Monday, July 07, 2008


EAST MARSH, HACKNEY MARSHES - a city park to be replaced by ... a city park



Among the tasks of a politics of morality [is] to work incessantly toward unveiling hidden differences between official theory and actual progress, between the limelight and the backrooms of political life.
- Pierre Bourdieu (1930-2002)**

Two years ago, on 6th July 2006, the International Olympic Committee announced that London had won its bid to host the 2012 Olympics. The following day, 52 people were killed after four men detonated bombs on London transport. The attacks were seen, somewhat bizarrely, as a response to the Olympic announcement. The bombers had tried to divide us, but they had failed. We were united, and the Olympics proved it.***

Two years on, and things feel rather different. The collapse of the property bubble has made developers question how viable some of the biggest capital projects will be. Some are getting thoroughly cold feet about the greatest spectacle on earth. Our Olympic resolve is being severely tested.

The developers are not the only ones who should be worried. As Panos Garganas explained at Marxism on Saturday, the legacy of the Olympics is never as bright as the organisers make out. The total cost of the 2004 Athens Olympics was €13bn, around three times the annual budget of the Greater London Authority. It contributed to a national budget deficit of more than 3%, which caused the European Union to intervene with “austerity measures” – i.e. privatisation and cuts to public services. The Greek government has responded with some rather squalid financial practices (using state pension funds to buy dodgy bonds, that sort of thing). And it’s not just the accounts which are seamy – Athens’s air is now the most polluted of any city in Europe.

In Beijing, meanwhile, 1.25m people have lost their homes in order to make way for this year’s event (see here). Many locals even give the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, usually noted for leaving its host city a pretty decent legacy, a muted response).

So what can we expect for London? We are promised more jobs, more housing, better sports facilities (and, therefore, better health) and a sustainable environment. We may live in hope, but the portents aren’t good. Much of the construction workforce is being imported from Europe and, while there will be some employment created during the Games themselves, much of it is likely to be low-paid and short-term. Moreover, the dislocation of local business to make way for the Olympic sites has led to 209 businesses (with 4964 staff) being displaced from East London, and 25 companies going out of business altogether. This is reminiscent of the disaster capitalism that Naomi Klein so epicly describes in The Shock Doctrine.

Things don’t look much better for housing either. Most Local Authorities sacrifice affordable (and, God forbid, public/social) housing when faced with the bright lights of a property developer’s mission statement. The developers have loosely promised between a third and a half of housing in the Stratford Village to be affordable, yet apart from the fact that the rising cost of land in East London will inevitably force all rents up, the Chief Executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority, David Higgins, announced last week that the overall number of homes will reduce from 4,200 to 3,300 as a result of the credit crunch. We can expect further statements like this in the months to come.

I don’t know about the increased health benefits of hosting the Olympics, but I tend to agree with John McLoughlin (the other speaker at the Marxism meeting) when he notes that research has consistently shown that sitting on the couch, drinking lots of beer and watching the high-jump does not make you any healthier (the McDonalds sponsorship stickers on the Olympic Wall – see above – are hardly inspiring either). And much of the funding for existing sports projects around the country are being siphoned off to pay for 2012 – one guy from Leeds had seen the budget for his small sports group decrease from £4,000 last year to £500 this year. But if the new stadia and facilities are to be used by the public after the summer of 2012, they will have to fight for them. As a BBC London report has noted recently, there is no guarantee that Olympic facilities stand the test of time.

But perhaps we should not be downhearted. After all, Olympic Games tend to be remembered for the one-offs, the things that break the illusion of the spectacle. The actions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos at the 1968 Games in Mexico illustrate this perfectly. This, rather than the bland rhetoric of the IOC, is the vision we should aspire to in 2012.

* the phrase used by the Greek press to sum up the 2004 Athens Games.

** the frontispiece to the Games Monitor website - a useful tracker of all things Olympian

*** There is an interesting parallel here to the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, which the USA famously boycotted. The 7/7 bombers were driven to blow up themselves and 52 commuters in part by the US-UK invasion of Afghanistan. The reason for the US boycott in 1980 was … the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.

(All photos, except the black power salute, from this Flickr pool)


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