By Roger Annis, originally published on Socialist Voice, January 13, 2010
Vancouver, British Columbia–On February 12, the corporate sporting behemoth known as the 21st Winter Olympic Games will open to great fanfare here. In a time of economic hardship and government cuts to social programs across Canada, huge sums of public money have been spent to stage this uber spectacle.
Billions of dollars have been spent constructing venues, a new convention center and airport terminal; widening and paving untold kilometers of roads and highways; building a hugely expensive rapid transit line connecting the city’s airport to its downtown; and erecting new hotels to serve the influx of corporate sponsors and spectators.
The hotel, travel, restaurant and real estate industries hope to make a killing off the influx of out-of-town spectators and partygoers. Construction companies have already earned hundreds of millions of dollars during the years of preparation furiously pouring concrete and asphalt. The official line says there will also be lots of long-term tourism dollars to be made, though this has not happened in other host cities.
Some of the world’s largest corporations are Games sponsors, including Coca-Cola, VISA, General Electric, Samsung, and MacDonald’s. Canadian sponsors include the Royal Bank, Petro Canada, Hudson’s Bay Company and Bell. The scale of their participation during the two weeks of competition is such that they have booked entire hotels and restaurants to cater to their executives, invited guests, and assorted hangers-on.
Militarization and clampdown on democratic rights
When Vancouver first submitted a bid for the Winter Olympics, the budget for “security” was said to be $175 million. The final cost will exceed $1 billion. An army of Canadian military, federal police agencies and municipal police, about 10,000 altogether, will police the city, complemented by some 5,000 security guards.
A vast network of surveillance cameras of public spaces has been installed, and barbed wire fences and other barriers are going up all over the region to keep protesters and the non-ticket holding public away from Games venues. Police have stepped up harassment and intimidation of anti-Olympics organizers across Canada, in some cases visiting homes and workplaces to interrogate not only Games’ critics but also their acquaintances.
The rationale for the overwhelming display of military and police power is the same as that used to justify the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Palestine-that behind every corner lurks a potential “terrorist threat” and the only way to combat that threat is to wage war. Police have warned they will arrest anyone who attempts to stage protests of the Games near venues or along key transportation routes.
The Vancouver police have acquired new weapons to deal with critics, including the Long Range Acoustical Device, a loudspeaker system first deployed against civilians in Pittsburgh last year during the G20 meeting of world political leaders. It emits a powerful sonic wave to disperse crowds. Transit police, meanwhile, will for the first time introduce dogs into the transit system to randomly sniff passengers and their belongings.
Two special laws have been adopted by the provincial government that, in cooperation with Vancouver’s city council, will “clean up” the city and curtail visible expressions of opposition to the Games.
The Assistance to Shelter Act (termed the “Olympics Kidnapping Act” by housing rights advocates), permits police to remove the homeless or other “undesirables” from streets surrounding Olympic venues and dump them at housing shelters or in other municipalities.
Bill 13 regulates public signage. It is designed to protect the Olympic trademark and those of Games sponsors, but critics say it will also be used to censor public expressions of opposition to the Games. At the University of British Columbia, for example, students in residence have been threatened with eviction if they post anti-Olympic signs in their windows. In mid-December, Vancouver city officials ordered the removal of a mural painted on the outside wall of an art gallery in downtown Vancouver-four sad faces and one happy face drawn inside the Olympics rings.
Police have refused to say whether police infiltrators will join protests and promote violence. The issue is not a small one. At a protest of world leaders in Montebello, Quebec, near Ottawa, in 2007, infiltrators from the Quebec provincial police urged protesters to throw rocks and incited other forms of violence.
One police infiltration has already come to light. When the Olympic torch arrived in Victoria, BC on October 30 to commence its cross-Canada relay spectacle, hundreds of people staged a protest drawing attention to the contrast between lavish public spending on the Games and miserly funding of social programs. Protestors blocked the relay for a time using civil disobedience tactics. Unknown persons used marbles to disrupt and potentially injure mounted police and their horses being used for crowd control, an action that protest organizers say did not come from their ranks.
One month later in Vancouver, the chief of Victoria police, James Graham, said his force had infiltrated the protest. He told an amused international security conference, “You knew that the protesters weren’t that organized when on the ferry on the way over (from Vancouver) they rented a bus …and there was a cop driving the bus.”
