Monthly Archives: June 2012

The Olympics: how neo-liberalism makes for a joyless Games

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I will come on to the crimes of the London Olympics organisers in due course, but I wanted to begin, seemingly a long way away from Stratford, with two ideas which I think are essential to any compelling explanation of the present Games.

The first is the distinction between sport and play. (Anyone who has read the article I posted recently by Gareth Edwards will spot that these next two paragraphs are based on conversations I’ve had with him).

Anyone who has an interest in the politics of sport will be aware of the extraordinarily different reactions that different groups of adult shave towards competitive sport: half of us love it, half loathe it. Very few indeed sit anywhere between these two extremes. My explanation is as follows. Together with art and literature, sport is one of a series of activities that emerges from childhood play. For those unfamiliar with the concept, play is the word used by Marxists, and indeed by non-Marxists who write about childhood development, to describe the self-directed activity of toddlers and young primary school children, and to describe what happens when they make up a game, experiment, and use their discovering to learn about the world. Educationalists love play because they believe that it is the period of anyone’s life when we are learning most quickly and effectively. Marxists are interested in play because we see play as the opposite (even under capitalism) of alienated labour.

Now, the difference between play and sport is that sport is a regulated and therefore “alienated” activity (in the loose sense of the term in which Marx used it in the 1840s). Without going into this in too much detail: in all class societies sport is alienated from play in at least the following respects: i) it belongs to special time of its own (for example, under feudalism: what made village football an alienated activity was not the rules of the game but the fact that peasants were only allowed to play it on a couple of days each year), ii) it is competitive (which I think explains why PE tops any list of the subjects that adults recall with least pleasure from their school days: it’s pretty obvious that if you compel 20 young people to run a competitive race – the person who wins is more likely to remember it with pleasure than the 19 who don’t), iii) it is rule-bound (unlike play, the participants don’t set their own rules), iv) sport is increasingly something that people watch, not something they do, and v) sport is over-determined (especially under capitalism) by the subtle relationships of domination that we associate with the market (think of the increasing price of going to football, or the marketisation of activities such as swimming, which were once what people just did and are now what people have to pay to do).

The reason, I believe, that many people love sport is in part that they are remembering backwards in time to the sporting activities they did as children and enjoyed and which were closer to play than sport, and in part that they are “remembering forwards” to a time under a different sort of society when most of what we now think of as sport will be much more like play. The reason, conversely, many people hate sport is that they see it through sport’s, and their own, alienation.

The second idea I want to introduce is neo-liberalism.

I believe that when historians look back at the last 120 years, they will divide it into three epochs. During the first, to 1917, the dominant form of capitalism was private capitalism. During the second, till 1989, the dominant form was state capitalism. We are back in a private capitalist moment. In every country, state capitalism was characterised by (amongst other things) bureaucratic welfare states, engaged to a greater or lesser extent in redistributing wealth very slowly from the rich to the poor. (At the time, most socialists emphasised the slowness of this transfer, these days we acknowledge the fact that there was any transfer at all). The point about neo-liberalism as a variety of right-wing politics is not, as Thatcher used to pretend, that it sought to scale down the state. In fact the portion of state spending in most countries is about the same as it was thirty years ago. The difference is that taxes are not being used to redistribute wealth down, they are being used rather to redistribute up: to bolster companies and their owners who are already fabulously wealthy.

So, the distinctive neo-liberal “reform” is something like PFI which involved the state deliberately choosing to build schools, hospitals etc on long-term contracts which guaranteed the private companies four to fives times more than the “ordinary” value of their work. It was as if you could walk through a building site where a hospital was being built, and arrive at the other end, to find a manager by a van, simply doling out large bundles of cash to any suitable capitalist who walked by.

Under neo-liberalism, there is inevitably also a general move away from spending on the “nice” bits of welfare state capitalism (education, hospitals, etc), the bits that make people identify with the system, and a relocation of resources towards the “nasty” bits (policing, the military, etc)

Coming finally to the London Olympics; my argument is that they Olympics mark a new stage of the distinction between sport and play, a stage that could only have been reached in the neo-liberal moment.

