I have to admit, I like the concept of the Olympics. I like the idea of the whole world being united in a sporting contest that goes back to antiquity and encourages a striving for excellence in physical abilities as well as sportsmanship. I like the idea of sport, unmotivated by lots of corporate sponsorship and greed as it seems football is here in England (and Baseball was in the 1990s, when I stopped following my team, The Mets, because I lost faith in players during the strike). And in some weird, perverse, London way, I feel a sense of pride that we got the games. But being an adoptive Londoner, I think I’ve also acquired a kind of second-nature scepticism about waves of positivity sweeping over a place like a juggernaut leaving nothing but vitamin C and sunshine in its wake. It smacks of the worst of blind American optimism and as Springsteen said, blind faith in your leaders, or anything, will get you killed.
There’s no smoke without fire and no scepticism without a seedy little fact lurking behind those shiny Olympic rings.Whilst I think The Games should be an enjoyable experience, here are a few uncomfortable truths to bear in mind as we are jubilantly celebrating sport.
Mowing down the Marshes
The Borough of Waltham Forest, on 7th February, 2011, greenlighted The Olympic Development Authority to build a large basketball training facility right on top of a massive amount of green space in the Porter’s Field section of Leyton Marshes. You can read all about the campaign to prevent the courts from being built here
. The ODA say they are obliging themselves to restore the Marshes to their former state by 15th October 2012, but as with rainforests, no matter how many trees you plant and fields you build over, there is no going back to the ‘original state’ of an historic green space. And I have to ask, why does London, a city with a surprisingly large amount of green spaces, need to sacrifice some of them? We host millions of commuters from the home counties every day. It’s not as though we don’t do big events.
Roll up, roll up, Olympic festival fans, it’s Walthamstock
Exploiting green spaces for quick cash during the Olympics seems to be a real trend with Waltham Forest. A council licensing panel granted the Big Events Company (BEC) permission to sell alcohol and have dancing and recorded music between 1 and 10 pm, despite protests from local residents. According to The Waltham Forest Guardian‘s website:
‘Last year the council secretly signed a contract to lease the land to the firm, hoping that a share of the profits from the deal would help pay the estimated £1.5million bill for its ‘Big 6′ series of events to celebrate the Olympics.’
A cynical person might think Waltham Forest was milking the games for all it was worth.
Branded like Cattle
We have new stadiums, we have a new shopping centre, we even have a new postcode (E20, as if we can really call Stratford a city) but could we please leave our E15 greasy spoons alone? Kamel Kichane, the owner of The Olympic Cafe in Stratford was forced to change the name of his caf or have to pay the council £3,000. The following is Mr. Kichane’s low cost solution to the problem.
What it reveals though is a wrong-headedness, a blinkered vision about the Olympic Brand. What was I saying up there about a competition untainted by commercialism? Correction. The sponsors and organisers project an image that the Olympics is not motivated by commercial greed and work very hard to project that image, but the fact is, according to Adweek magazine, the Olympics has been about greed and private sponsorship since LA in 1984 when Peter Ueberroth, the president of the Los Angeles Organizing Committee of the games that year, actively gunned for private, corporate sponsoship to resurrect a moribund tradition lurching towards oblivion.
Growing up in America, the notion of purity in the Olympics was cultivated. There was a general sense that these weren’t like quarterbacks and big hitters getting paid several hundred thousand dollars per game
; you expected double dealings and deviousness in sports like American football and baseball, what with their stink of greasy piles of dollar bills wafting through ballparks and stadiums acorss the country. We were taught that Olympians were different; these were hard working athletes training for seven or eight hours every day to represent their country in some noble tradition.
We grew up with names like Flo Jo, Greg Luganis, Carl Lewis and Ben Johnson ringing with heroic clarity in our heads. And even in this short but famous list, only the reputations of of Joyner and Luganis remain intact. Lewis is still dogged today with the cloud of controversy caused by his testing positive for performance-enhancing drugs in the 1988 Olympics in Seoul and still being allowed to compete. Canadian Johnson famously tested positive and was stripped of his gold medal the same year. Such was the pressure of the freshly minted money-fed sponsorship-driven games that a slew of Athletes are alleged to have taken steroids and got away with it. Is it pure coincidence that this unethical practice became popular in the wake of the games going corporate? This was an atmosphere that was capable of corrupting even Canadian athletes. Canadians, I say. Canadians! When you’ve got to the point where can wreck the moral compass of the good founders of The Peaceable Kingdom up north, all hope is very nearly lost.