Garth Mullins, an organizer with the Olympic Resistance Network, told a public meeting in Vancouver in late November, “If there is violence at the Olympics, it’s going to be started by the police.” Seated as a panelist at the meeting was Bud Mercer, the head of the Vancouver 2010 Integrated Security Unit.
Stiffer controls at the nearby U.S.-Canada border are restricting the movements of possible Games critics. On November 25, respected U.S. journalist Amy Goodman, host of the daily Democracy Now! broadcast, was detained for several hours by Canadian border officials while on her way to a speaking engagement in Vancouver. Although the Olympics was not the subject of her talk, officials were worried it might be. They grilled her about it for several hours. Eventually, she was allowed to continue her travel, but was ordered to leave the country within 48 hours.
On December 10, Marla Renn, an organizer with the Olympic Resistance Network in Vancouver and a chairperson of the Stopwar.ca coalition, was refused entry into the United States while on her way to Olympics-related speaking engagements in Portland, Oregon. She was searched, photographed, fingerprinted and grilled for six hours about her political views and her contacts in the United States. Her cell phone was taken and accessed, and her books and speaking notes were read and copied.
After that interrogation, she was delivered to Canadian authorities who subjected her to their own interrogation for several more hours. U.S. authorities ordered her not to return to the United States under threat of detention.
In an account of her treatment published in the weekly Georgia Straight, Renn wrote:
“My refused entry to the U.S., accompanied by interrogation, intimidation, and harassment by officials on both sides of the border, demonstrated once again how $1 billion in Olympic security is designed to stifle dissent, even the public-speaking variety, and not to ensure public safety as is officially claimed.”
Concern about the conduct of the Olympics security force is especially warranted because of the epidemic of police violence sweeping Canada in recent years. Tasers have caused dozens of deaths at police hands, including the RCMP killing of Robert Dziekanski at the Vancouver airport in October 2007 that was captured on amateur video and broadcast around the world.
Deaths by police gunshot and common assault by police are on the rise. In British Columbia alone there were 960 formal complaints of police misconduct in 2009.
Meanwhile, the weak and ineffective RCMP Public Complaints Commission was effectively shut down by the federal government on December 31 when the four-year term of chair Paul Kennedy ended. His appointment was not renewed nor has a replacement been named. Kennedy recently issued a report highly critical of the RCMP’s conduct in the killing of Dziekanski.
Olympic games have always been a showcase for the militarism of host countries. The Canadian Armed Forces, now engaged in a ruthless and predatory war in Afghanistan, is prominently featured in the preparations of these games. Its vehicles routinely accompany the Olympic Torch Relay as it winds its way across Canada. Soldiers will be on the streets of Vancouver throughout the competition. Helicopters and aircraft fighters have been practicing “security” missions in the skies above the city for months. It’s rumoured that the opening ceremonies will pay tribute to Canada’s war in Afghanistan.
By tradition, host countries of Olympic games issue calls for cessation of military hostilities and promotion of the “ideals of peace” for the duration of the event. A resolution to this effect was introduced by Canada to the United Nations and approved on October 19 – but the government of Canada has made no commitment to observe a truce in Afghanistan in February.
Social housing a victim of the Games
Vancouver’s controversial bid for the Games was launched in 1999 by a provincial NDP government and a federal Liberal Party government. To sell the bid to a wary population, the Games were dressed up as a socially responsible event that would improve the city’s sporting facilities, build new modes of public transit, employ “green” construction techniques, and above all expand the stock of social housing.
Metropolitan Vancouver has a chronic housing crisis that sees thousands of people living without a roof over their head and thousands more living in precarious or squalid conditions. The city has the highest cost of housing and shelter in Canada. The first and foremost concern about these Games was always that poor people living in rooming houses would be evicted by landlords intent on sprucing up their facilities and renting them to Games visitors at inflated prices. A related concern was the expenditure of vast sums of public funds on a sporting event instead of social needs.
A pall of uncertainty hung over the bid even after it was awarded in the summer of 2003. The uncertainty was only lifted after deft maneuvering by municipal politicians in the months that followed. Vancouver mayor Larry Campbell (since appointed to the federal Senate) blocked with two right wing counsellors of the conservative NPA party and three counsellors of the progressive COPE party to hold a non-binding plebiscite on the Games. The yes side won 64 percent – but only 46 percent of eligible voters took part and voting was restricted to the City of Vancouver, ignoring the wider metropolitan region, let alone the province.