I will give five examples of aspects of the Olympics which strike me as new:

1. Their use to concentrate riches in the hands of those already wealthy

Huge contracts amounting to £12 billion have been awarded to the construction companies building the venues. Sixteen Olympic managers are being paid in excess of £150,000 per year. Meanwhile the typical Olympics jobs, cleaning, guarding, etc, are being done by workers on short-term insecure contracts, usually for an hourly rate of £10 or less. InStratford, landlords’ dreams of an “Olympic windfall” are being used to justify the eviction of large numbers of private sector or insecure public sector tenants. The Olympic boroughs are increasingly willing to offer housing to homeless people, not only just out of borough, but even out ofLondon. People are being moved, families broken up, only so that the landlords can make more money.

2. The Games’ militarisation

13,500 soldiers are being deployed at the Olympics; the navy is deploying two attack vessels, including HMS Ocean, the largest boat in the fleet. There will be Eurofighters and attack helicopters, missiles stationed inEast Londonand around the capital. We are seeing armed police becoming a routine sight at many ofLondon’s train stations. The army has bought in additional technology for the games, including a sonic cannon, a form of crowd dispersal technology used in occupied Gaza and Baghdad, which is now stationed on HMS Ocean on theThames.

3. The promotion of some of the most unscrupulous units of capital

The Olympic Games has long been associated with Nike, Adidas, etc. What’s different now is the adoption of sponsors such as Dow (responsible for theBhopalchemical leak) and Rio Tinto (responsible for extensive air pollution in theUS). The worst single sponsor is undoubtedly BP, the games’ official “sustainability partner”, and responsible not just for Deepwater (the worst oil leak in world history) but also the mining of the Canadian tar sands, probably the single greatest instance of unsustainable resource extraction taking place anywhere in the world today.

The Games’ organisers have also been busy protecting the intellectual property of the sponsors – ie cracking down on companies, people and protesters associating themselves in any way with Olympic (or even anti-Olympic) words or images.

4. Their extravagance

The bid for the Olympics specified that the total event of the budge would be no more than £2 billion. The true figure has crept up, according even to the limited scrutiny of the House of Commons Public Account committee to £23 billion, of which the public subsidy will be no less than £11 billion, and in all likelihood rather more.

5. Very specifically, the organisers have allowed the Games to be associated with companies who exist only to leech money from the public sector

This includes the sponsors G4S and Atos, the former of which has received in return a large slice of the total £500 million that will be spent on security guards.

Finally, what can be done about the Games? There are a lot of small things that people could be doing to reverse parts of the alienation process from play to sport that the Games represents. I see a positive trend in people turning out to watch the Olympic torch relay – almost the only part of the Games that will be held sustainedly outsideLondon. And I would be all in favour for example of a similar process of wresting back control of spectating around the Olympic cycling: a sport which is almost universally free to watch, save at this year’s Games.

We will see hints of struggle even during the Games itself. There are athletes whose participation in the Games represents moments in their individual struggles against oppression (I am not thinking of the organised Paralympics, which most disabled activists regard as patronising in the extreme), but there are athletes, the Palestinian competitors, the intersex runner Caster Semanya, who I wish well.

Some local groups are talking organising counter-Olympic sporting or cultural events, there will be a Fattylympics against body fascism, there is already a fantastic anti-Olympic exhibition at the Free Word centre in Farringdon. Where the events take place, socialists should welcome them, and spread the message of how mass left-wing sporting movements have organised play differently – such as through the Workers’ Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s, which involved more athletes and more spectators in different kinds of activities from their rival the official Olympics, and which are a part of the immediate context, for example, to the Civil War in Spain.

Finally, there will be a main, single anti-Olympics demonstration taking place at 12 noon at a venue in East London on 28 July, and organised by the Counter Olympics Network, which I hope will bring together people from all the different counter-cultural and anti-Olympic movements. This will be the biggest and best chance for all of Red London to make our opposition felt.

