In Praise of the London Olympics

Money Down the DrainEvery Olympics contains elements of both triumph and disaster. The 1972 Olympics in Munich were notable for both a terrible terrorist incident involving the Israeli weightlifting team and Mark Spitz’s accumulation of seven gold medals, a feat not surpassed for over 30 years. The 1976 Olympics in Montreal are remembered both for Bruce Jenner’s world record setting triumph in the decathalon and for debts which weren’t finally paid off until 2006. Even the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, which ran like clockwork, required the forced evictions of up to a million people. What the calamities have in common is that they speak of the weaknesses of the host nation: Germany in 1972 was still coming to terms with the difficult legacy of the Holocaust, Montreal’s government was profligate, the Chinese government still doesn’t give a hoot about human rights. We perhaps should be thankful then for the forthcoming Olympics, as it shows the problems of modern Britain in stark relief. While we rightly damn the difficulties and expense, its lasting legacy may be to present what is in most dire need of correction.

For example, a belief has hitherto prevailed that somehow “private is better”; this has been the case since Mrs. Thatcher became Prime Minister. After all, during the 1970’s the nationalised coal industry had failed to produce enough energy to keep the lights on and British Leyland somehow thought the Austin Allegro was a car that people might want to drive. How comforting it was to believe that such problems had a simple answer, and that one wave of the magic wand marked “privatisation” would ensure that all would be well. How much more difficult it would have been to tackle a long legacy of mistrust between management and labour, a lack of quality control procedures and an unwillingness to embrace imagination rather than cheapness as a British business virtue. Never mind that greater emphasis on the private sector meant that wages stagnated over time, while a minority, predominantly those in the financial industry, grew very wealthy indeed. At least the liability was off the government’s books and the lights stayed on: problem solved, so far as the politicians were concerned.

The multitude of failures by the private security firm G4S have re-emphasised that just because something is private doesn’t necessarily mean it’s well run. Security has nothing to do with hiring a few Keystone Cops to bumble about and wipe a few kids’ noses: it’s literally a matter of life and death. While it is unlikely, though not impossible, that a terrorist incident could be staged at the Games, there are more mundane matters of crowd control and personal safety which need due care and attention. A badly managed crowd can lead to genuine tragedy, as the Hillsborough disaster showed. Uncontrolled masses of people and alcohol can also prove to be a toxic mix. Yet, despite warnings, the organisers of the Olympics trusted G4S until almost the very last minute: even those personnel who will show up are unlikely to be of high quality. If we believe passable communication skills and good training are important in any security team, then some of the examples of G4S staff as seen on television are displaying a worrying lack: the reports are uniform in suggesting that training has been slapdash and some have a questionable grasp of English. As Nick Buckles, the head of G4S, stated before the Parliamentary Select Committee, “I don’t know what fluent English is,” Worse, G4S couldn’t keep track of its hires: according to a Channel 4 news report, G4S is presently unable to guarantee turnout of staff to its assignments. Under these circumstances, to suggest that “private is better” is to go up against the facts: if making money is the priority, then all other considerations tend to be of secondary importance. To put it another way, the police and military are far more trained and trusted to provide security at the Olympics because their primary mission as organisations is not to turn a profit, but rather, they are there to protect the public. Questions can and should follow in light of this: for example, what do we get from a health service whose main motive is to provide shareholder value as opposed to treating people?

Other weaknesses have also made themselves glaringly apparent, including the fact that far too much of modern life is taken up by corporations. Olympic sponsorship deals provide an extreme example of this infringement. As a report in the Independent newspaper stated, many words are restricted:

“Olympics organisers have warned businesses that during London 2012 their advertising should not include a list of banned words, including “gold”, “silver” and “bronze”, “summer”, “sponsors” and “London”.”

The rules will be enforced by a purple clad “sponsorship police”. Furthermore, only McDonalds is allowed to sell chips in isolation, though it can be rightly said that McDonalds’ chips relationship to genuine British chips is approximately the same as Budweiser to Yorkshire bitter: it is mass produced and bland versus authentic and flavoursome. One would think that such restrictions are a violation of free speech and indeed are an undue restraint on trade: but as the Olympics proves, this is not important so long as the corporations are pleased. We are neither living an a truly open society nor do we have a free and competitive market as originally envisaged by Adam Smith: rather, our fundamental rights can be bent and altered provided the entity which requests the deviation has a sufficient bank balance. Thanks to the Olympics, this reality is now nearly impossible to avoid.

Olympic Traffic SignsThe Games also highlight the awful state of Britain’s transport infrastructure; leaving aside the impending disaster of an overburdened Tube network, both American and Australian athletes found that their journeys from Heathrow to the Olympic Village were over 3 hours long. Indeed, the Americans were on the road for about 4 hours. The distance between the airport and the village is approximately 23 miles. Yet, Olympic officials stated that average time to get from the airport to the village is two hours. To put it another way, average traffic conditions in London, even with special arrangements for the Olympics, mean that the buses can only go 11 1/2 miles per hour. While looking at the extreme cases, there is a need to address the poverty in basic standards.

No doubt other harsh realities will be exposed before the Games finally come to an end. We will probably find out the depths of embarrassment we can plumb by having a notable buffoon as mayor of the nation’s capital and a corrupt Culture Secretary as a figurehead. We will likely learn some ugly truths about how devoted we are to the mawkish and cloying through the Opening and Closing Ceremonies. Because he can’t help himself, we are certain to see David Cameron at his smarmiest as he tries to associate himself with any and every British gold medal winner. No doubt there will be much finger pointing when the Games’ debts prove larger than expected. We also will probably discover how terribly inaccessible London is for disabled people when the Paralympics follow on. Of course, there will be contrasting highlights: I still look for an equivalent to that beautiful moment during the 1992 Barcelona Olympics when Linford Christie won the 100m dash. London may provide this. Such achievements are wondrous, worthy of national pride: but nevertheless there is much more to be gained by looking the problems and failures with clear eyes. The Olympics are a wasteful £9.3 billion extravaganza, coming at the expense of cuts to the police, the health service and education: we are unlikely to turn a profit on it, but at least perhaps we can profit by its exposure of the truth. Unlike the airy talk of Britain becoming more of a sporting nation, this epitaph has real value and consequence.

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