The yes side enjoyed the endorsement of the opposition New Democratic Party and most of its trade union affiliates. Proponents of the Games within the labour and social rights movements argued that support could “leverage” promises from the provincial and federal governments for increased social spending. Yet once the plebiscite was in the bag, the vague promises by governments to build housing for Vancouver’s poor and homeless population were tossed aside.
The last in a string of abandoned housing promises was the decision in early 2009 by a new city administration (composed in its majority of a right-wing split from COPE) to cancel the social housing content of the Athletes’ Village, now deemed too expensive. The Village, located in downtown Vancouver, will instead be converted to luxury condominiums after the Games. (A remnant of social housing in the form of subsidized rents for some units is still being debated.)
Outrageously, the Village then required a half billion financing guarantee from the City of Vancouver before it could be completed. Fortress Investment Group of New York refused to continue its financing for the project, a consequence of U.S. financial collapse.
The onset of the economic crisis in September 2008 triggered a new wave of cuts to social programs by the provincial government (see Socialist Voice, October 5, 2009). This is the main reason why public support to the Games in the host province has been steadily declining.
Public transit: Another victim of broken Olympics promises
Another victim of broken Games promises is public transit. Most local politicians and transit experts agree that public transit priorities are a rapid service to the northeast of the city, creation of rail service to suburbs in the Fraser River Valley, and substantial expansion of bus service. However, Olympic priorities dictated construction of a rapid transit line connecting the downtown to the airport, at a cost of $2 billion, or $110 million per kilometer. Vancouver’s transit authority, Translink, says the Canada Line and other road and highway expansion has exhausted funds for any new transit projects. Meanwhile fares continue to rise. They have risen 40 per cent in the past eight years.
In November 2009, the chief executive officer of Translink, Thomas Prendergast, abruptly resigned after 15 months on the job. He gave no explanation for the decision, but Gordon Price, a respected transportation planner and writer, commented that Prendergast “looked at the situation, saw this wasn’t going anywhere and said ‘What am I doing here?’”
Price summed up the Vancouver region’s transportation policy in a commentary in the November 13 Vancouver Sun, “We’re going full speed ahead, backwards. To the world of the 1950?s and 60?s, when we assumed that we would be driving everywhere for everything, and went out and built it that way. Now, in most of the region, we’re doing it again.”
Despite all the threats and obstacles, protests against the Olympic Games and its scandalous public funding have begun and will continue throughout.
The Olympic torch relay has met protests in many towns and cities across the country. A key theme of protest has been the deplorable conditions and ongoing violations of the rights of Canada’s Indigenous population, including those living in urban areas. The Olympic Resistance Network (ORN) launched its work in Vancouver several years ago under the theme “No Olympics on Stolen Indian Land” to highlight the fact that much of the land on which the Games will take place is unceded Indigenous territory.
One torch relay protest in Nairn Center, northern Ontario blockaded the Trans Canada Highway on January 2 as the torch procession approached. Eight young people were arrested and then later released. One of them, Mark Corbiere from the Anishinabe people, stated in an ORN press release:
“VANOC [the Vancouver Olympic organizing committee] and the government of Canada can no longer whitewash Canada’s brutal legacy of ongoing colonialism, nor its abysmal environmental record; these are the things Canada and VANOC really represent, and we will not let them use the Olympic spotlight to put their lies unchallenged before the global public.”
A demonstration will take place in Vancouver to coincide with the opening of the Games on February 12. It is being organized by the 2010 Welcoming Committee and its sponsoring and participating organizations, including the ORN. Scores of public information and protest meetings and rallies have been held in the months leading up to the Games.
The BC Civil Liberties Association has played a leading role in drawing attention to the violations of civil rights accompanying the Games. It is organizing teams of legal observers that will observe political protests as well as other places and events that might experience police misconduct.
One event to take place on February 14 is shaping up as a confrontation with Olympics officials. It is an annual march through the streets of Vancouver to commemorate the scores of Aboriginal women who have disappeared over the past decades in Canada and are presumed to have met violent deaths. The traditional march route overlaps Olympic no-go zones. March organizers say they will not change the traditional route to meet the whims of Olympic officials.