As a result of all this branding, aside from it not being a fair representation of unenhanced human athletic ability, to paraphrase Steve Punt in last week’s episode of The Now Show
, the official food of the Olympics is McDonald’s, drink is Coca-cola, official chocolate is Cadbury’s and official disease is type 2 diabetes. Perfect Pint UK reports that there is no British beer to be represented either at the London
Olympics, just Heineken. God help you if you are drinking any water except Evian anywhere within the walls of the fortified Olympic Village. The Olympic village will have a ‘pop-up McDonald’s’
that will officially be the largest in the world. With the Olympics in London for the first time since 1948, what do we want to showcase? The sophisticated array of top-notch intelligent chefs and creative organisations and restaurants that the British food industry has grown up into, or the ode to efficiency that is the brainchild of American Ray Kroc? Actually, the former might take some effort. It’s not as though there are any Olympic boroughs serving any good British food
nowadays and what chefs can we really claim of any reknown
, let’s go with cheap and cheerful
In efforts to protect trademark rights, you are not allowed to consume anything made by anyone outside of those producers who are official Olympic sponsors. Bog standard confidence trick: advertise freemarket and freechoice, get the punters inside, eliminate the choice and jack up the price, thus annihilating any image the games ever projected of being a competition of pure, uncorrupted athletic prowess for the sake of athletic prowess.
The World’s Biggest Competition to Demonstrate What Exactly?
For an event that’s been advertised as a massive benefit to London in the long-run, it doesn’t seem to be doing much for us in the short term. A path I have only just started enjoying along the canal between Hackney and Stratford or rather Stratford and everywhere has been closed and placed under armed guard. Yes, because of the potential threat, you are no longer able to use your own athletic abilities to get near the site at which athletes from the world over are competing to demonstrate their athletic abilities. Surely this is sending the wrong message, especially since the Games organizers had originally put money and efforts into improving the path and making sure the public knew that it was going to be an enjoyable way to get to Olympia, East London.
G4S — The Mos Eisley of Olympic Security?
Indeed, as the list of revelations slithers out from under the carefully closed and locked doors of the Olympic media machine, I wonder if it would be possible to find a ‘more wretched hive of scum and villainy’ than in the offices of the firm G4S. I posted about a protest I saw at St. Paul’s
about the Anglo-Danish firm, not knowing much about them at the time. I’ve since researched and correct me if I’m wrong here, but we seem to have contracted a lawless band of unaccountable mercenaries to guard London in the summer of 2012. Were G4S a Catholic, the list of sins it might start with in the confessional booth run as follows:
The death of Angolan refugee Jimmy Mubenga whilst in the custody of G4S guards on a flight from Heathrow to Angola
Carrying out the government’s deportation policy while sustaining 773 complaints of those that were within their custody
Failing to fulfill the contract to keep The Olympics safe in 2012
Hiring a director with really bad hair. I’m no one to talk, but if you had as much money as a CEO with a company like this, wouldn’t you try to look like you were older than 14?
Probably best we just leave G4S and the local priest in the confessional. No telling how long either of them might be there.
When you wade through cliches, slogans and soundbites like ‘take the stage’, ‘London prepares’ and ‘Take the respect’, what do you have left at the centre of all the smoke and mirrors? We seem to have a London that has taken performance-enhancing security firms, regulations and cash injectiosn in order to improve its performance as a city this summer. It would probably be wise for us as Londoners to bear in mind that the Olympics committee chose London, in all its brash and savage beauty, not some sanitized, tarted up, Americanised caricature of itself.
Will we, for these and other less than savoury things about the 2012 Olympics, be like the people of Ursula LeGuin’s people of Omelas
, and our joy be all the richer for knowing its real costs? I’d like to think so, but I’ve got a feeling that we shall just close our ears, open our mouths and eyes wide and smile, asking only for bread and circuses, lights and neon.
To read about a very clever and creative response to all this Olympian palaver, have a look at ‘The Austerity Games’
This post has also been informed by the following two articles: