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Olympic dream and reality

It’s exactly a year since inner-city riots swept London and other parts of the country. They were sparked by bottled-up anger at the arrogance of the police and rapidly spread into a brief orgy of looting and general destructiveness that took many, including the police, by surprise.

As the medals stack up, politicians backed up by the tabloids are hailing the London Olympics as a great British success story draped in endless Union Jacks. So does the hiatus as millions are drawn into the spectacle mean that the alienation which lay behind the riots has been replaced by a new sense of community, as some would have it?

It’s true that the London Olympics are a showcase for aspects of the British character and mass behaviour not normally apparent in the hardscrabble struggles of daily life. In addition to the prowess of the athletes, thousands of young people have made it as a chance to be friendly and helpful to visitors.

It may be asked where has this great surge of sporting talent and determination, which saw British athletes win six gold medals in one day, come from?

It all starts with an inherent desire in people to excel and to prove that the extraordinary can be achieved. Add to this the support of an enthusiastic home crowd which helped lift some athletes to excel beyond expectations.

Incredible dedication is vital to take part in the Olympics, let alone win a medal. But determination on its own is only half the story. A huge amount of long-term team-work is required, involving coaches, psychiatrists, dieticians, sports medics, good facilities and – last but not least financial resources.

The chief medal successes so far are in rowing and cycling. These sports are based on a hot-house regime involving a scientific approach to training. Much of this was financed by the National Lottery. So, behind the fantasy of a “level playing field” where all you need is talent and determination are more complex and often harsher realities.

The top medal winners tell a different story of countries and sponsors prepared to dedicate serious money for sporting achievement. Poor countries like Bangla Desh and most of Africa simply don’t get a look in. “Blade Runner” Pistorius is indeed an inspiration – but he attended a historically white school with lavish playing fields.

It is far from being down to some mythical British work ethic and “sense of belonging” as the Guardian’s Jackie Ashley believes. The Olympics have cost some £9.3bn of taxpayers’ money. This is an amount that many small nations could not even dream of. It has been lashed out by successive governments at a time when the prime minister says austerity cuts could last until 2020 and beyond.

The Olympics offer a glimpse of the unlimited nature of human potential and brilliant organisation. But it is a limited operation which applies only for a short time. The reality of austerity and economic crisis has not gone away. Italy’s prime minister Mario Monti has warned of a “psychological break-up of Europe” due to the Eurozone crisis even while the Chinese economy continues to slow down.

For the global corporations the Olympics are purely and simply a desperately needed form of marketing. Seventeen-year-old US gymnastics champion Gabrielle Douglas, for example, was signed by Procter and Gamble before the London Games. Soon to be the face on Kelloggs Cornflakes boxes, she is seen as “having the potential to earn millions” by sponsorship consultants. Jessica Ennis’ website says she is “is proud to be sponsored by several popular brands” – they include BP, Adidas, Omega and British Airways.

Behind the conditions that produced last year’s riots was a general contempt for the political system. State institutions and the custodians of law and order are seen as preserving the status quo of corporate power. The Olympics will do nothing to give them credibility.

Corinna Lotz
A World to Win secretary
6 August 2012

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