The two week Olympic spectacle will leave in its wake a legacy of financial debt, deepening impoverishment, violations of civil and social rights, and a significant reinforcement of the tools and weapons of the national security state. What’s more, five weeks before the Games’ opening comes news of yet another Olympic spending boondoggle in the making–Intrawest Corporation, the owner of the Whistler ski resort where most of the Games’ downhill events will take place, located 100 km north of Vancouver, is in financial default and may require hundreds of millions of dollars of emergency bailout.
Such a legacy deserves to be challenged.
Roger Annis is an aerospace worker in Vancouver and an editor of Socialist Voice. He can be reached at rogerannis(at)hotmail.com. For more about the history of the Olympic Games, read Five Ring Circus: Myths and Realities of the Olympic Games, by Vancouver author Chris Shaw.
Postcript: The 2012 London Olympics, two articles
Olympics 2012 security: welcome to lockdown London
London 2012 will see the UK’s biggest mobilisation of military and security forces since the second world war and the effects will linger long after the athletes have left
By Stephen Graham, The Guardian, March 12, 2012
The imminent Olympics will take place in a city still recovering from riots that the Guardian-LSE Reading the Riots project showed were partly fuelled by resentment at their lavish cost. Last week, the UK spending watchdog warned that the overall costs of the Games were set to be at least £11bn – £2 bn over even recently inflated budgets. When major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, speeded up for the Games, are factored in, the figure may be as high as £24bn, according to Sky News. The estimated cost put forward only seven years ago when the Games were won was £2.37 bn.
With the required numbers of security staff more than doubling in the last year, estimates of the Games’ immediate security costs have doubled from £282m to £553m. Even these figures are likely to end up as dramatic underestimates: the final security budget of the 2004 Athens Olympics were around £1bn.
All this in a city convulsed by massive welfare, housing benefit and legal aid cuts, spiralling unemployment and rising social protests. It is darkly ironic, indeed, that large swaths of London and the UK are being thrown into ever deeper insecurity while being asked to pay for a massive security operation, of unprecedented scale, largely to protect wealthy and powerful people and corporations.
Critics of the Olympics have not been slow to point out the dark ironies surrounding the police Wenlock figure. “Water cannon and steel cordon sold separately,” mocks Dan Hancox on the influential Games Monitor website. “Baton rounds may be unsuitable for small children.”
In addition to the concentration of sporting talent and global media, the London Olympics will host the biggest mobilisation of military and security forces seen in the UK since the second world war. More troops – around 13,500 – will be deployed than are currently at war in Afghanistan. The growing security force is being estimated at anything between 24,000 and 49,000 in total. Such is the secrecy that no one seems to know for sure.
During the Games an aircraft carrier will dock on the Thames. Surface-to-air missile systems will scan the skies. Unmanned drones, thankfully without lethal missiles, will loiter above the gleaming stadiums and opening and closing ceremonies. RAF Typhoon Eurofighters will fly from RAF Northolt. A thousand armed US diplomatic and FBI agents and 55 dog teams will patrol an Olympic zone partitioned off from the wider city by an 11-mile, £80m, 5,000-volt electric fence.
Beyond these security spectaculars, more stealthy changes are underway. New, punitive and potentially invasive laws such as the London Olympic Games Act 2006 are in force. These legitimise the use of force, potentially by private security companies, to proscribe Occupy-style protests. They also allow Olympic security personnel to deal forcibly with the display of any commercial material that is deemed to challenge the complete management of London as a “clean city” to be branded for the global TV audience wholly by prime corporate sponsors (including McDonald’s, Visa and Dow Chemical).
London is also being wired up with a new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints. These will intensify the sense of lockdown in a city which is already a byword across the world for remarkably intensive surveillance.
Many such systems, deliberately installed to exploit unparalleled security budgets and relatively little scrutiny or protest, have been designed to linger long after the athletes and VIPs have left. Already, the Dorset police are proudly boasting that their new number-plate recognition cameras, built for sailing events, are allowing them to catch criminals more effectively.
In Athens, the $300m “super-panopticon” CCTV and information system built for the Games following intense US pressure remained after the event, along with the disused sports facilities. In fact, the system has been used by Greek police trying in vain to control the mass uprisings responding to the crash and savage austerity measures in the country.
