The neo-liberal Games

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Far from embodying some timeless ‘Olympic spirit’ the 2012 games will reflect the injustice and inequality of the current economic system

Long before John Carlos stood beside Tommie Smith on the podium at the 1968 Olympics, he was a boy growing up in Harlem. “When I first learned about the existence of the Olympics”, he recalls, “my reaction was different than anything I had ever felt when listening to baseball or basketball or football or any of the sports that I’d seen people play in the neighbourhood. The sheer variety of sports, the idea of the finest athletes from around the globe gathering and representing their countries: it was different, and the fact that it was every four years made it feel like an extra kind of special.”

The origins of the Olympic wonder lie in Pierre de Coubertin’s struggle with the French sporting authorities, and in the Olympic Charter, with its promises “to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of humankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

The London Olympics however have always had a much narrower set of ambitions. One of the five promises made in the original Olympic bid was “To demonstrate that the UK is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, to visit and for business.”

Welcoming business has meant that the 4700 medals being given out at the event have been struck from gold, silver and bronze donated by Rio Tinto, mined chiefly from metal from its Kennecott Bingham Canyon mine in Utah, USA. But according to the “Greenwash Gold 2012” website, Rio Tinto’s mining operation has generated air pollution causing between 300 and 600 deaths in Utah each year.

The games’ main “sustainability partner” will be BP, responsible for the April 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster, during which some 200 million gallons of crude oil were released into the Gulf of Mexico, poisoning fishing stocks, endangering birds and other wildlife, and putting tens of thousands of fishermen out of work.

BP is also one of the companies involved in extracting tar sands from Canada, a process that destroys forest, wastes untold volumes of fresh water, causes illness in mining areas, and is already responsible for around 10% of all of that country’s carbon emissions, with production set to increase continuously over the next decade.

Junkfood companies sponsoring the games include Trebor and Cadbury’s. Meanwhile, right in the heart of the athletes’ village, the London organisers have authorised building the world’s largest McDonalds. Another company hoping to be associated with the health and vigour of the athletes is Coca-Cola, the sponsors of the Olympic Torch Relay.

The day the London bid succeeded, there were cheering crowds in Stratford. Many local people, not perhaps unreasonably, expected that the games would lead to the significant regeneration of their borough, which is one of the poorest in London. Far from it: the closure of the borough’s only public swimming pool, in the Atherton leisure centre, means that there are fewer sporting facilities in Stratford, not more, than there were in 2005.

Stratford has seen no significant spending on housing, schools, or other social infrastructure. A vast shopping centre has been built, the Westfield, and the tube station has been redesigned to drive residents into it. But the shopping centre is marketed at Olympic tourists with budgets to purchase luxury goods. Who really believes that Gucci, Jimmy Choo, Louis Vuitton, Versace, De Beers, Tateossian or Tiffany will still be in Stratford in 12 months’ time?

All over London, small but popular local green spaces are being shut in order to make space for the games. This April, the Olympic Development Agency obtained an injunction to exclude local residents and protesters from Leyton Marsh, to facilitate the building of a basketball practice area. The building was unnecessary, as there were several alternative disused sporting arenas within 30 minutes of the Marsh, which could simply have been refurbished. It has involved substantial building works which have taken over what was a much loved community space. The developers refused to engage with local councillors who began asking questions about the use of the site 6 months before the building work began.

The Olympics organisers have identified traffic “hotspots”, which are likely to be congested during the games including Canary Wharf, London Bridge, Kings Cross and Paddington. But the sports administrators themselves are going to be protected from the worst of the congestion. For three weeks from 25 July, large parts of the central London road network will be closed to all but Olympic dignitaries and their hangers-on. There will be ‘Games Lanes’ for accredited vehicles which will receive preferential traffic signals and fines will be imposed on other vehicles driving into them. The dignitaries themselves will have access to specially-built, chauffeur-driven BMW cards.

The British Library will be opening 30 minutes late each day for the duration of the Olympics, to cope with anticipated staff shortages caused by traffic disruption. Other businesses are being told to anticipate journey times being extended by over an hour during the games.

The total cost of the Olympics is £12 billion (of which the bill to general taxation is £11 billion). This figure rises to £23 billion however when all construction costs are included. These are fantastic sums of money. By way of comparison, during the last London Olympics in 1948, the total budget was just £600,000. While prices have risen generally roughly 30-fold since 1948, even once inflation into consideration, the “real” cost of the Olympics is still 1000-times more than last time London hosted the games.

Despite this extravagance, there has been no significant pick-up in terms of local or London employment. The one area where the organisers are recruiting is for security guards. But although a large number of them will be recruited (around 10,000 people altogether), the work will be precarious in the extreme. Most contracts will last just 2-4 weeks. Salaries are low (£10 per hour), and the main contractor G4S has negotiated further bonuses if it succeeds in reducing the hourly rate.

The recruitment of large numbers of guards chimes with the general tendency, under neo-liberal economies, for spending on policing to increase while spending in health and education falls. The Olympics’ contribution to London policing has already included the use of pre-emptive banning orders (“Olympic asbos”) against supporters of the Leyton Marsh campaign, and the deployment of armed police officers to transport hubs.

The organisers of London 2012 will be able to call on 13,500 ground troops, several typhoon jets, Puma and Lynx helicopters, and two assault warships, HMS Ocean, and HMS Bulwark, the first of which will be stationed in the Thames throughout the games.

Meanwhile the relatively low wages paid to Olympic security guards contrasts with generous salaries paid to Olympic managers, sixteen of whom are being paid in excess of £150,000 per year. Seb Coe, chair of the organising committee, receives a starting £350,000 per year, but his full benefit rises to more like £600,000 per year when bonuses, image rights, and his Olympic-associated work for various private companies is factored in.

Inevitably, the London games have been subject to protest. Several Occupy veterans joined local residents in the Leyton Marsh campaign. Various coalitions have formed, including a new Olympic Project for Human Rights (“OPHR”), backed by the RMT-union, which has invited Smith to speak at London’s Friends Meeting House on May 21, and a Counter Olympics Network (“CON”), which has called a day of action on July 28.

Sports begin in the most basic of human responses, the pleasure of running, jumping, testing your own reflexes and those of the people around you. But the sports business is escaping from these moorings. All over the sporting world, we see the same phenomena: declining access to public land or to other free facilities to enable people to participate in sports directly, declining opportunities even to watch sports live (supporting sport is decreasingly done even in sports arena, but via television, increasingly on pay-per-view satellite television), increasing ticket prices, increasing salaries for sports stars and sports administrators, a tendency for sport not merely to mirror the worst excesses of private capital but to be used to give allure to some of the most controversial of businesses.

The London Olympics is merely the grandest expression of neo-liberalism’s unhealthy involvement in sport.

(first published in Red Pepper, June 2012)

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