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The Olympics can be both successful AND unjust ...lessons for Rio?

There was a lot of negative press in the run-up to the Olympics, with the G4S security cockup, the ever-inflating costs, and the Zil lanes. But after a spectacular opening ceremony, nice weather and some lovely stories of Olympics winners, the mood has swung really positive.

This has led to a major anti-whingeing press offensive. For example this Independent article described "a great festival of pre-emptive whingeing followed by people having a surprisingly good time" and concluded "It is time for the country to put its doubts to one side." Of course Boris Johnson put it more pithily when he wrote in The Sun "Oh come off it, everybody - enough whimpering."

The main argument of the anti-whingeing offensive is to point out how well it's all gone: no public transport problems, no security calamities, and so on. (Let's put aside for now the fact that all London businesses outside the olympic venues have had a surprising drought of business, which is a bit of a fail that I guess the London organisers could have helped prevent.) But there's an unfortunate problem with this: most of the nay-sayers did not say the Olympics would fail, they said that the Olympics was a bad deal, in both the moral and the financial senses.

Not every criticism has equal weight. Personally, I don't think it's particularly awful that some commuter routes and cycle routes are disrupted, or that police are brought in from the counties to help police the event, for example. We need to take a balanced view of things: we recognise that London changes a bit when the world's biggest sport festival is happening here.

But that doesn't mean that we should sacrifice our civil liberties on the altar of the event. We have British values such as liberty, decency and fair-mindedness, which we believe are reflected in the way we run our policing etc. If we don't make sure the Olympics lives up to these values when it's here, what chance do we have of helping it behave that way when it's in other countries?

So yes, it's good that lots of people are enjoying a smooth-running Olympics, and the British medal success has made it a particularly jolly affair for the country. But the end does not justify the means, and for the purposes of memory I'd like to summarise three types of unpleasantness that were completely unneccessary to build into the the Olympics:

  1. The sponsors' dictatorship and the militant denial of small businesses' / communities' participation
  2. Security clampdowns and chilling effects on civil liberties
  3. Financial weaselings

But the most important thing right at this moment is what lessons can we pass on to Rio, which I'll consider at the end of this post.

1: The sponsors' dictatorship

The sponsors' dictatorship has been extensively covered in the press. For example, an Oxfordshire farm supplying local produce is not only banned from mentioning its association with the Olympics, but banned from doing it for the next ten years. (Source). (Similarly for the UK plastics industry apparently and they're not happy about it either.)

Butchers have been banned from displaying Olympic rings made of sausages, pubs warned they can't advertise the fact that they're showing the Olympics on telly, and cafes banned from selling a "flaming torch breakfast baguette" (source). This is all supposed to be to protect the sponsors' investment - but the rather extreme policing is completely out of proportion to the following fact:

The money from sponsorship covered a tiny fragment of the costs of the Olympics: around 7%.
(Data sources: Parliametary Accounts Committee, Sponsors list at Guardian)

The suppression of UK businesses' benefiting from the Olympics in perfectly ordinary ways is a refusal to recognise this balance. The amount of money coming from UK taxpaying businesses is comparable with the amount of money coming from the official sponsors (since around 12% of UK tax income is directly from businesses). So this heavy-handedness should not be tolerated. The sponsors, maybe their participation is fine (though some argue they're not even needed - that the 7% could have been trimmed or come from elsewhere, and of course the brand-policing costs would have evaporated immediately). But assuming that we don't mind sponsorship, we should accept it without trampling over local businesses' ordinary grassroots involvement.

Incidentally, Jeremy Hunt (the government minister for the Olympics) has made very different pronouncements on the importance of the sponsors: "the sponsors are actually paying for about half of the cost of hosting the Olympics." This is a direct quote from him speaking on Radio 4 (2012-07-23 13:32, World At One), but it is so clearly out of line with the known figures that I can't think of any explanation other than it's propaganda designed to blunt opposition to the olympic brand police, which was the issue under discussion at the time.

A large cause of the branding strictness is because of ambush marketing, where rival non-sponsors essentially embarrass the sponsors by smuggling their own branding opportunities into the event. So the IOC introduced rules (as did FIFA and other such bodies) to try and prevent this. Unfortunately the consequences have swung far too far in the sponsors' favour.