It is important to remember that all this is ostensibly designed to secure the spectacle of 17,000 athletes competing for 17 days. Even if London’s overall security budget remains similar to that of Athens, that works out at the startling figure of £59,000 of public money to secure each competitor or £3,500 per competitor per day. In 2004, the cost in now-bankrupt Athens was £90,000 per competitor (for a smaller number of athletes than are likely to attend London). This was a major contributor, as part of the overall £10bn costs, to Greece’s subsequent debt crisis.
In the context of post-austerity Britain, these figures are eye-watering. Even more remarkably, given that Olympics budgets have drawn down from many other public and lottery funds, and are no doubt adding hugely to UK national debt, the Daily Telegraph recently argued that the security operation for the Olympics were “key to aiding the recovery of UK plc”.
How can we make sense of this situation? Four connected points need emphasis here. The first is that, amid a global economic crash, so-called “homeland security” industries – a loose confederation of defence, IT and biotechnology industries – are in bonanza mode. As this post 9/11 paradigm is being diffused around the world, the industry – worth $142bn in 2009 – is expected to be worth a staggering $2.7tn globally between 2010 and 2020. Growth rates are between 5% and 12% a year.
The UK, long an exemplar “surveillance society”, is especially attractive to these industries, especially when hosting the Olympics. Recent security industry magazines have been full of articles excitedly extolling the Olympics as a “key driver of the industry” or as “keeping the market buoyant”.
Nation states, and the EU, are struggling to ensure that their corporations get a piece of the action in markets long dominated by US and Israeli firms. Ramping up surveillance is thus now as much a part of economic policy as a response to purported threats.
The security boom is unaffected, or perhaps even fuelled, by the global crash, as wealthy and powerful elites across the world seek ever-more fortified lifestyles. Essentially, it is about defence and security corporations building huge new income streams by systematically exploiting three linked trends: the lucrative possibilities created by post 9/11 fears; widening privatisation and out-sourcing in the context of deep austerity programmes; and the desire of big city and national governments to brand themselves as secure destinations for major global events.
Booming security markets are so lucrative that accusations of corruption are often made. Siemens, a major security contractor at Athens, allegedly paid huge bribes to get the job from its internal slush fund.
Crucially, though, as Naomi Klein points out in her book The Shock Doctrine, the security boom also involves attempts to diffuse the technologies honed in counterinsurgency and colonial war in places such as Gaza, Kabul and Baghdad – drones, helicopters, data mining, biometrics, security zones, so-called “non-lethal weapons” (devices used to disperse crowds) – to the domestic “global” cities of Asia and the west.
Particular glee that Israeli-style security arrangements are now being widely implemented is evident among the CEOs of large Israeli security and defence contractors, which are doing especially well in the security boom. Leo Gleser is president of ISDS, a company that proudly proclaims that it was established by ex-Mossad agents and which was involved in £200m worth of security contracts for the Athens Games. He talks of “growing tsunamis of violence, criminal acts, and global insecurity triggered by the 9/11 events” which made the “the western world finally understand that measures had to be taken”.
Olympics are especially important opportunities to cement the security boom still further. They are the ultimate global security shop windows through which states and corporations can advertise their latest high-tech wares to burgeoning global markets while making massive profits.
“The Olympics is a tremendous opportunity to showcase what the private sector can do in the security space,” a Whitehall official was quoted recently as saying in a Financial Times defence supplement. “Not only do you have a UK security kitemark on the product but you’ve got an Olympic kitemark to boot.”
The main security contractor for the London Olympics – G4S, more familiar under its old Group 4 moniker – is the world’s largest security company. Beyond its £130m Olympic security contracts, it operates the world’s largest private security force – 630,000 people – taking up a myriad of outsourced contracts. It secures prisons, asylum detention centres, oil and gas installations, VIPs, embassies, airports (including those in Doncaster and Baghdad) and infrastructure, and operates in 125 countries.
According to its website, G4S specialises in particular in what it terms “executive style life-support in hazardous environments”. (Presumably this refers to Baghdad and not east London.) After buying up the ArmorGroup security company in 2008, it also now runs a large number of operations in Iraq. This month it was announced that G4S will also be the first private security corporation to run UK police stations with over half of Lincolnshire’s police force actually moving over to the company.
