London Olympics: Tales of imperial cunning, austerity and repression

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This year is the third time that London has staged the Olympic Games, and each occasion has shown something about the changing state of capitalist society.

The dominance of a global power

The 1908 Olympics were originally going to be held in Rome; however, the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in April 1906 meant that resources were needed for the reconstruction of Naples. As a global power, with an empire covering nearly a quarter of the world’s land area and a fifth of the world’s population, the UK was in a position to take on the Games at short notice.

In ten months it was possible to organise the finance, find a site and build a state-of the-art stadium. Financially, costs amounted to about £15,000 and receipts were £21,377. The first London Olympics made a profit, and in that sense were a success. What The Times (27/7/1908) regretted was that “The perfect harmony which every one wished for has been marred by certain regrettable disputes and protests and objections to the judges’ rulings. In many newspapers, the whole world over, national feeling has run riot, and accusation and counter-accusation have been freely bandied about.” This is hardly surprising, bearing in mind the growing conflicts between nations as imperialism became capitalism’s only way of functioning, from the Spanish-American War of 1898, the Russo-Japanese War of 1905, and all the antagonisms that led up to the First World War.

In 1908 the judges were all British and there was a complaint from the US team, on average, every day. It started with a refusal to dip the American flag to the King at the opening ceremony and continued throughout the events. In the tug-of-war the Americans complained about the heavy service boots of the team from the Liverpool police. When their protest was dismissed the US withdrew from the event. Or, in the 400 metres, the British officials decided that the final would be re-run because a US runner had elbowed a British runner. The US boycotted the re-run. In the end the UK team won more gold, silver and bronze medals than all other countries. Against teams from 22 countries, involving 2000 competitors overall, the UK won more medals, 146, than it has in any other modern Olympics. As The Times (13/7/1908) had said in advance “This year it may be hoped that we shall do our foreign competitors the compliment of showing them that we have not lost our cunning.”

The austerity games

In the forty years that passed before the London Olympics of 1948 a lot had changed for British imperialism. The Allied imperialisms of Britain, Russia and the US had won the Second World War, but the US was now dominant in the West, with Britain in a far more secondary position.

Britain had been uncertain about taking on the Olympics. With a devastated economy, with rationing (including food, petrol and clothing) being more severe than during the war, with high unemployment, widespread homelessness and many workers’ strikes, the UK was desperate for the US funds it received from the Marshall Plan, but not clear what impact the Olympics would have.

Only a month before the Olympics began there was an unofficial London dockers’ strike during which newly conscripted troops were drafted into the docks. For the first time a government used powers introduced by the 1920 Emergency Powers Act to confront the strike. This was not the only time that workers came up against the austerity regime of the post-war Labour government.

There had at least been two years of preparation for the Games. Although no new venues were built the forced labour of German prisoners or war was used on some construction projects, including the road leading to Wembley Stadium.

Not for nothing have the 1948 Games become known as the Austerity Olympics. Other countries were encouraged to bring their own food, although competitors were allowed rations increased to the level of miners’. Male competitors were put up in RAF camps, female in London colleges. British competitors had to buy or make their own kit.

With 4000 competitors from 59 countries, the 1948 Olympics cost £732,268 (coming in under budget) and took receipts of £761,688. It made a modest profit, but the UK only came 12th in the medals table, and everyone knew the US was going to come first before the Games had started.

Debt and repression

Although some countries have claimed to have broken even, or made a profit, for example the dubious claims of Beijing in 2008, the Olympics have been a financial disaster for most recent venues taking them on. Montreal’s dept was so great that they didn’t finally pay it off until nearly 30 years later. The original budget for the Athens 2004 Olympics was $1.6 billion: the final public cost estimate as much as $16 billion, with most venues now abandoned or barely-used and millions still needed for upkeep and security. It’s clear that the Olympic Games were one of the factors that contributed to the scale of the crisis of the Greek economy.

For London 2012 the initial budget estimate was for £2.37bn, but, in the seven years since the bid was won, the guesses on the final figure have ranged from 4 times to as much as 10 times the original cost. Not that the organisers are not planning to do everything to recoup the expenditure. The prices for admission, food, drink, and everything else to do with Olympic venues, are mostly outrageous, even for an expensive capital city. And the interests of the official sponsors are being very fiercely guarded. There are very strict rules on “ambush advertising”, that is, the display of anything (including items of personal clothing) that includes the name of a company that is not an official sponsor.

But the area where it seems that London2012 is keenest to break records is in repression. On the busiest days there will be 12,000 police on duty. There will be 13,500 military personnel available, rather more than the number of 9500 British troops in Afghanistan. It’s also planned to have 13,300 private security guards. They will spend a few days training with troops. A spokesman for the security firm involved said “ part of the venue training was to ‘align values’ between the two groups, so games spectators had the same security experience with military and private guards” (Financial Times 24/5/12).

On top of this there have been well publicised plans to install a high velocity surface-to-air missile system on a block near to the main Olympic site. Presumably this is intended to blow planes out of the sky over a heavily populated residential area.

The organisers of the London Olympics, in conjunction with the British state, seem to have thought of everything. Although they might not be able to cope, the Home Office intends to do security checks on all the anticipated 380,000 athletes, officials, workers and media personnel in any way connected with the Olympics. There will be special Games Lanes on roads that will be reserved for Games-accredited vehicles. You will be fined £135 if you stray into one of these lanes. When entering venues you will be searched and not allowed to take any water past security. It will be against the rules to tweet, share on Facebook or in any other way share photos of events.

There will be more than 200 countries represented in the London Olympics, and the organisers will be doing everything to provide a setting suitable for the usual orgy of nationalism, and an advertising opportunity for Coca Cola, McDonalds, Panasonic, Samsung, Visa, General Electric, Procter and Gamble, BMW, EDF, UPS and all the rest of the gang.

That has become the menu for the modern Olympics: nationalism and commerce. Meanwhile, in the preparation for London2012, the local council for the area where the Olympic Stadium is situated, Newham, has tried to ‘relocate’ 500 families to Stoke-on-Trent, 150 miles away. Local tenants are being evicted so that private landlords can let properties at massively inflated rents. The Olympics are supposed to be an inspiration for young people. Newham has the youngest age structure in England and Wales, with the highest proportion of children under the age of one. It also has the largest average household size, the highest rates of benefit recipiency in London, as well as high rates of ill health and premature death. For children living in the shadow of this year’s Olympics their future is not going to be improved by the spectacle of the battle for medals.  

Car 5/6/12

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