Don’t let fearmongers kill the Olympic spirit

Killjoy campaigners are spreading scare stories about the London Games. Ignore them and recall instead the spirit of the Ancient Greeks.

Frank Furedi

Frank Furedi

Topics World

The opening ceremony of the London Olympics is still a few days away, but it is already clear that these Games will set a new world record in the field of scaremongering. If you talk to anyone involved in the planning and organising of the Games, you could be forgiven for thinking they are bit-part characters in an apocalyptic end-of-the-world drama.

Over the past four years, we have seen the flourishing of a veritable Olympics fear market, where entrepreneurs compete with one another to draw the public’s attention to the latest Olympic-related scare story. Take a press release issued earlier this month on the subject of Olympic prostitution. It is one of those fantasy documents that could be the basis of a Hollywood thriller. It says ‘women could be put at risk as the 2012 Olympics sparks an explosion in the demand for prostitutes’. Apparently hordes of sex-hungry sports fans are ‘expected to fuel a spectacular boom in the sex industry’.

And that’s just for starters. Health experts have added their two-bit thoughts, warning that this surge in demand for sex could ‘increase the spread of sexually transmitted infections’. Not to be outdone, British police report their fear that thousands of female sex workers are being ‘illegally smuggled into Britain to feed the lucrative demand’.

And threatening behaviour is not confined to lustful visitors from overseas. We are informed that police analysts expect a rise in domestic violence and sexual assaults among Britons, too, as a result of increased drinking during the Games. Another campaigning group warns of the potential threat to the sexual health of Londoners, and promises to distribute 500,000 free condoms in what it characterises as ‘hot spots’ for sexual activity.

Meanwhile, public-health entrepreneurs warn that Britain is at ‘extreme’ risk of a flu pandemic. They claim that all those visitors from high-risk countries in south-east Asia will mean that Britain
will be ranked second only to Singapore for vulnerability to an influenza outbreak.

The proliferation of warnings about yet another imagined security threat creates the impression that Britain is about to enter the Second World War rather than the Olympic Games. With tens of thousands of private and state security personnel on the streets of London, it really feels like the beginning of a mobilisation for war. Some people who live outside of London have been instructed by their employers not to travel to the capital in these current risky conditions. Tens of thousands of civil servants have been told to work from home during the Games.

Walking around London feels like being in the middle of some kind of massive performance of fear. The script for this performance was provided by the Home Office, whose Olympic Safety and Security Strategic Risk Assessment reads like the first draft for a blockbuster disaster movie.

Of course, it is sensible for public officials to take the question of security during the Games seriously. A mega sporting event requires that special measures be taken to ensure the wellbeing of everyone connected with the Olympics. However, there is a difference between weighing up the risks and acting on the basis of probabilities and the current alarmist practice of embracing worst-case thinking. The methodology of worst-case thinking is premised on the idea that our lives should be organised around the expectation of the worst possible outcomes.

The principal question posed by worst-case thinking is ‘What can possibly go wrong?’, and the answer it invites is: ‘Everything.’ This method of dealing with uncertainty is not only extremely risk-averse – it also invariably falls prey to its own fevered fantasies. Many of the alarmist narratives surrounding the Olympics are the product of campaigners’ and politicians’ own imaginations. Consider the claim made by so-called police analysts about how increased drinking during the Olympics is likely to lead to a rise in domestic violence and sexual assaults. What is the foundation for this claim? This scare story is just the latest incarnation of the American urban legend that the Super Bowl always leads to a massive rise in domestic violence against women.

The American Football Super Bowl is one of the most popular television events in the US. Back in January 1993, a series of media reports claimed that research showed a significant rise in violence against women on Super Bowl Sunday. Since then, there have been numerous information campaigns warning women about the threat of domestic violence on this day. The only problem with this campaign is that it is based on myth rather than facts. It is striking that, despite the manifest absence of credible evidence, a great sporting event continues to be associated with an epidemic of male violence.

No doubt there are a variety of risks associated with the organisation of the London Olympics. However, most of the alarmist claims promoted by fear entrepreneurs have the same speculative and fantasy-like character as those which surround Super Bowl Sunday. The price that society pays for the promotion of worst-case scenarios is not simply a financial one; this culture also encourages a mood of pessimism and insecurity that inhibits people from genuinely embracing a wonderful opportunity to enjoy a great sporting event.

The constant dramatisation of the Games as a threat has diminished the British public’s passion for this event. Is it any surprise that 49 per cent of people in London and 53 per cent in the rest of Britain have told pollsters that they’re not really interested in the Games? Somewhere along the road, the Games have been recast as an object of fear rather than of celebration. And that is a tragedy in the original sense of the term. The Ancient Greek historian Thucydides wrote one of the first eyewitness accounts of an Olympics. He understood that it was not just a sporting event, but a testimony to human endeavour. He declared, inspiringly: ‘The secret of happiness is freedom, and the secret of freedom is courage!’

A little bit less fearmongering and a little bit more courage would go a long way to ensuring that the London Olympics go down in history as a testimony to human prowess and achievement.

Frank Furedi’s On Tolerance: A Defence of Moral Independence is published by Continuum. (Order this book from Amazon(UK).) Visit his personal website here.

This article was first published in The Australian on 21 July 2012.

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Topics World


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