The second point is that the homeland and Olympic security boom is being fuelled by the widening adoption of the idea of “asymmetric” war as the key security idea among nation states, militaries and corporations. Here, rather than war with other states, the main challenge for states is deemed to be mobilising more or less permanently against vague non-state or civilian threats that lurk within their own cities and the infrastructures that connect them.
In practice, such a shift has massive and troubling implications. As we have seen with the so-called war on terror, it works to dramatically blur longstanding legal, political and ethical lines demarcating war and war-like acts from peace and criminal acts. It also fuses policing, military operations and the intelligence services much more closely as all three seek to build bigger and bigger surveillance operations to try to predict threats, especially those within the vulnerable labyrinths of big cities.
Such an approach translates easily into a deep suspicion of cosmopolitan cities, multi-ethnic populations and the rights of migrant citizens, a process accelerated by the 7/7 atrocities in London the day after the Olympics were announced in 2005.
In May 2011 the Metropolitan Police announced that they were redeploying 290 cameras that had been installed as counter-terror systems in two predominantly Muslim areas of Birmingham to London for the Games. Recently, the Home Office warned Waltham Forest Council – home of part of the Olympic Park – that it is home to a large group of radicalised second- and third-generation Asian Britons who potentially pose a terrorist threat to the Games.
More visibly, this shift means that the familiar security architecture of airports and international borders – checkpoints, scanners, ID cars, cordons, security zones – start to materialise in the hearts of cities. What this amounts to, in practice, is an effort to roll out the well-established architecture and surveillance of the airport to parts of the wider, open city. The “rings of steel” around the City and Docklands in London were early examples of this.
The third explanation for the Olympic security boom is to be found by looking in more detail at how risks are considered in planning the events since the 9/11 attacks. Olympics security operations have grown beyond all recognition since 2000 because they have been shaped by new types of risk assessment.
The symbolic importance and prestige of the Games for cities, nations and corporations has meant that historical ideas of proportionality have basically been abandoned. Instead, as Canadian sociologists Phil Boyle and Kevin Haggerty have shown, security planning has tried to create the impossible illusion of total security by countering all threats, no matter how outlandish, unlikely or nightmarish.
Crucially, all such threats are now deemed equally valid. A model developed by the Rand corporation to help with planning for the London Games outlines in detail 27 possible threat scenarios and the means to counter them. Meeting them helps also to demonstrate the awesome power, and elite status, of the host city or state in the wider world.
This helps account for the ever-more baroque security and surveillance operations surrounding Olympic events. It also helps explain how, under enormous pressure from the US – whose security corporations benefited hugely in the process – the security budget for Sydney ($180m, or $16,000 an athlete) was multiplied eight times for Athens only four years later ($1.5bn and $142,000, respectively). The Beijing operations, in an authoritarian country, not surprisingly eclipsed both Athens and London and came in at a staggering $6.5bn.
The final point is how the security operations of Olympics have major long-term legacies for their host cities and nations. The security preoccupations of Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested – especially in democracies. These often work to “purify” or “cleanse” diverse and messy realities of city life and portray existing places as “waste” or “derelict” spaces to be transformed by mysterious “trickle-down effects”. The scale and nature of evictions and the clearance of streets of those deemed not to befit such events can seem like systematic ethnic or social cleansing. To make way for the Beijing Games, 1.5 million were evicted; clearances of local businesses and residents in London, though more stealthy, have been marked.
Such efforts often amount in effect to expensive, privatised, elitist and gentrifying projects such as the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford (the first UK shopping centre, incidentally, to have explosives scanners at all entrances).
During the Games themselves, so-called “Olympic Divides” are especially stark. In London, a citywide system of dedicated VIP “Games lanes” are being installed. Using normally public road space, these will allow 4,000 luxury, chauffeur-driven BMWs to shuttle 40,000 Olympic officials, national bureaucrats, politicians and corporate sponsors speedily between their five-star hotels, super-yachts and cordoned-off VIP lounges within the arenas. It has recently been shown that wealthy tourists will be able to enter the VIP lanes by purchasing £20,000 package trips.
Ordinary Londoners, meanwhile – who are paying heavily for the Games through council tax hikes – will experience much worse congestion. Even their ambulances will be proscribed from the lanes if they are not running blue lights.
