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Just Say No

Five waves of the flag, a toss of his flaxen locks and it was done, London had officially taken over from Beijing as the next Olympic city. Boris looked only a little flustered and the eight minute exhibition showcasing British culture managed not to be quite as embarrassing as had been forecast by some, although it was decidedly underwhelming in comparison with the extravagant pageantry of the closing ceremony. Still what can you expect in only eight minutes and with a mere £2.5 million to play with?

The 29th Olympiad is a hard act to follow, even while recognising that there had been a dark side to the Beijing Olympics. However no point in dwelling too much on the negative, like the human rights abuses in today’s China. The point is to look forward to London 2012 and concentrate on the legacy “we” will leave to the world of sport after the London games have drawn to a close. Boris Johnson said as much when he promised, before flying back from Beijing, that "tens of millions of pounds" will be spent to coach and prepare children for the London games. The Mayor proclaimed that the Olympics would provide "a massive sporting legacy for London" saying he wanted to "ring-fence" the London Development Agency (LDA) for sport to provide the required facilities and the coaching and training opportunities for upcoming young athletes. David Beckham expressed similar hopes.

So why are so many people moaning about rising costs and the disruption to the capital in the four years ahead? Or like Will Self in his Evening Standard column, who opined that  "What the Olympics are truly all about is money, nationalism in patriotic garb and a spurious kind of self congratulation." Indeed. Or are those of us who have been pointing to the flaws in the whole enterprise and directing people's attention to the very real social and economic problems already appearing in the areas around the Olympic site, just a lot of brutal kill-joys out to wreck people's enjoyment of a fantastic celebration of sporting prowess?

Well, according to one report: "There is no doubt that the Olympics will bring about permanent change to the economy of East London, the question is what kind of change? Here lies the challenge. The problem is that previous Olympics have failed to help the most economically disadvantaged groups living in the area where the Games have taken place. In the UK, flagship regeneration projects in East London and elsewhere have also failed to improve the well-being of local residents. The Docklands development is the most glaring example."

Will the London Games be any different to "previous Olympics"? From the viewpoint of the present moment it doesn't look like they will. Protest groups are active in Stratford and areas around the site. People are mourning the loss of the Manor Gardens allotments which last year were dug up to make way for an access road to the stadium, a wonderful resource enjoyed and productively worked for generations gone in a matter of hours. A football field where local children played also ploughed up in the interests of "big" sport. So much for the value of healthy outdoor exercise and governmental exhortations to eat the required five a day fruit and veg!

Residents of flats and low rent housing are fighting to protect their homes, not knowing if any compensation offered will be sufficient to pay for homes elsewhere. Exploitative and dangerous labour conditions are another issue. Previous Games including Athens and almost certainly Beijing, have been paid for with the lives of workers killed in the hurried completion of stadia and other facilities. There are also serious environmental concerns and worries about cost, £9.5 billion so far and rising. Causes for complaint? I should think so.

Team GB returned yesterday to tremendous acclaim – quite right that they should be congratulated on their record-breaking haul of medals. When the medal euphoria wears away those who don’t agree with the official consensus that the Olympics will be a terrific boon and benefit, will have to be written off as saddos in need of urgent rehabilitation. But as the British government doesn't have the luxury of the Chinese authorities’ sledgehammer methods of rule, so more subtle methods of "persuasion" will have to be employed. A conformity of opinion will have to be instilled through the media, advertising, enthusiastic endorsements of elite athletes and the active collaboration of sporting bodies. The healthy scepticism of the British public will need to be smothered for the duration of the preparations for the Games to the final triumphant hosting of the 30th Olympiad. Keep the momentum going and the distractions coming.

Resistance needn't be futile however. Increasing numbers of people are pointing to uncomfortable truths and exposing the commercial interests, elitism, arrogance and corruption surrounding the Games. So we needn't be afraid of expressing criticism or of questioning the need for the Olympic spectacle. Sport is good, international sporting events can be valuable in fostering cooperation and understanding between peoples but do we really need this four-yearly over-financed, bloated, ultra-capitalist monstrosity that is the modern Olympics foisted on us in exchange for the dubious privilege of being able to say "The Olympics came to London and all I got was this lousy T-shirt that fell apart in the wash and to top it all, I can't even find anywhere to ride my bike"?

Fiona Harrington
28 August 2008

Robbie says:

Another sickening aspect of the nationalistic acclaim for the medal placing of "TeamGB" is the extent to which it masks the real situation for ordinary people. While increasing amounts are spent on elite athletes (largely subsidised by the poor's contributions through the lottery), most people are excluded either by cost (my local council charges over £500 pa to attend the gym) or by closing of facilities.

It is therefore encouraging that Chris Hoy - the winner of 3 gold medals in Beijing - is campaigning to save the Meadowbank Velodrome in Edinburgh where he spent much of his youth learning his trade. He also has a much healthier approach to involving ordinary people in his sport than politicians. He said:

“I would like my sport to be more widely recognised. I would like to have more kids given the opportunity to try it out. If you've only got two or three facilities around the country, how can you expect kids to ride it apart from the lucky ones whose school is near by?

“We need to encourage kids to ride bikes, to make it safer to ride bikes, to have meaningful bike lanes, not just a couple of painted lines on the side of the road with big gutters and cars ramming you into the pavement. That would bring health spin-offs, reduction of pollution, plus you might get one or two decent athletes, too.”

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