One thing that seems crazy to me is that you're not allowed to use non-Visa cards to buy Olympic tickets, and ATMs have been forced to close, replaced with a (smaller) number of Visa-only machines. This is actually very different from sponsorship - it means that you cannot be a spectator at the games without signing up with Visa. You can keep out of the McDonalds, you can frown at Dow Chemicals, but you simply won't be allowed in without a Visa card. Why hasn't this been mentioned more often in the media? It's an abusive monopoly.


2: Security clampdowns and chilling effects on civil liberties

There are already "chilling effects" described above in the sponsor/logo ridiculousness: for example, the police wasted time emptying their crisps into clear plastic bags in case they ired the sponsors. But much worse than this is the chilling effect on free speech and other civil rights.

Very notable has been the intimidation and disruption of photographers. Many different people have reported that G4S and sometimes the police have stopped journalists taking pictures in a public place, using fairly vague ideas about it being a security issue. The Guardian has a video of it happening.

But it's not just photographers:

  • People who had done nothing wrong at all were arrested, had their homes raided & forbidden to use public transport. These were ex-graffiti artists arrested just-in-case. Unfortunately, this pre-emptive rounding up of people who "might" cause trouble was recently supported by the High Court, who dismissed complaints about police arresting various people who had done nothing wrong just in case they caused controversy during the day of the royal wedding. It's difficult for the police to respond to modern phenomena such as flashmobs but this sounds like plain injustice to me: people who have done nothing wrong detained on the basis of their political beliefs. There's a delicate balance needed here, to protect people's democratic rights.
  • Groups of two or more people (or young people at night) are banned from the Stratford area under specific regulations which I guess must have quite an impact on people who live in Stratford. "A Met spokesman admitted that previous dispersal orders in the area had transferred problems to other areas, but said the force hoped it would not happen this time."
  • A woman received a police warning for a Facebook joke about squirting the Olympic flame with a water pistol.
  • A man in Surrey was arrested (later freed without charge) "based on his manner, his state of dress and his proximity to the [cycling] course". The press summarised it as arrested in Leatherhead for 'not smiling'.

This kind of heavy-handedness is used not only to reduce the chance of flashmobs and other disruption, but also to suppress dissent. The absolute peak of this: police even arrested three protestors for pouring custard over their own heads in Trafalgar Square. As a distilled example of the British spirit right now - critical awareness and up-yours spirit paired with the chilling effects of policing heavy-handedness - I don't know how anyone can top this.


3: Financial weaselings

I don't need to reinforce the fact that the costs of the Olympics ballooned beyond original estimates. That's almost inevitable. And no, no-one expects that money to come back in increased tourism and business - it hasn't done that in the past and that was never the point.

I just want to mention some of the smaller-scale unfairnesses that sneaked under the radar a little:

There's also an issue of the land used for Olympic developments is being developed with public money, and ending up in private hands. The Olympic Park will turn into the "Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park", but it will not be a Royal Park (not managed by the Royal Parks Agency), and I'm not entirely clear on how the ownership is managed but a lot of it will be technically private (source). And the Olympic village has already been sold to a company which will use it for private rental housing, apparently at a loss to the taxpayer. Hm. (The loss-making side of this venture is at least in part a consequence of the economic crash.)


What lessons can we pass on to Rio?

The Olympics is a strange travelling carnival, but it's one that has unprecedented power: it can reroute an entire capital city, it can force countries to pass new laws, and it can consume billions of pounds from the taxpayer.

But because it is travelling, it is largely unaccountable. Having learnt from our experiences, we Londoners and our elected representatives are in no position to change the way the Olympics works - for example to rebalance the sponsorship barminess.

Rio is the site for the next games. I guess they've already undertaken to pass a bizarre olympic logos-and-words-and-sponsors law. But can the citizens of Rio learn from us? Would we British not have said anything, if we'd noticed when a law was being passed that banned small businesses from offering an "olympic breakfast" or using the words "Summer" and "Gold" in promotional material? And will the number of gold medals we won really make us forget the heavy-handed and half-competent security clampdown we've been through, with its chilling effects on journalism, free speech, local business and civil liberties?

(I should acknowledge that there's no reason to think the 2012 Olympics have been particularly "worse" than, say, the 2008 Olympics. I don't know much about the Beijing organisation, but there are stories of communities being moved wholesale out of their homes etc.)

It would be a big shame if the lesson for Rio is "don't worry about any criticism - as long as you can pull it off no-one minds how you do it." How can we help Rio, and future olympic venues, to have an enjoyable games without compromising their values to the unaccountable juggernaut that carries it along?

Sunday 12th August 2012 | politics | Permalink

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