More broadly, a huge increase in land values tends to benefit only the wealthy property speculators and financiers that are best placed to ride the wave. Already, the Qatar royal family have bought the 1,400 homes of the Olympic village in a deal worth £557m.
Looking at these various points together shows one thing: contemporary Olympics are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends. Far removed from their notional or founding ideals, these events dramatically embody changes in the wider world: fast-increasing inequality, growing corporate power, the rise of the homeland security complex, and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.
• Stephen Graham is professor of cities and society at Newcastle University. His latest book, Cities Under Siege, is published by Verso, priced £14.99. To order a copy for £14.99 with free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846
Our Olympic ‘ideal’ isn’t so ideal after all
Dispatch from the 2012 Summer Olympics in London
By Doug Saunders, columnist, Globe and Mail, July 12, 2012
Every four years, around this time, you start reading stories about the “Olympic ideal,” which is always described as having been betrayed. This is usually because something has been done to make the forthcoming Games seem closed, restricted, exclusive or elite.
So we have it here in London. First, in a huge scandal, Olympic officials from several countries allegedly seized control of tens of thousands of tickets and sold them at huge markups. The lion’s share of tickets were already earmarked for the quasi-aristocratic “Olympic family” of bureaucrats and officials, so this effectively prevented most ordinary people from obtaining any tickets at all.
And this week we have the announcement that the private firm that was supposed to provide discreet security for the Olympics had somehow failed to employ anywhere near enough people, so that 13,500 armed soldiers, at huge expense, will be stationed at the Games, making them feel like an armed occupation.
Where, you ask, is that mythic ideal? And what, really, was it?
As it happens, this summer marks the 100th anniversary of the moment when the modern Olympic ideal made itself most abundantly clear. That occurred shortly after Jim Thorpe, the legendary native American athlete, bolted out of the starting blocks at the Stockholm Olympics and won twin gold medals in the pentathlon and decathlon. “You, sir, are the greatest athlete in the world,” King Gustav of Sweden told him as he presented the medals, to which Thorpe famously answered, “Thanks, King.”
That warmth did not last long. A few months after the Games, the International Olympic Committee unceremoniously stripped Thorpe of both his medals and purged him from the record books. Their reason? They learned that two years earlier, stuck for income, he had played some minor-league baseball games. This, in the interpretation of the IOC, made him a “professional” athlete.
There was little secret about what this really meant. After all, the wealthier and more paleskinned athletes engaged in the Olympic sports of dressage, deer shooting, fencing and sailing had no need to sell their talents. They financed their expensive sports out of pocket or, increasingly, persuaded their governments to give them money to pursue their pastimes – something the IOC was virtually created to help them do.
The classical scholar Mary Beard, who is well aware of the difference between the modern Olympics and the Greek original (where money-making was very much part of the enterprise), wrote that the IOC’s enemy, from the very beginning, was “the working-class lad who needed the cash to continue training, and who threatened the upper middle-class, Oxbridge/Ivy League club that dominated the Olympic community in almost every competing nation.”
When the French aristocrat Pierre de Coubertin, who enthusiastically backed the Thorpe purge, came up with the idea of the modern Olympics in the late 19th century, he was inspired by the playing fields of Rugby and other exclusive English schools, and hoped for the creation of a new, upper-class athletic aristocracy.
From the beginning, the Olympics have been about keeping the wrong sort of people outside the gates, and the right sort of people well provided.
Has it changed? The communist countries created a new, publicsector sporting elite by manufacturing high-tech superstars in gymnastic and pseudo-military events inaccessible to ordinary people. And there have been a few token salutes to non-elite sports – such as baseball, which was played from 1992 until 2008, but was voted out of the Games by the IOC, to be replaced in 2016 with rugby and golf.
Strolling around Stratford-upon-Thames, you realize that the largest swaths of Olympic acreage remain devoted to equestrian events, sailing, rowing, shooting. While the track and swimming and gymnastics glories are capturing our hearts, these aristocratic sports will be walking away with buckets of tax dollars.
A few months ago, British officials admitted that the Olympic promise to spend hundreds of millions getting ordinary people more involved in athletics was “failing completely,” as participation numbers hadn’t budged. People just weren’t feeling inspired to take up sports by the sight of the walled-off Olympians. Theirs was a different world.
That, too, was described as a betrayal of the Olympic ideal. But if you look back, you realize it pretty much embodies it.