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The Mobot; or Why it’s Important sometimes not to believe your own Hype

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The Olympic celebrity Mo Farah has had a good week: he ran 3.47.50 in a heat at the 1500 metres at the GM Olympic trials (nearly half a second faster than the eventual winner of the final, Andy Baddeley).  Farah had already been selected for the 5,000 metres and 10,000 metres. His main rival in the latter distance is likely to be Kenya’s Kenenisha Bekele. The Kenyan athlete has a much faster 1500 metres PB – 3.32.35, but the time is five years stale, and Bekele has won only once in five track outings this year. Farah showed that he has had a good winter’s training and is in fine form. Indeed, so happy was he with his race, that he Farah slowed down 80 metres from the lines to perform the “mobot”, his now customary victory celebration (as in the example above). Farah then followed up his 1500 metre time with a victory in the 5000 metres at the European Championships in Helsinki, including a blistering last lap of just 53.69 seconds.

The athlete Mo Farah has had a poor week. Anthony Whiteman, fifth in Farah’s heat, accused him of “showboating” by making the mobot such a long way before the end. Now Whiteman is an interesting athlete: he was recently the first runner in his 40s to run a sub 4-minute mile (his mile time of 3.58.79 is three seconds faster, for example, than Bekele has ever run over that distance). This is what Whiteman wrote on his twitter account: “Was in 2nd coming off the bend when @Mo_Farah pulled out the F’ing Mo-Bot#notcricket#ifonlyiwas 15yearsyounger”.

Andy Baddeley, on winning the 1500 metre final, made his own Mobot – teasing Farah affectionately.

But the worst thing Farah did was to say in the run-up to the Birmingham event that he would run both the 1500 metre heats and final. As the brightest star of UK men’s athletics, the announcement was likely to cause extra ticket sales for the Saturday final. But Farah pulled out from the race on Saturday morning, in a move which was almost certainly planned long in advance with his coach. (I’m sure I wasn’t the only athletics watcher to spot this likelihood in advance – after all, what sort of athlete sets out to run three fast races in five days – four weeks before a major finals?).

Farah’s late pull-out was also announced after the fastest loser Ricky Stevenson had gone home, meaning that he was deprived of a chance to run. That’s just how it sometimes happens you might say – save that Stevenson has twice run under 3.42 this year, and would surely have fancied his chances of keeping up with what was eventually a relatively slow final. Given that Farah went on to pull out, it wouldn’t have cost him anything to tip Stevenson off that he was thinking about dropping out.

Farah is one of the good guys of British athletic: a fantastic runner, and a decent, humble person. I’m sure with a bit of thought he wouldn’t have done anything this daft.

Keeping the Flags Flying

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With England out of Euro 2012 on penalties the flag-waving build up for the Olympics begins in earnest. MARK PERRYMAN describes the varying sporting nationalisms and internationalism framed by football and athletics. Mark is a prominent media spokesperson for the ‘progressive patriotism’ position, one which the author of this blog is happy to debate yet explicitly rejects

David Hemery burning his way round the track to victory in the 400m hurdles, Mexico 1968. Mary Peters defying gravity as she hauled her frame over the high jump bar to lift pentathlon Gold in Munich 1972.  David Wilkie winning in the pool, Montreal 1976. Coe and Ovett enjoying 1500m and 800m glory, Moscow 1980. Decathlete Daley Thompson acting the golden cheeky chappy, Los Angeles 1984. Great Britain beating Germany in the men’s hockey final, Seoul 1988. Christie and Gunnell triumphant on the track at Barcelona 1992. Steve Redgrave promising he’d never be seen near a boat again after winning his fourth straight Gold with Matthew Pinsent at Atlanta 1996, before doing precisely that to win his fifth and final Gold, once more with Pinsent, at Sydney 2000. Kelly Holmes grabbing an eye-popping 800m and 1500m golden double against all the odds in 2004. Hoy, Pendleton, Adlington and Ohuruogu leading Team GB’s Gold medal charge to fourth in the Beijing 2008 Medals Table.

