London Olympics and commercialised perversion

imageIt’s hard to find news coverage of the London 2012 Olympics that does not feel like it’s been written by the event’s public relations consultants. Glyn Robbins is a longstanding political activist and community campaigner in east London. He was one of the main organisers of the big mobilisations against the English Defence League. In this article he looks at what the Olympics are really about.

If you want to find out more about the impact of the Olympics you can visit Games Monitor for up to date information. On Saturday January 28 there is a public meeting in Toynbee Hall, E1 6LS with the title “Countering the Olympics” public meeting. Details can be found here.

Anish Kapoor’s Orbit tower has taken its place on the skyline of east London. It’s twisted, intestinal form, like an imploding roller-coaster, captures the grotesque contradictions of the 2012 Olympics it is designed to glorify. The structure’s full name is the ArcelorMittal Orbit, ego-branded by its main benefactor, the steel magnate Lakshmi Mittal, one of the richest men in the world. His £19.6 million donation for the statue is small change from his multi billion pound fortune, but Londoners also chipped in £3.1 million, itself a drop in the ocean of £9.3 billion of public money being poured into the Games. Hyperbole will reach new heights in 2012 and critics will be dismissed as party poopers, but the landscape of the gargantuan Olympic park embodies the commercialised perversion of sporting ideals and will stand as a monument to a political age in which public policy became detached from social reality.

As a native east Londoner and an active participant in and lover of sport, I don’t have reflex antipathy to the Olympics. I confess to a guilty thrill of excitement when I see the new stadiums and anticipate the eyes of the world being focussed on the place I come from. But the nearer we get to the opening ceremony, the starker will become the contrast between a corporate event dominated by commercial vested interests, but heavily reliant on public investment, alongside a shattered economy and generational public spending cuts. At a time when vital front-line services are being shredded, money is apparently no object for a sports event. This dislocation is graphically illustrated by the threatened closure by Newham Council of West Ham baths because of ‘unaffordable’ maintenance costs , barely a mile from the Olympic Aquatic Centre the budget for which was allowed to multiply from £75 million to £269 million and has projected maintenance costs of up to £7 million a year, with considerable doubt about whether it can pay its way. Beyond the financial disparity, the replacement of a local community swimming pool with a multi-million Olympic facility is like offering someone lost in the desert a bottle of champagne: it may quench your thirst, but it’s not what you need. Accessible local sports and leisure facilities have already been sacrificed for the Games. The Eton Manor allotments were lost and the Eastway cycle circuit was ‘replaced’ with a similar local facility six miles away! Beyond east London, community sports services that make a real difference to people are being hammered by budget cuts and despite the rhetoric of a UK-wide Olympic legacy, it’s a delusion to suggest that the Games will help the scores of organisations facing cuts or closure around the country.

From a London perspective, the most obvious evidence that public money being spent on the Olympics is failing to meet public need is the abysmal under-provision of genuinely affordable housing. The Games development should generate 11,000 new homes, of which 35% are reputed to be ‘affordable’, but this relies on the old three-card trick of defining any new home that is not for sale at the full market rate as ‘affordable’. Private property developers and big housing associations have been playing this game for years, seducing local politicians into agreeing planning permission for developments where only a small fraction of new homes are available for rents that working class people can afford. The most optimistic scenario is that 17% of homes built for the Olympics will be for ‘social rent’, at a time when 330,000 Londoners are on housing waiting lists, 80,000 of them from the five Olympic boroughs – enough to fill the seats of the £496 million 2012 stadium.

The reality is that most of the new housing around the Olympic park will be targeted at the private market, in part because this is one way the organisers hope to recover some of the exorbitant costs. However, a wider and potentially more significant spatial injustice is threatened by the intention to rebrand the area with its own ‘E20’ post-code. There is the distinct possibility that the Olympics will create its own super-gated community as the latest wave of the three decade long effort to shift the socio-economic character of east London away from working class communities living in council housing, towards ‘mixed’ communities and ‘mixed tenure’ housing. There is no evidence that such policies benefit low-income households or produce the kind of sustainable, socially integrated communities boasted for them. On the contrary, viewed alongside the Con/Dem governments’ cutting and capping of Housing Benefit and on-going attempts to destroy council housing, the Games will accelerate the displacement of working class people to the periphery of the city, symbolised by the creation of a zone of exclusion and exclusivity at the Olympic park. E20 could become as detached from the reality of life in east London as the make-believe place it shares a post code with, Walford.

Exemplified by access to affordable housing, infringement of rights to the city will be hastened by the Olympics in a myriad other forms. The suspension of civil liberties and imposition of a virtual police state are already being presented as a price worth paying for a ‘safe’ Games. The banning of demonstrations and the presence of drones in the sky, warships on the Thames and armed police on the streets are likely to be the most ominous of a host of smaller irritations as London is given over to a plutocracy of junketing world leaders and bureaucrats monopolising bus lanes as they travel to and from their luxury hotels in central London, averting their eyes as they speed along the Mile End Road like members of the politburo cruising along Karl Marx Allee in old East Berlin.

Just as top athletes spend years training for a big competition, so it feels like global corporate capitalism has been preparing for the Games for at least the last two decades. Flagship sports and cultural festivals have become key motifs of neo-liberal urban policy, alongside a model of civic entrepreneurialism that coerces cities and towns to compete with each other (using public money) in the hope of attracting events that may bring private investment and jobs. This civic boosterism has become an unchallenged orthodoxy for politicians from a range of backgrounds and it may be a forlorn hope to expect Ken Livingstone to drop the crass branding of London as a ‘World City’ in mayoral election year. The main benefactors of this strategy have not been local communities, but private property developers feeding from decisions that are often taken by unelected quangos. While the rest of the world’s economy counts the cost of speculative development, around the Olympic park it’s business as usual. Blocks of ‘luxury’ apartments and hotels line Stratford High Road, leading to the ultimate symbol of what the Games are really about, the massive Westfield shopping centre.

The promise of ‘regeneration and legacy’ are the nostrums used by Games cheer-leaders to trump the arguments of those who question their rationale. The physical impact of the Olympic park cannot be denied, but almost by definition, a regeneration programme based around an event that lasts seventeen days is unsustainable in either social, economic or environmental terms. The experience of all previous mega-sports events since the Montreal Olympics in 1976 is a legacy of debt, underused facilities and resentment. There is no reason to think it will be any different in London, particularly in the context of a deepening economic crisis. The gross hypocrisy of the mythologised ‘Games for the people’ designed to regenerate a deprived area of London was cruelly exposed by the decision to re-route the marathon, an event that is free for spectators and has the potential to genuinely involve local communities away from the East End, in favour of the largely non-residential tourist spots of the West End. As the organisers attempt to contain the already bloated cost of the Games, it will be the less glamorous projects that might make a lasting difference that will be sacrificed in favour of the fireworks displays that will light up the skies of east London, but when the smoke clears, leave behind a more impoverished and divided city.

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