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By Nathan Akehurst
The 2012 Olympics are not simply a sporting event, but a festival of repression and corporate propaganda.
Let’s try and undo the myth that sport is apolitical, and least of all, the Olympics. From the 1936 Berlin Olympics to the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa to the Olympic massacre in Mexico to the human rights debate at the last Olympic Games, the history of the event is littered with political turmoil and repression. Indeed, the repressive policing measures approved for the Los Angeles games are arguably a leading factor in the climate that created the 1992 Rodney King riots. If only it were true that the Games could be a simple sporting competition, an exhibition of athletic prowess and friendly competition. That is a mere fiction, though, and the reality is that the background to London 2012 is as political as it ever will be; and to oppose and reject the Games is not simply anti-sport. It’s common sense. Here is a distilled list of reasons why the Games are a sham; a propaganda offensive aimed at shoring up an unpopular system and attacking ordinary people in the process.
For an Olympics that has soared over its budget, it seems very surprising that the money cannot be found to provide decent recompense to those who would labour to make it a success. Yet, transport workers, who are having to cope with a hugely overcrowded city, maintaining a network that will be overstretched in spite of transport upgrades, are being refused remuneration for the extreme circumstances, and transport bosses continue to flip-flop over pay and conditions, whilst accusing the workers of behaving counterproductively! In addition, professional musicians are expected to perform free of charge at the Olympics. Meanwhile, the scheme of Olympic volunteering has been hyped up as a way for people to ‘give back’- a force of seventy thousand ‘Games Markers’ will line the streets for London 2012. National unity and people harmlessly helping, right? The reality is, one million young people are unemployed. We live in a society where Jubilee stewards were expected not only to work for free but to sleep under Waterloo Bridge. Living costs are rising, in London more so than most. People do not need ‘volunteering’ opportunities, they need well-paying jobs, and for a world sporting event soaked in money to expect to recruit an army of slave labour from artists and performers to escorts and tourist-helpers, is frankly disgusting. What it also does is normalise the free labour culture we have; where graduates and the jobless alike are expected to work for free, if not ordered to, and anyone hoping to go into a professional job should expect to undergo a raft of unpaid internships beforehand.
As early as 2006, police were given special powers for the Olympics, that potentially extended to invading homes and destroying protest material. A huge ‘Brand Exclusion Zone’, banning advertising but also infringing upon personal choices and to be heavily policed, surrounds the Olympic area, as does a security fence reminiscent of separation barriers such as the Israeli apartheid wall or Berlin Wall. Six have been arrested for peaceful protest against the Olympic takeover of Leyton Marsh, whilst anti-Olympics tweeters had their accounts suspended after complaints from Games organisers. In short, police powers are being maximised, and the police have a track record of expanding powers beyond the purposes they were nominally intended for; the Terrorism Act for instance. The example of how extreme policing continued for a decade after the Los Angeles Olympics sets a precedent for this. It is worse, though, than the criminalisation of protest; for Fortress Olympia is not merely policed, but militarised. In the face of widespread local opposition and ignoring the local population, the Ministry of Defence have forged ahead with plans for Surface to Air Missile (SAM) sites on six residential locations around the Olympic area. This is despite prevailing evidence that the Rapier missile system is prone to failure, ineffective in poor weather (of which there have been no shortage recently) and that if an airborne attack was to penetrate the already extensive ring of steel around London, the debris cloud from a missile discharge in an urban area would be horrifically dangerous. This is an addition to police sniper units, aerial drones, warships and gunboats, and an estimated 12,000 police, 13,500 military personnel (4000 more than deployed in Afghanistan!), 500 FBI agents in 1000 US military personnel and 20,000 security guards being deployed. It is not a phenomenon limited to the Olympics, but part of a growing trend of military urbanism that will not end with the Olympic handover ceremony.
On passing through Waterloo Station, I observed the entire thoroughfare bedecked with EDF propaganda sponsoring the Olympics. If sport is simply about sport and nothing more, then why are advertisements for EDF, Coca-Cola, and every other ‘official’ Games product swamping London? The dictatorship of consumerism linked to the Games is naked, blatant, and obvious. And what of access to the Games? Companies that have acquired considerable numbers of tickets are selling them on starting at £595- a price no working-class person in Britain can afford. Meanwhile newborn babies are expected to hold full-price tickets – nothing short of an attack on new mothers. Notwithstanding the debacle in initial ticket allocation, a quick glance at the timetable shows us that the vast majority of tickets are at least £95 and upwards- pricing ensures that very few ordinary people will find it possible to even access the Games we are supposed to be venerating. Moreover, VIP lanes line the streets of London for the fast transit of Games officials (30% of the London road network, and in spite of our supposedly revamped transport system- don’t mention the tube line flooding or passengers being escorted through tube tunnels after breakdowns on several occasions.) So, we are expected to put up with decreased road capacity in a city that is already wracked with constant traffic jams (and I doubt the increased petrol output resulting from this will be any good for the environment either.) Worse, the VIP lanes don’t merely exclude regular private vehicles, but public transport and emergency vehicles in non-emergency situations. Now, there are plenty of reasons an ambulance, even in a non-emergency context, would need fast movement- logistical placement in preparation of possible casualties, for instance, or the transporting of patients whose conditions do not pose immediate danger but nor is it especially helpful for them to be stuck in traffic for two hours. The Games are an explosion of corporate propaganda that locks out and marginalises the common person. Meanwhile, the Olympic village has been sold to the Qatari ruling family’s property firm, with a loss to the taxpayer of £275 million, or as Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt puts it, ”a fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games.”