From a late sixties childhood to twenty-first century fiftysomething I can measure my life out in the glow of the quadrennial summer Olympics.  Each and every Games remembered for the achievements of others, as well as our own. 1968 for the long jump leap beyond the limits of human capacity by Bob Beamon. 1972, the impish Olga Korbut tilting her head at the close of her floor routine in the gymnastics hall. Cuban Teofilo Stevenson supreme in the Olympic boxing ring, winning three consecutive golds, 1972, 1976 and 1980. An amateur heavyweight boxer who never turned professional despite the millions of dollars offered to him by US promoters. And so it goes on.

Having just returned from Euro 2012 I can report that this co-existence of sport nationalism and internationalism persists and with a home Olympics  due to begin in less than four weeks has the potential to dominate this year’s summer of sport. The cosy assumption of some leftists that nationalism and internationalism are polar opposites was largely subverted in the past two and a week bits out in the Ukraine and Poland, as it has at every World Cup and European Championship that I’ve been lucky enough to follow England to since ‘Euro 96. Some of the nastiest versions of nationalism sharing space with the most popular forms of internationalism. The single European currency? For the duration of the Euros, its football not a bank note that unites Europe , and divides us too for ninety minutes, plus extra time and penalties.

Football is my passion, particularly international tournament football, but running is the sport I do, or at least make an effort at. My view is that track and field athletics is shaped by a different version of sports nationalism to football and the other major international team sports. The thrill of seeing the fastest, furthest, highest  performances shattering world records and pushing the boundaries of physical endeavour is dominant. And with individual achievement the core of athletics sports culture the attractiveness, or otherwise, of individuals and their personalities is of much greater importance too. For those of a certain age you were either a Coe or an Ovett fan and unlikely to support both with the same degree of enthusiasm.

For some this celebration of individual performance transcends any residual national preference, for most national favouritism still prevails. But even in the latter case the popular investment of emotion seems far more temporary and individually expressed compared to teams sports, most especially football. With England having qualified for the European Championship or World Cup every other summer except 2008 since 1996, plus winning the Ashes in 2005, 2009 and 2011 as England, the Rugby World Cup in 2003 as England too, there is surely little doubt that  the massive support helps prove Eric Hobsbawn’s  well-made observation ‘the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people.’ Hobsbawm’s point is peculiarly appropiate to England, we have few other trappings of a nation-state and particularly since the beginnings of the devolution settlement in 1997 the salience of the St George Cross flag to emphasise Emgland’s part in Britain’s break-up has become more and more obvious. And now we have the new dynamic of First Minister Salmond seeking to lead Scotland out of the Union with the next two years.

Like it or not, 2012 will be the year of the Union Jack, stylishly redesigned for the Team GB kit by Stella McCartney. But whether London 2012’s role in sparking all this flag-waving proves a temporary respite from the seemingly irreversible drift to  separation or a more profound revival of Britishness remains to be seen.

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Just £8, now available direct from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/

London 2012’s fake relay, and the runners’ Real Relay

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As I write, an unusual protest is taking place. It began with a group of runners, not a group of people known for their militancy, and in the Devon village of Torcross, not celebrated for its left-wing credentials. The runners noticed to their surprise that for the majority of its route the official Olympic Torch was not being carried at all. The torch’s route is shown on an interactive map, and anyone who looks at the map for themselves will see the patters. Each morning, a car drives the torch to a town or a city, and half a dozen runners then take the torch through the centre of that town. The torchbearers each run for about 300 metres only, which takes an hour or so. The torch is then taken by car to a new town the following day, and for the majority of the distance it is being driven.

