The trial of Lord Coe

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Imagine the scene: the year is 2022, and immediately following the expansion of the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, a shocked Sebastian Coe is indicted for aiding and abetting ecocide. In the early days of the trial, which begins just three months later, Coe (despite his advanced years) originally appears jaunty. His opening speech reminds the court that the London Olympics organisers repeatedly declared their Games the Greenest ever. And he speaks of the invaluable work done by the London Olympics’ Sustainability Partners. “I did nothing wrong, the Olympics did nothing wrong. This is a politically-motivated trial. But the companies in the dock, if you like, but I should not be here.”

Under cross examination, Coe’s front slowly drops. Taken carefully through the record of the primary Olympic sponsors, Coe is forced to except – on a company by company basis – that they were engaged in ecological vandalism.

The first morning of the cross-examination is given over to the activities of BP, the Olympic Games’ nominated “Sustainability Partner” and “Official Carbon Offset Partner”. Long before the Games opened, Coe grudgingly accepts, he personally was well aware of the part played by BP in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon drilling disaster, in which around 200 million gallons of crude oil were released into the marine environment of the Gulf of Mexico, killing sea-life in untold numbers. Shown image after image of dying birds, dead fish, ruined seascapes, Coe finally pleads for the images to stop. “Yes, I knew about Deepwater. Everyone did.” “It was the worst oil pollution in the history of the world and your response was to choose BP as a sustainability partner?” Coe shakes his head, mute.

The prosecution moves on to BP’s involvement in the mining of the Canadian Tar Sands. “We now know that by 2012 these alone were responsible for 10% of Canada’s carbon emissions; they kept the world’s car economy going beyond peak oil; and you made BP you Carbon Offset Partner?” Again, Coe declines to answer.

In the afternoon, the prosecution moves on to the other major sponsors of the games.

Dow Chemical had produced the poison gas used at Auschwitz. Its subsidiaries were responsible for the 1984 Bhopal Oil disaster which killed around 25,000 people in India. “I had heard about Deepwater, you couldn’t miss that”, Coe answers, “but by 2012 we considered Bhopal very old news.” The poison was still responsible for birth defects and premature deaths by the time of London 2012, the prosecution counters. “I was a sports administrator”, Coe says, “I knew the length of the track, and how to build a games. Neither I, nor I suspect anyone involved in administering London, gave a first thought to Bhophal.”

“They were your sponsors. You chose them. They were part of the public face of your Games.” Coe, again, refuses to answer.

Rio Tinto, the source of the gold, silver and bronze medals, had mined them in Utah, in a factory whose pollution caused hundreds of deaths each year. Coca-Cola and MacDonalds, the prosecutor continues, were largely responsible for the epidemic of obesity overtaking North America. “You personally authorised the largest the building of the MacDonalds in the world, right in the middle of the athletes’ village.”

In his opening, Coe had referred to the activities of the Olympic Delivery Authority which held annual safety, health and environmental awards, to show that the Games was beyond serious rebuke. Coe is now shown a list of the main prize winners at these “green” awards. One winner, BAM Nuttall, was a member of the construction industry covert blacklist, Coe accepts, while other blacklisters, including Carillion and McAlpine, were also involved in building the main Olympic sites.

Under further questioning Coe accepts that the Olympics games were seen worldwide by a population of billions, that the sponsors logos were ubiquitous in television coverage. He accepts that millions of people were encouraged to believe that the companies associated with the Games were themselves ethical. “And they were right to think so. If we hadn’t believed that ourselves, we would not have allowed them to be our sponsors.”

It is put to Coe that involvement in the Olympics “green-washed” companies such as BP, it bought them time, and held off the day when their crimes would be prosecuted. “You are not asking me now are you”, he counters, “to endorse their prosecutions, or my own?”

What about Meredith Alexander, the Games’ appointed “Ethics Tsar”, who resigned six months before the Games, in protest at the involvement of these polluters: didn’t her departure cause the organisers to re-think? “No”, Coe answers, “by that point we were bound by contractual arrangements with BP and others, we discussed breaking them, but the penalty clauses would have been onerous. You may criticise us, but we didn’t draft the contracts. The Games might have lost money. That would have been unacceptable.”

The prosecutor interrupts, “But you were already losing money at a colossal rate. When you won the bid, you said their budget would be £2 billion. By the Games itself, this had gone up to £23 billion, half of which was coming from general taxation.”

“Yes, I know that”, Coe says, “We were way over budget, and I didn’t want it to get any worse. Please, I’ve had to answer all your questions, let me explain in my own words” Allowed to continue by the Court, Coe sets out for the first time, what will turn out over succeeding weeks to be the central plank of his defence: “I know it is difficult after all these years, but you have to think back to the very different world in which we were operating. It was 2012, we were looking for sponsors. We needed to raise large sums of money. The distribution of wealth was much more concentrated then than it is now. The only available companies, capable of raising the tens of millions we wanted were large companies.”

“You have pointed out the poor environmental record of BP,” Coe continues, “but every large corporation at that time was joined to the same networks. They cross-invested. There was barely a company on the London Stock Exchange that wasn’t involved in mining, oil extraction, or military-related technology. Who else could we have gone too? You can criticise the London Organisers, but in 2012 every international sporting event was being organised in exactly the same way. We were the very most typical expression – no better, no worse than anyone else – of the capitalist economy of our time.”

 [first published in Socialist Lawyer, July 2012]

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