Whatever happened to citius, altius, fortius?

A fascinating new collection of essays examines how the commercialisation and politicisation of the Olympic Games have made them less and less about ‘swifter, higher, stronger’.

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Books

On that memorable July day, nearly five years ago, the then UK foreign secretary Jack Straw was in no doubt why London had just won the right to host the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. It was ‘a special Olympic vision’, he declared, ‘the vision of an Olympic Games that would not only be a celebration of sport but a force for regeneration’. Since then, the story of London 2012, a tale of ever-rising costs and never-diminishing hyperbole, has rumbled on.

Critics have slammed the budget increases, from an initial estimate of £2.4billion in 2003 to over £9billion by 2009. Governmental and mayoral supporters of the Games have responded with a raft of justifications. This, we have to remember, is not just ‘a celebration of sport but a force for regeneration’. As the Department for Media, Culture and Sport promised in 2007, London 2012 ought to: make the UK a world-leading sports nation; transform the heart of east London; inspire a generation of young people to take part in cultural and physical activity; make the Olympic Park a blueprint for sustainable living; and demonstrate that Britain is a creative, inclusive and welcoming place to live in, visit, and do business.

It’s becoming very difficult to see the athletic substance of the Olympics for all the mooted social and economic outcomes. Even the Olympics motto – swifter, higher, stronger – has been given a distinctly New Labour makeover: ‘Faster progress towards a healthy nation’, wrote Olympics minister Tessa Jowell in 2008, ‘[h]igher aspirations for young people in their work and their play. A stronger community, bound by self-belief and the knowledge that Britain has hosted the greatest Games ever.’

Social and economic regeneration, the strengthening of a sense of community, combating obesity… the number of objectives with which a fortnight’s worth of running, rowing and throwing has been freighted is mind-boggling. It all raises a number of important questions. Enter Olympic Cities: 2012 and the Remaking of London, a fascinating collection of essays edited by Gavin Poynter and Iain MacRury, members of the University of East London’s London East Research Institute, a group based near the heart of London’s Olympic site in Stratford.

Given the disparate backgrounds of the contributors, from Zuo Xinwen, a member of the Beijing Development and Reform Commission, to Roy Panagiotopoulou, an associate professor at the University of Athens, a difference in register, not to mention perspective, is to be expected. But that makes the overall coherence of the book all the more impressive. Taken as a whole, it represents one of the best attempts yet to make sense of the role and meaning of the modern Olympic Games – that is, to situate their significance in the economic, political and cultural context of the host cities and nations.

Firstly, it opens with a series of essays looking at the hundred-odd-years evolution of the Olympics into the most mega of mega events on the planet (the Olympics, according to some figures, even beats the football World Cup). What quickly becomes clear is that over the past 30 years, both broadcast and sponsorship revenues have expanded massively. While the Tokyo Games of 1964, the first Olympics to be broadcast globally, showcased the event’s potential, it was Los Angeles 1984 that was seen as a turning point. Not only did broadcasting bring in $287million compared to $88million for Moscow’s 1980 Games, it was also the first Games to be dominated by private funding, via advertising and sponsorship. The reason was largely pragmatic. Los Angeles’ governors refused to underwrite any financial obligations, leaving the way clear for its thoroughgoing commercialisation.

But Los Angeles was significant for more than an exponential increase in revenues. It also showed how the hosting of the Games could be used politically; that is, to reengineer a city according to new economic realities, in this case shifting employment from declining production industries to service industries, and redesigning the city accordingly. Los Angeles showed that through the mega event, urban decline could be reversed. A new fantasy city could be projected in its place to millions worldwide, a vision aimed at the visitor, the tourist – the consumer – as well as the businessman looking for a place in which to pursue his non-manufacturing interests.

The commercialisation of the Olympics Games, and its use to transform a Western city out of step with an economy relying less and less on manufacturing, was not without its problems. By no means the least of these was the fact that the commercial revenue now being generated by the Olympics threatened to erode the reason for its appeal: the sheer non-, near anti-commercialism of the Olympics brand itself, a symbol of something beyond the interests of the market, a means, in the words of the modern Olympics founder, Pierre de Coubertin, to promote fundamental ethical principles and a ‘way of life based on joy’. Hence, over the course of the past 30 years, the tension between commercial interests and the extra-commercial appeal of the brand has constantly played itself out, especially in the aftermath of the much-maligned, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s Olympics in Atlanta in 1996.

As Iain MacRury notes in his chapter on the Olympics brand, such is its universal, near magical appeal, its ill-defined allusion to some sort of Good Life, that Kevin Roberts, the CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi called, it ‘a textbook Lovemark’, an emblem as powerfully connotative as the Statue of Liberty, or as he put it, a thing ‘enchanted beyond reason’. The Olympics, in short, creates a rich, intimate relationship between the spectator and something, no matter how imaginary, external to him.

In drawing attention to the magical aura of the Olympics – its ability not just to imbue products sold under its logo with appeal but to endow LA-style social engineering, and politics in general with a sense of the Good – several chapters in the book foreground one of Olympic Cities’ most interesting essays, by Andrew Calcutt. Calcutt addresses himself to the way in which culture, in the form of London 2012, is being used to reconstruct society, or, as he puts it: the continuation of society by non-political means.

For Calcutt the strange, almost magical role of London 2012 rests on the failure of politics to provide people with a sense of collective identity, a sense of civil society. The political struggle of large parts of the twentieth century, he argues, did this. It provided vast numbers of working people with a sense of popular solidarity founded on a largely Labour Party-defined opposition to the market – the vast swathes of 1920s social housing that mark the East End, he argues, are a testament to the labour movement’s sense of itself. But without a sense of shared interests, without that political solidarity, the social bond weakens. Anomie prevails. ‘Today… most east Londoners see themselves in terms of anything but politics – career, family, sport, popular culture, religion, brands, but not politics…’

If people no longer recognise themselves in terms of political communities, the market, alienating in its essential functioning, is unable to constitute any sense of society either. The political failure to create civil society, and the economy’s inability to do so, has seen the Olympics step into the breach. Hence it is no longer simply a sports event, it is a way of giving people a collective sense of themselves. As Calcutt notes, the rhetoric of politicians reflects this. Tessa Jowell saw the Games as a catalyst for ‘involving young people’, and Sir Robin Wales, mayor of Newham (one of five boroughs in which the Olympic site will be situated), said the sport bit was largely irrelevant, the point rather was about creating a ‘spirit of Newham’.

Whatever is done, or rather promised, in the name of the London Olympics assumes a legitimacy it would otherwise lack. Where members of the political class would feel otherwise disconnected, estranged from those in whose names they nominally govern, the Olympics provides an imaginary sense of popular support. It gives to projects, to policy objective, what their advocates are unable to give them – a sense that they are Good, that they are right. And in return, the surfeit of social, political and economic outcomes gives to the staging of the Olympics a justification it too would otherwise lack.

‘Games are no longer seen as ends in themselves’, write Gavin Poynter and Iain MacRury in the conclusion, ‘they become a means – a means for something good. The “Good” is legacy.’ And this is where the problem lies for London 2012. What should be the subject of political contestation – the social reengineering of London’s East End – is passed off, and legitimised, as part of this Good Legacy. Nothing is what it ought to be in the story of London 2012. Culture becomes politics, and politics becomes culture.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

Olympic Cities: 2012 and the Remaking of London, edited by Gavin Poynter and Iain MacRury, is published by Ashgate. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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