This ersatz relay offended the sensibilities of Britain’s amateur runners, who sparked by Torcross pioneers, have responded by volunteering in vast numbers to take a torch of their own across Britain – and Ireland – running in blocks of around 8 to 10 miles each. Every metre of its distance, the unofficial torch is carried by hand. Runners’ websites have taken up the story, and it seems likely that the Real Relay will arrive in London 10 days before the official torch, having involved around 800 runner

It is interesting that the Torch relay in particular has sparked this very polite protest movement, for the relay is almost the only part of the Games that most people will be able to see in the flesh. In most places, it has been well received, and is authentically popular. Some of the reasons for the relay’s visibility are relatively banal. The Olympic organisers had the choice of distributing the Games across Britain, but plumped for the “safer” option of fitting as many of the events as they could possibly manage within a single, purpose-built stadium. The organisers’ choice to keep everything in Straftord, or at the very least in South East England, is the sole cause of the Games’ net cost to the taxpayer of £11 billion. It has of course meant an absolute bonanza to the major construction companies – Bam Nuttall, Carillion, etc – blacklisters, union busters and promoters of bogus agency employment as they are.

The relative visibility of the Torch relay is a product of more though than just the Games’ over-concentration in London. The London Organising Committee (LOCOG) have actively gone out to minimise the amount of the Games that will be capable of being watched by anyone “in the flesh”. These decisions have included fencing the route of the cycle competitions and charging for prime viewing spots (to get a sense of how this contradicts the entire history of that sport, just cast you mind back to any images you have ever seen of the Tour de France, which, like almost every cycling road race, is of course perfectly free to view) and refusing public access to horse inspections (a decisions which has caused one of the main organisers of the equestrian events Hugh Thomas to resign). The organisers could also have taken for example the Olympic 10k off the track, where it is a visually boring and uneventful competition, to one of the thousands of routes (road, park, etc) used for 10k races up and down the country. They deliberately did not do so.

The Olympic torch route is of course free to watch; in this it compares to the main Olympics events for which tickets can already be purchased on ebay for over £400 per person. This is where the “one stadium fits all” model, which Mark Perryman has criticised on this blog, proves so pernicious. It concentrates access to the Olympics in as small a venue as possible, placing a premium on tickets for the Stratford stadium. One of the commercial secrets which LOCOG are refusing to release is what proportion of the tickets for the prestige elements of the Games (eg the men’s 100 metre and 800 metre finals) have been made available for public booking online. Before we get to the sporting public, there are at least groups of spectators who have priority: first, the global rich, second the families and hangers on of the London organisers, the Olympic sponsors, and the IOC committee members, and third, the purveyors of corporate hospitality. In the press, a best guess has been commonplace to the effect that only one third of the tickets for the prestige events have gone on general sale.

While the runners of the Real Relay have been objecting to the bogus nature of a running spectacle in which three-quarters of the distance is not being run at all, other critics of the Olympics have been at pains to point out two further blemishes of the Torch relay. First, rather than originating in some distant Olympic past, the idea of a torch relay agoes back only to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was an invention of Nazi propagandists, temporarily enthused by the idea of connecting their regime to ancient Greece. Second, while the London organisers have publicised the torch relay as a tribute to 8000 of the most generous or the bravest of people, it turns out that at least 1200 of the tickets were handed over to corporate sponsors, and have in turn been cascaded down to various corporate executives, regional salesman, managers in allied companies who negotiated deals favourable to the donating company, and not least of all, Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man, and his son.

Green Altius: the Met’s wargaming plans to deal with Olympic dissent

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[Two weeks ago, Socialist Worker published the following letter from an unnamed Olympic insider:]

The media has highlighted the military manoeuvres around the Olympics—the missiles on blocks of flats and warship on the Thames. But people may not have heard of a “disaster exercise” that was carried out over three days in late April. It was a “large scale multi-agency exercise testing the joint approach to mitigating any risks to the Games” called Green Altius.

The exercise focused on some of our rulers’ worst nightmares. The participants in Green Altius had to imagine the Olympic Games were in fuill swing when a series of events happened. Their task was to test the resilience of emergency services.

They were told to imagine that the Games was a great success with sunny weather and huge crowds on the streets in party atmosphere. They were asked to factor in some traffic problems in London and near Weymouth in Dorset.

