Tag Archives: neo-liberal Olympics

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)

That Olympic legacy: class and ethnic cleansing

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Housing minister Grant Shapps has been seeking to defend his government, and the Coalition, from responsibility for Newham Council’s attempts to rehouse residents, no longer eligible for housing benefit, over 100 miles oustide the borough, in Stoke.

To most people this looks like blatant social engineering. Poor people are having to leave the areas in which they live, because the price of private-sector rents has gone up so sharply that the council can no longer afford to house them. Not so, says Shapps, who blames Newham. According to the BBC, “Grant Shapps said there were nearly 1,000 rental homes in Newham which fell within the cap and suggested Newham council were “playing politics” ahead of the elections.”

While the primary definition of the people who are being moved is that they are poor, it doesn’t take too much genius to grasp that the demographics of those being moved will be in many ways different from those who stay behind. In London, the working poor are predominantly white. That no longer remains true as you look lower down the ladder: the poorer Londoners get, the more likely they are to be black, Muslim, etc.

A bit of context is needed: until the 1980s, housing benefit was a relatively modest part of the total welfare bill. The cost of housing benefit, to local authorities, and to the state generally, has since risen enormously, essentially because in the mid-1980s, the previous Conservative government brought an end to 60 years of legislation limiting private sector recents.

 The “cap” referred to by Shapps is the government’s attempt to limit housing benefit by saying that no family may receive housing benefit in excess of certain limits (including an overall limit of £500 per week per family, for all benefits). Now, when these caps were introduced, they were applauded by the tabloids, because it just does seem obscene that anyone should be able to receive more in benefits than the average wage. The problem is London rents, which for a 2-bedroom house very often are in excess of £1500 per month.

I have described the process elsewhere:

“The Tory-Lib Dem coalition is cutting housing benefit, for example by placing (from April 2011 for new tenants, and for existing tenants from January 2012) an absolute cap on the amount of housing benefit that can be paid depending on the size of the property: £250 per week for a one-bedroom property, £290 per week for a two-bedroom property and so on. This is intended to be accompanied by a new measure that no family may receive a total of more than £500 per week in welfare benefits. The measures are supposed to reduce the growing housing benefit budget, but the costs of housing benefit have risen in circumstances where landlords are able to charge what they like. They will do nothing to reduce landlords’ power to charge ludicrously inflated rents to the state, but will leave many thousands of tenants with a shortfall. In due course, they will be in arrears with their rent. Inevitably, a large number will be evicted. Civil servants have estimated that the £500 cap alone will result in 20,000 families being made homeless.”

ie Government policy, faced with a spike in private-sector rents, is not to reduce rents, but to compel people to leave their properties and (inevitably) to move to cheaper (i.e. poorer) areas.

Shapps is lying, in short, when he disclaims responsibility for Newham: they are doing exactly what government policy asks of them.

Now, probing a little deeper, what really interests me is the part played in all this by the Olympics. One Newham resident interviewed on Radio 5 explained the matter as follows: many private-sector landlords have been pushing up their rents in 2012 in particular. Their motives are that they see the Olympics as a potential windfall. There will be many people moving to be near the Olympics for just a few weeks, and ladlords hope to rent out their flats at hotel-type prices – i.e. not £40 per night, but £100 or £200 per night. Clearly, no housing benefit system could “compete” with rents of this level.

At one point, the Olympic organisers were promising the residents of Newham, Stratford, etc better jobs and housing. By spring 2012, their primary promise is that at least the area will be left a giant shopping mall, the Westfield. But once you look at the units, presently in that shopping centre, you see a very similar problem. A significant proportion are going to companies like Jimmy Choo, Gucci, Tiffany, etc. As a boutique, you really don’t have to sell too many pairs of shoes at £10,000 each  before you’ve paid off a year’s rent.

The flats in which the friends of LOCOG will be staying are homes being taken out of the reach of working people. What the story shows, most clearly, is that you can’t create a playground for the rich in a bubble of its own.