London is large, it contains multitudes. But there is a simmering distaste for the upcoming Olympics that is surprisingly universal. In the aftermath of the Mass Ornament that was the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the burning question was ‘Will London be able to match the spectacle?’ The answer seemed to be a resounding ‘no’. But that is what London had going for it. It was never going to be a giant display of military and economic power. Opening ceremony creative director Danny Boyle was never going to share the mentality of his Beijing counterpart Zhang Yimou, who said of working in the West, “It was so troublesome. They only work four-and-a-half days each week… and no-one can suffer any discomfort because of human rights.” The sarcastic air quotes are easy to imagine.
It was billed as the ‘People’s Games’ and expected to cost under £3 billion, a number that was hastily revised in 2007 to £9.3 billion, as a result of which Olympic Minister Hugh Robertson audaciously claimed that the Games came in almost £500 million underbudget. At a time when unemployment, double-dip recession and austerity are the dominant news stories, a £9 billion event paid for by taxpayers, especially one as farcically commercial in its pseudo-nationalistic thrust as the Summer Olympics, is understandably being treated with mistrust.
The Olympics has united Londoners in their shared passion for moaning. There has been a silent, overarching sense of dread among Londoners ever since the awkward handover in Beijing four years ago, but it is only in the past few weeks that the reality of the situation has become apparent. Signs, posters and announcements have been warning commuters about delays and inconveniences that we can expect during the Olympics and Paralympics. The cheerful tone of the posters obscures the completely unrealistic messages they convey: ‘Why not work from home during the Olympics?’ asks one poster. Of course! Why did we not think of this before the Olympics? We should all just work from home.
After it emerged that the security company G4S would be unable to supply the number of security guards it had promised, it looked like most of their workforce took that advice a tad too seriously.
Events like the Olympic Games are on a superlative scale; let’s call them superevents. They cost incomprehensible sums of money, so there is constant debate on their economic utility. The real insight, though, comes from the accompanying debates that these events provoke. The intense international scrutiny superevents garner exposes the inherent faults in the foundations of the prevailing economic, social or political systems of the host city.
The debacle in India over the organisation of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi two years ago rekindled the fight against corruption, and for a while had people indignant and delirious. Corruption has been a part of India for generations, as the repeated attempts at passing the Lokpal Bill demonstrate, but the momentum required to try to get it through Parliament had to wait until a superevent drew attention to the problem.
When the Games were awarded to Beijing, it brought the world’s attention to China’s disastrous human rights record. Soon after the student protests of 1989, both Berlin and Beijing lost bids to host the Olympics in 2000 to Sydney. Through the 1990s, Beijing underwent a monumental reconstruction, much to the chagrin of millions of its citizens who had to be relocated against their will amid Potemkin village-like scenes. The spirit of the 1989 movement was being extinguished through government crackdowns on dissenters through the 1990s, and the successful bid for the Olympics in 2008 gave the government all the power it needed to continue its social engineering unimpeded by civil society. All of this came to light through the work of hundreds of writers, journalists, artists and activists in the build-up to the 2008 Games.
So what has the preparation for the Olympics taught us about London? For one, that the country is paranoid to the point of hypochondria about security. It is no secret that an obscene amount of money has been spent on protecting the Games from both internal and external threats. The nearly 50,000 security personnel (including the military, police and hired security guards) are the largest mobilisation of security forces in this country in over 50 years. The largest ship in the British Navy, HMS Ocean, is part of the Games’ security, as are supersonic Typhoon jets and, bizarrely, anti-aircraft missiles, which have been stationed atop roofs in East London. This ostentatious display of military prowess is incommensurate with the perceived security threat, and reveals something fundamental about Britain’s political priorities—a vast show of military strength is essential when the world is watching, irrespective of the cost.
Fear is not limited to a terrorist attack. The undercurrent of social disparity is becoming palpable and there is a fear that the Olympics could provide the spark required for a repeat of the riots that took place barely a year ago, which left an indelible scar on the city. If it does, at a time of such heightened self-consciousness, the results could be dire. Superevents have a history of revealing class tensions. The Great Exhibition in London in 1851 was a six-month-long international exhibition held in London to showcase Britain’s position of pre-eminence in industry and design. Britain was just coming out of two recessions in the 1840s, and the event, put up at a great financial cost, was to be protected by 10,000 special constables. Charles Dickens was, for a short while, part of a committee convened to prevent an uprising of working class people, who the organisers feared would feel excluded. It is hard to ignore the parallels.
We have grown accustomed to the hyper-sponsorship of sporting events. It is one of those aspects of our lives that most of us have developed a filter to counter, like a plug-in on an internet browser. We do have to acknowledge the necessary role that corporate sponsorship plays in promoting sports and arts across the board. That has always been the implicit trade-off: I’ll watch (or tolerate) your ads if you pay to keep the sport alive. But London 2012 has taken the corporate sponsorship fetish into dangerous territory. The ludicrous clampdown on ambush marketing reached a nadir last week when visitors to Olympic Park were advised to wear shoes that had the mutually exclusive traits of being ‘comfortable, unbranded or Adidas’.
The standard argument from the organisers is that ambush marketing is to be targeted because it damages the reputation of the Games. Of course, these are the Games whose pristine image is clearly enhanced by its official restaurant, McDonald’s, and its official partner, Coca-Cola. The suppression of ambush marketing is quite common—earlier this year at Wimbledon, I was asked to conceal a bag that prominently displayed the name of a company that was not an official sponsor. The absurdity of the situation is finally a talking point thanks to the Olympics.
The British public, not unlike the Indian public, is fickle when it comes to sports. The London Olympics will certainly solidify that reputation. The grumbling and complaining will continue, but if Britain finishes fourth in the medal table like it did at Beijing, then there is little doubt that all will be forgiven. The legacy of a superevent, however, is not in its results. The legacy is in the repercussions of shining an unforgiving spotlight on a city. The burning question after the 2012 Olympics will be ‘What did it say about London?’