An Olympics takeover of Britain?
Despite the claims of the anti-Games brigade, London 2012 is not to blame for censorship and the culture of fear.
Come this weekend, London 2012 will be in full flow. For many, this will be cause for celebration, a chance to savour sporting prowess, to witness men and women striving to be the best in the world at a particular physical discipline. This, after all, is what most us like about the Olympics: the sport, and all the stories and dramas that will no doubt unfold over the coming weeks.
Yet, for a sizeable and vocal contingent, this is not what London 2012 is about. It is about something far more sinister: a takeover, a putsch. For this body of critics, the sport is little more than a Trojan Horse, a means to smuggle into the heart of the UK some liberty-crushing measures complete with their monied sponsors’ backing. In the critics’ eyes, London is not hosting a huge but wonderful sporting event. No, that sporting event has chosen to occupy London. A Guardian columnist, and long-time London 2012 dissident, put it recently: ‘The Olympics have become an Orwellian parody of what happens when a world agency blackmails a government aching for prestige into spending without limit… for the rest of the summer, London will effectively be “ruled” by the IOC.’
The feeling that the Olympics is coming to England much as William the Conqueror once did – with power-grabbing intent – is commonplace among the commentariat. Another writer focused on the Olympics Act 2006, which restricts the use of words associated with London 2012 for non-official sponsors. ‘To concentrate on the interests of sponsors, however, is to miss the fanaticism of the authoritarian mentality behind the Games’, he wrote. ‘Priests sacrificed oxen and rams to Zeus and Pelops at the ancient Olympics. Their successors sacrifice the freedom to speak and publish to the gods of corporate capitalism and international sport. They regard encroachments on their holy space, however trifling, as a modern version of sacrilege.’ The hyperventilating continued right on to the final sentence: ‘Britain didn’t win the Olympics; the Olympics “won” Britain.’
Elsewhere, civil-liberties campaign group Liberty has aired similar concerns as to the purpose of the Games. ‘It would also be completely contrary to the spirit of the Olympics’, its website states, ‘for 2012 to become an excuse for mass surveillance and loss of liberties. What a shameful legacy for London 2012 that would be.’
There’s a puzzling, near conspiratorial logic at work here. It is as if London 2012 is somehow responsible for all that is degenerate and repressive about British social and political life today. The petty authoritarianism, the culture of fear, the continual erosion of what were once deemed fundamental freedoms… all this has been, if not caused by at least exacerbated through the presence of the Olympics in London this year. One anti-Olympics campaigner even went so far as to suggest that London 2012, contrary to what many critics now claim, is a way of making money: ‘The Olympics have always been utilised as a means to pursue what David Harvey calls “accumulation by dispossession”, from visible policies of forced evictions to veiled ones such as gentrification’, he writes. ‘This violent process is intimately connected to reconfiguring the landscape for capital accumulation and, indeed, is a prime motivation for the very purpose of the Olympics itself.’
Ah, so that is what the Olympics are all about? Not running or jumping or swimming, but capital accumulation. While few of the largely self-styled liberal Olympics critics reach the stylistic depths of an anti-capitalist, Marxisant rant, they do all paint the Olympics as an agent of some kind, the force, that is, behind all sorts of frighteningly illiberal measures.
Now, there is no doubt that London 2012 has invited the state to exercise its authoritarian tendencies, from bans on street traders to missiles on rooftops. Yet to think that all this was conjured up at the behest of the International Olympic Committee is to miss the point. The cleansing of public space, terrorist-inspired fear management, and the erosion of free speech – to take just a few of the phenomena manifest around London 2012 – are neither new nor the creation of the IOC.
In reality, the petty authoritarianism that pervades the organisation of London 2012 is nearly two decades old. Just think back over the past few years for instance. Our freedom to smoke, to drink, to speak freely (and be really rude), and so many other aspects of everyday freedom, have been the subject of state attention in one form or another. From a raft of legislation, be it ASBOs, be it the Criminal Justice and Police Act, be it the expansion of so-called public-order offences, to a barrage of more informal advice and instruction, individual liberty has long been seen as a problem by the UK’s rulers, regardless of party colours.
So why, all of a sudden, is there this Olympics-focused outcry? Where was the critic of ‘the authoritarian mentality behind the Games’ when, over the past 10 years, the state approved and the police pursued the practice of confiscating booze in an ever-expanding number of ‘drink-control zones’? Where was the critic of ‘the authoritarian mentality behind the Games’ when yet another person said something another person deemed offensive and lost their job? Where was the critic of ‘the authoritarian mentality’ when the smoking ban was introduced in Scotland in 2006, soon to be mirrored in the rest of the UK?
That is the thing about the current attacks on the Olympics for what look like freedom-loving reasons. These attacks are cynical and opportunistic. And as a result, they are particular. The reason for that is threefold. The increasingly shrill attacks are motivated as much by a dislike of sport and those who enjoy it – seen by our enlightened commentators as ‘bread and circuses’ dupes – as for any principled reason. Second, it is only now, in London, amid the transport disruptions and increased police presence, that such authoritarianism is affecting broadsheet journalists and Hackney-dwelling postgraduate Marxists. Before, the state’s focus always seemed to be confined to those on the margins of British society, from the binge-drinking chav to the foul-mouthed racist. And third, it is now not just the British state involved in limiting individual freedom; it appears to involve entities far worse: that’s right, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Nike. Big Corporations. Evil Corporations. For metropolitan liberals, who have tacitly supported the state’s war on the behaviour of the less savoury members of society, it is only now, when Nike and McDonald’s are seemingly involved in this perfect storm of illiberalism, that there seems to be a battle worth fighting.
But slamming London 2012 for supposedly bringing corporation-backed authoritarianism to these shores is not only wrongheaded; it’s also just really miserable. Ignore the political posturing of the killjoys and bring on the Games.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.