Sponsors include BP, Dow Chemicals and Rio Tinto- a kick in the teeth to the environment, given that these three controversial companies are responsible for an untold amount of irresponsible pollution; including the Tar Sands, aka ‘the greatest environmental crime in history.’ In a horrible twist of irony, the Paralympics are sponsored by Atos Healthcare- the firm whose draconian ‘work capability’ tests make life a living hell on a daily basis for ordinary disabled people- especially the most vulnerable.
But the Olympics are going to leave a legacy that will help Londoners in the long term, right? Wrong. Contaminated land (lead and asbestos) is being disturbed to build a new and unnecessary Olympic venue on Leyton Marsh, a green area of common land prized by locals. Protesting on the site has been banned. Meanwhile, several years ago, the Clays Lane housing cooperative, which held a number of poor people together in good-quality housing and a strong community, was razed to make way for the Olympics, the homeowners dispersed across London, their community wiped out. Again, this is part of a wider process of gentrification across East London, as gated communities emerge and rents are driven up, forcing out the poorest, in conjunction with the state-sponsored exodus of poorer families from London, which includes Londoners being evacuated to Yorkshire! A host of small businesses have been kicked out to make way for the Olympic Park, some of whom have not recovered, whilst future ‘regeneration plans’ endanger another housing estate. There is very little guarantee, despite the whitewash around it, that much, if any, of the Olympic Village accommodation will become affordable housing- and if there is, it will be too little and too late. And what, among other things, have the evictions and regeneration been for? ”…some luxury yachts along the riverfront…Sixty palm trees are being shipped in. We’re going to have this beach club that turns into a nightclub.”
It is an opening of the way to the sale of yet more public space; the further privatisation of our common property of streets. We will be left with a financial black hole, jobs that rapidly evaporate (not that there were many real jobs in the first place) a militarised city, and repressive legislation, and absolutely no guarantee of decent affordable housing. As far as transport improvements go- could that not have been accomplished without the Games? What’s to celebrate?
Recently, the five Olympic rings were installed at Tower Bridge. The heavy steel pieces cost £260,000 to build and a further £53,000 to install. In an era where London boroughs are losing up to 70% of their youth centres, along with libraries, care homes, housing benefit, support for the poorest, school buildings, and more, there is no need to explain the myriad things which this money might have otherwise been spent on. The Olympics were originally estimated to have a price tag of £2.4bn. It’s common knowledge that they’ve overspent, but by how much? The military and police operation comes to £1bn. The total costs of the Games, including the peripheral, come to a massive £24 billion – ten times the original estimate. The net loss, taking tourism revenue into account, is expected to be around £3.5billion. When everyone from the sick and disabled to the unemployed (especially young people, women and ethnic minorities according to a variety of figures) as well as nurses and doctors, teachers, firemen and women, public sector workers as a whole- and indeed workers as a whole- are undergoing the effects of austerity, the spending of astronomical sums on what is essentially a large white elephant is unconscionable. What we are being told is that we cannot afford a progressive pension scheme, dignified unemployment and sickness benefits, stable job creation, environmental sustainability, primary, secondary, further and higher education, the health service, the youth service, elderly care, et cetera, and yet we can afford a month-long corporate bonanza that is not in the slightest inclusive or indicative of a long-term positive legacy? The Olympics lays bare the fact that we are not all in it together, and that austerity is only necessary when its targets are those the Coalition Government have no regard for wellbeing.
The legacy of the Olympics is nothing but further repression, poverty, social exclusion and social division. In Ancient Rome, the Emperor Nero would provide ‘bread and circuses’ to the people in order to dissuade them from dissenting, including public games. The Olympics is bread and circuses on a global scale, a true Weapon of Mass Distraction. It is interesting to note that national teams were only imposed on the Games in 1908, by those countries desperately seeking patriotism and unquestioning support from their populace, in a time of social unrest and the preceding years to the First World War, when nation-based power blocs were developing. The spirit of the games remains the same; corrupted by its sponsors away from co-operative sporting, and into an extravaganza that forces us to come together in national unity, and ignore the fact that it is our ‘countrymen’, our ‘compatriots’ that are occupying government and business and in the process of impoverishing us. (Whilst, of course, we are busy buying our Official Olympic water and breathing our London 2012™ oxygen.) What is worse is that the co-operative, apolitical spirit behind the original Olympics persists in spite of the Orwellian poison attached to it, forcing us to accept that it still exists in spite of all that’s been attached to it.
To those that complain that protesting the Olympics is an attack on sport itself; remember that the true Olympic message of equal, friendly sporting competition has already been subverted and destroyed, and in London this year at least, is irrevocable.
Image credit to: Counter Olympics Network