But they had to be aware of the Voice of the Poor (VOP), a new protest movement. VOP marches were springing up all over the country—mainly good natured but including a hard core of troublemakers called Redcon. Green Altius participants were told to imagine the Olympics had become a focus for discontent including other protest groups like Fathers for Justice and the United Cabbies Group.

What’s more a “public order incident” broke out in Coventry during an anti-war demo. Then a gang fight near the Olympic stadium in Stratford, east London, injured tourists and became headline news across the world.

As if that wasn’t enough, French intelligence warned of the New Anticapitalist Party organising a blockade of Calais against the corporate takeover of the Olympics. I can’t tell you how the exercise ended, but surely we can make our own ending in the real world.

[And I’ve chosen the picture to link to a previous article about Olympic policing]

Reasons to demonstrate on July 28; number 9: the injustice of Olympic “fast-track justice”

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A number of newspapers have been reporting plans reportedly drawn up by the Crown Prosecution Service to the effect that for the duration of the Olympics, courts are going to be operating special extended opening times, from 8am to 7.30pm instead of the ususal 10am to 4.30pm, and there will be a special “fast-track” for offences committed in the vicinity of the Olympics.

The fact that prosecutors are talking like a British version of Judge Dredd does not, of course, mean that they have the resouces to deliver on the same threats. After all, just five weeks ago, the papers were reporting that there will be fewer courts open during the Olympics than there are normally; the Crown Courts will be operating at only 50% of capacity, “Thames and Stratford magistrates’ courts, both situated on the specific ‘games lane’, will operate one courtroom only (for overnight cases) and planned youth courts will not be held at Stratford. Highbury Corner will deal with priority custody trials and productions from Stratford and Thames, whilst gateway traffic cases will not be listed at Waltham Forest.” I.E. the Coalition’s cuts, which have hit the criminal justice system especially hard, will prevent fast-track justice from taking place in quite the way that the prosecutors are saying. (And the senior judiciary, whose summer holidays are precious, are not playing ball).

One part of the latest announcement though which I do find genuinely troubling, however, is the suggestion that Magistrates will be expected to carry out a larger number of hearings by “virtual court”, i.e. by video link from police stations. This is a problem. Where virtual courts have been tried in London before (as they were in 2010-2011), they have been a manifest failure. You have to set up a timetable for the hearings (which are booked in 15 minute slots each), there are often connection difficulties, and in practice the pace of the court hearings is considerably slower than the ordinary courts.

More worrying than the general inefficiency of the system is what it does to the meanigful content of justice. At a Magistrates’ Court hearing a person may plead guilty, and if they do the court is expected to proceed to sentencing. Fifteen minutes is usually far too short an amount of time to deal properly with sentencing decisions, and you can imagine what an inadequate sense the Magistrates get of the peronality of defendants – who they see as a smal blob at the other end of a TV screen – and who will often be a drug user, a recovering alcoholic, a young person who has been in trouble lots of times before for very minor offences, etc. Difficult decisions, such as whether to jail someone, or whether to refer them for treatment, end up being made on the hoof.

Bad decision are made which have a long-term impact on people’s lives.  You could say something similar about the Olympics as a whole.

Details of the main July 28 protest can be found below:

Stretching before I run

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When I warm up, I start by rolling my neck clockwise and then anti-clockwise in circles. I then do the same with my shoulders, at first with my arm outstretched and then, faster, with my arm bent at the elbow. I rotate my hips, first with my knees held straight, and then with knees bent. I hold my body straight, dropping my head and chest first to one side and then another. To loosen my legs, I kick up and out from my heels. I rotate my ankle in circles. I hold my legs apart and drop my hand towards my toes. I stand tall pointing my toes high.

From an assistant in a runners’ shop I once learned to hook one leg in front of another, bend down at the waist, and lift my arms above my head. This unnatural movement is supposed to protect the cartilage on the outside of my knee.

I have also picked up a series of stretches based, albeit very loosely, on a tai chi class I once took, more than ten years ago. They do my body little good, I suspect, but at least in controlling my breathing I let my chest relax.