government formed the Vancouver Integrated Security Unit, headed by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and composed of more than 20 policing agencies. The Integrated Security Unit lived on in the wake of the Games and was deployed to police other events like the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto and President Biden’s recent visit to Ottawa. Scholar Adam Molnar noted that the Games turbocharged the Vancouver Police Department’s Military Liaison Unit, catalyzing “a ‘multiplier effect’” on the unit’s “material and organizational capacities.” After interviewing members of the unit, he learned “The MLU now recognizes itself as more fully equipped than many of the military brigades they encounter.”

The London 2012 Olympics further normalized the militarization of the public sphere. Security officials ratcheted surface-to-air missiles to various rooftops across the city. Military-grade Reaper drones hovered above while around 13,500 military personnel patrolled below — 4,000 more than were serving Britain in Afghanistan at the time.

Similarly, the Tokyo Games held in 2021 created serious civil-liberties concerns. In 2017, Japanese legislators rammed anti-terrorism legislation through parliament, using the Olympics to justify the rushed nature of its passage. The legislation added hundreds of new crimes to Japanese law, including specific offenses like activist sit-ins challenging the construction of new apartment buildings. Until covid-19 eliminated in-person fans at the Tokyo Games, the plan was to use facial recognition for security at all venues, as the 2028 Los Angeles Games plan to do, thereby smoothing a path for its social normalization.

Back in Paris, Danielle Simonnet, a member of France’s National Assembly, told me, “The law demonstrates that the Olympics are a pretext for accelerating a policy of generalized surveillance.”

The hotly contested new French law’s AI video surveillance measures are temporary and could be overturned by courts, though that is unlikely. Originally, the AI-based video surveillance system was proposed to last through June 2025, far beyond the Paris Olympics in summer 2024. Under pressure, the legislation was amended to only last through the 2024 calendar year. Regardless, Simonnet said, the law “is an attack on the rights to privacy, the right to protest, and freedom of assembly and expression that will only aggravate discriminatory policies.” She is right. History shows that the Olympic state of exception often becomes the new normal, handing more power to the already powerful at the expense of movements from below pressing for justice.