Don’t let these killjoys kill the Olympic spirit

From talk of terrorism and crime to claims that London will become a ‘hotbed of diseases’, why is officialdom so down on the Olympics?

Tim Black

Tim Black

Topics Politics

Whether it is the latest terror-attack warning from the authorities or a cynical, masses-averse jibe about bread and circuses from a smug columnist, there has been no shortage of fearmongering and killjoyism in the run-up to this summer’s Olympic Games. So as an antidote to the constant pissing on the Olympics parade, over the coming weeks spiked will be publishing a series of pieces exploding the fear-addled myths and sticking up for what ought to be a grand old sporting occasion. First up, Tim Black takes a swipe at the authorities’ attempt to stage a festival of fear.

Now you would think that hosting the Olympics would be something to celebrate. It is, as one commentator called it, the ‘greatest sporting spectacle on Earth’. And for once, the hyperbole is justified. For those two weeks at the end of July, London will indeed be host to the finest athletes in the world, each striving to run fastest, jump highest and be the strongest. As ever, there are few sights more compelling.

Yet for Britain’s politicians and bureaucrats, not to mention the entreprenuerial experts ever ready with a piece of scary research, the Olympics does not appear to be something that can be enjoyed, let alone celebrated. Instead, London 2012 has all too often been presented as a set of potential problems to be managed, a prompt, in effect, to imagine the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. Terror attacks, flu pandemics, infrastructural failure… you fear it, they’ve got it. Although these premonitions in factual clothing vary, the result is the same: what ought to be a festival of sport has been transformed into an all-purpose source of official, state-driven anxiety.

Take the focus on the potential for Olympics-induced travel disruption. Given the endless worrisome announcements, you could have been forgiven for thinking that ‘London 2012’ was merely the wacky branding for London-wide engineering works. Citing ‘commuter chaos’, Transport for London (TfL) even called on the London Olympics organisers, Locog, to reduce the number of spectators scheduled to watch an equestrian event by 25,000. Elsewhere, one NHS service provider suggested that giving over traffic lanes to assorted ‘Olympics VIPs’ could lead to people dying in traffic-stranded ambulances. Whitehall has been getting in on the act, too. In fact, so confident has officialdom been that London’s infrastructure will be unable to cope with the Olympics that, according to The Times, tens of thousands of civil servants are being encouraged to ‘work at home’ for the majority of the summer months. Of course, London transport could do with an overhaul, but effectively to blame the Olympics for an infrastructural malaise is like accusing holidaymakers of causing flight delays.

But the worries and warnings about Tube overcrowding and traffic congestion look perfectly reasonable beside the official prophesies of terror and disease. According to such fearful visions, the fact that a lot of people will be gathering in London to enjoy a great sporting spectacle is a reason to be scared – very scared, in fact. Each person is not just a sports fan, it seems, but also a potential threat, a possible weapon of mass destruction or infection, depending on which fear entrepreneur you listen to.

Esteemed medical journal The Lancet, for example, felt London 2012 was a perfect opportunity to run an expert-led series on ‘the emerging speciality of mass-gatherings health’ earlier this year. Or as the BBC reported it: ‘[Events] such as the London 2012 Olympics can be a hotbed of diseases from across the world, public-health experts have warned.’ One such expert was clearly keen to leave no fear untapped (although quite what it had to do with medical issues was unclear): ‘Mass gatherings have been associated with death and destruction – catastrophic stampedes, collapse of venues, crowd violence and damage to political and commercial infrastructure.’ A more recent ‘expert-led’ report claimed simply that, thanks to the Olympics, London was at risk of a flu pandemic, claiming that ‘the capital is expected to see almost 800,000 additional people use public transport each day, which is an ideal breeding ground for viruses’.

Of course, there is never any evidence, any clear and present danger, to justify these terrifying presentiments. They are almost entirely the products of the ‘what if?’ school of thought: what if the stadium collapses?; what if a nasty, drug-resistant virus hops off a plane?; what if someone decides to blow themselves up? These are Donald Rumsfeld’s ‘unknown unknowns’, the utterly unverifiable, utterly imaginable threats that must be guarded against.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the endlessly speculated-upon terrorist attack during the Olympics. The Home Office’s Olympic Safety and Security Strategic Risk Assessment, for example, reads like it was penned by the scriptwriters for 24: ‘Beyond traditional methods of attack, terrorists may have aspirations to conduct cyber attacks or use non-conventional methods such as chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear substances. As a high-profile event, the Games are likely to present an appealing target to individuals or terrorist groups.’ It then goes on to list likely places of attack: ‘crowded… organised events such as open-air TV screenings’ and transport, of which the Underground is ‘most likely’. All very useful and helpful advice – for a budding bomber.

For successive governments, which have never been quite sure what the point of hosting the Olympics was – clue, it’s the sport, stupid – the creation of the Olympics as a source of existential danger makes a certain sense. Having stoked fears, the state can then set about managing them. ‘We face a real and enduring threat from terrorism and the Games, as an iconic event, will represent a target for terrorist groups’, warned the home secretary, Theresa May, earlier this year. She then stated the solution: ‘Our Olympic security plan has been developed against the assumption that the terrorist threat level will be severe.’ And so it has proved. In February, 2,500 emergency and security personel were deployed in a highly public exercise (complete with passengers and Tube station) to test the response to a bomb on the Underground. Security minister James Brokenshire seemed to think that such terrifying scenes were a PR success: ‘We are determined to leave nothing to chance to deliver a safe and secure Games that London, the UK and the world can enjoy.’ And, then, just to reassure us that the Olympics really was safe and secure, the authorities began putting missile launchers on top of blocks of flats. Just in case.

Here’s a thought, though. Instead of spending inordinate amounts of time and money fearing what could possibly happen – ‘flooding as a result of sudden intense summer storms, could also represent a risk at some of the Games venues and associated infrastructure’, the Home Office tells us – perhaps we’d be better concentrating on what will definitely happen: for a few weeks this summer, London and other UK venues will be host to some awe-inspiring physical feats. Now that’s something to get excited about.

Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.

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Topics Politics


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