Sunday 15 April 2012

The Austerity Games: Some Thoughts On Yesterday's Counter Olympics Meeting

One of the reasons why I generally oppose the exclusion of the media from activist events, unless people are genuinely planning something that is likely to end in their arrest, is that outsiders can bring something useful to any discussion: they can help prevent activists from reinforcing each others assumptions and make us explain why we are planning to organise action. Clearly, the Bishopsgate Institute near Spitalfields Market, the venue for yesterday's Counter Olympics planning meeting, is hardly the place for clandestine plotting – it was a publicly advertised event, with two City of London police officers standing outside with very little to do. Yet journalists were asked to leave after the morning session. That's the decision of the organisers – it was their meeting, after all – but before leaving, one young journalist I was chatting to about the level of opposition to the Olympics in east London asked me what I thought were some very good questions: if someone gave me a ticket for the men's 100m final, wouldn't I take it? Wouldn't I want to be part of this incredibly exciting event?

I think I answered honestly by saying I'd want to sell the ticket (an act that definitely would be arrestable – touting is one of the greatest offences against the unprecedentedly powerful London Olympic committee), but I didn't have time to properly explain why I fail to share the apparently overwhelming enthusiasm for the Games this summer. This is important because one of the biggest challenges for those of us who are unhappy about the Games is to coherently articulate why all the unrelenting pro-Games propaganda is hiding some ugly truths about what the Olympics, for all the values it claims to represent, has really become.

But lets be clear from the start. I meet a lot of people in Newham through work and whilst there is an underlying scepticism, even indifference, about the promised Olympic legacy (hardened by how few locals seem to have managed to get tickets), as well as widespread concerns about the level of heavy-handed security and general expectations of severe inconvenience, most people are genuinely excited about this summer. In many ways, the tidal wave of Olympic boosterism is largely unnecessary. This is why, when I hear talk of “mass opposition” over the summer, I wonder where some activists think it will magically spring from. There is an obvious reason for the excitement that the majority of people feel – it's a yearning for some kind of collective experience, a desire to belong to something bigger than ourselves, the reason why people cram themselves into football grounds, church pews, cinemas and occasionally, street protests. In the case of the Olympics, it doesn't matter that few people really care that much about track events, swimming, the Keirin or beach volleyball, all fairly minor sports compared to, say, football or cricket. The Games are massive, a global event – why wouldn't anyone want to be part of something that hugely collective?

It's only when people start to notice that the dedication of the sportsmen and women is almost incidental to the Olympic sponsors and their desire to convince a global audience to buy stuff, or the governments and security institutions looking for a long-term political gain, that the doubts start to creep in. Is spending almost £10 billion, probably far more, on what is essentially a form of entertainment, in the midst of mounting austerity and with most cuts yet to hit home, really such a good idea? Why are the Olympic organisers so desperate to defend companies like Dow and BP, whilst claiming to believe in an 'ethical' and 'environmentally sustainable' Games? Why is McDonalds, a worldwide purveyor of fatty burgers and greasy fries, the official food retailer of an event associated with athleticism and fitness? Is significantly curtailing hard-won civil liberties – which are more difficult to hang on to than to give away – a price worth paying for the security of six weeks of sport? And what will we be left with once the circus packs up and heads out of town?

In some ways, the issue isn't about whether there are protests this summer, how big they are or what form they take. It's more about encouraging people to start to think differently about the Games, to ask awkward questions, to look beyond the high-pressure marketing. Many Olympic years are remembered for something other than what happens in the venues: in 1936 it was the appropriation of the Olympics by the Nazis, in 1980 we had the Cold War Games, in Vancouver in 2010 it was indigenous opposition to the theft of land. We have to try and make sure London 2012 is remembered as the Austerity Games, when the same global capitalists whose gambles almost bankrupted economies around the world were given billions that could have helped alleviate crippling cuts so they could try to rebuild their markets and profits.

It may be to late – organised opposition to this year's Games remains small. But next time a journalist asks if I'd happily accept a ticket for the men's 100m final, the answer won't just be that I'm not particularly interested in athletics. It will also be that a huge sales opportunity for companies to make vast amounts of money simply isn't the kind of collective experience most of us are eagerly searching for.

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