What happened to the Olympic apocalypse?

The authorities’ excited predictions of terror, disease and riots at London 2012 were informed by angst rather than reality.

Tom Bailey

Topics World

After years of preparation and planning, it’s all over. Despite the fearmongering in the run-up to the Olympics, from predictions of public disorder to a disease outbreak, the event passed off without any major problems. None of the nightmarish scenarios conjured up both in the British media and by government contingency-planners seems to have come to fruition. The countless fears and anxieties, as so often, remain unrealised.

Considering the proximity between the announcement of London’s successful Olympic bid for 2012 and the 7/7 terror attacks in 2005, fear of another terror attack was perhaps unsurprisingly one of the main Olympics anxieties.

Before the Games began, it was reported that 13,000 soldiers were being mobilised, more than are currently in Afghanistan. In the name of defending London, the British military was busy mooring ‘its biggest warship in the Thames, patrolling the skies with Typhoon fighter jets, and putting helicopters with airborne snipers on board to respond to emergencies’.

What exactly fighter jets and warships could do to stop a bearded bloke with a backpack was unclear. Rather, the reasoning behind it rested upon the modern-day anguish involved with the build-up to the Olympics. This was made clear by Conservative MP Patrick Mercer when he claimed the reason for this military might was simply to show potential terrorists that ‘London is expecting you’. Yet despite UK home secretary Theresa May’s warning that the ‘terrorist threat level will be severe’, all rucksacks that entered the Olympic park remained firmly unexploded, and were used only for their intended purposes.

Not content with the fearmongering over terrorism, officialdom also fantasised about the possibility of an outbreak of disease. The US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) warned Americans of the possibility of contracting diseases in Europe and then spreading them when they returned to the States. Journal the Lancet also tried to stoke up fear by warning that a mass gathering of people from all over the world could turn London into a ‘hotbed of diseases’. We have yet to see if the year 2012 enters the history books alongside the year 1340.

When we weren’t being treated to scary stories about terror and disease, we were being told that the whole thing was a disastrous waste of money. This pre-Olympic miserabilism was summed up by one Guardian commentator. ‘No matter’, he wrote, ‘that this week sees thousands of disabled people having their income cut by £100 a week, or that endless areas of public provision are being hacked down at speed: the cost to the public of Sebastian Coe’s fantasies, and an orgy of corporate hospitality, is currently put at £11 billion. £11 billion!’

With the first anniversary of the 2011 riots coinciding with the Games, there was some fear of a repeat, or at least some sort of renewed public disorder. This fear provoked the Crown Prosecution Service to fast-track prosecutions, particularly as foreign visitors to London would be harder to prosecute. Despite this, no one looted the Olympic village and, for the most part, people did the unthinkable: they acted normally. Even media-baiting ‘radical’ Islamist Anjem Choudhary and his band of fantasy jihadists were only able to assemble a pretty minor and underwhelming protest on the last day of the Olympics, with the usual chants telling everyone to ‘go to hell’.

All these fears about the Olympics, none of which have turned out to be true, show the depth of the authorities’ anxiety and its source: a mistrust of the public. The Olympics is a mass gathering of people from all over the world; rather than celebrating this, too many viewed it as a recipe for impending disaster. So the massive fear of terrorism meant that such a world event had to be targeted by terrorists. And many people gathering from around the world in one place meant the filthy public would naturally mingle spreading all manner of diseases. Large crowds are deemed an inherent public-order problem; a mass of spectators just waiting to engage in hooliganism and violence.

Fortunately their worst fears turned out to be false. Instead, it was shown that actually large crowds can gather for an event without recreating the Black Death, someone blowing them up, or engaging in acts of mass disorder and violence.

Tom Bailey is a history undergraduate at University College London. He is currently interning at spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter: @tbaileybailey

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Topics World


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