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London’s Olympic reverie

The Hindu, 30 September

Four miles from my doorstep lies one of Europe’s largest construction sites: 500 acres to be transformed into an Olympic Park and Village in time for the 2012 Games. At the moment, it’s a wasteland. A few hundred tenants have been evicted from a council estate. Nineteenth century garden allotments have been bulldozed, as have a cluster of pitches used by weekend footballers. Migratory birds have been chased from their inncer-city marsh habitats and local residents find themselves corralled by fences, plagued by noise and harassed by security guards.

Over the next five years, the nuisance and inconvenience will spread. Costs will mount up. Already, the initial estimate of ?2.5 billion has been revised upwards to ?9.3 billion, the bulk to be covered by the taxpayer. In return, we’re told, there will be jobs, new homes and offices, regeneration for a deprived area, “the largest new park in London for 150 years,” an aquatic centre and perhaps another football or athletic stadium.

A report issued during the summer by the London Assembly has confirmed that there is no evidence that Olympic host cities have enjoyed the benefits promised them. Jobs are temporary and casual; left-over facilities are often unsuitable; regeneration ends up meaning property speculation and gentrification. A recent reconsideration of the Barcelona Games of 1992 – widely considered a success – concluded that “the only economic indicator that experienced an important impact as a result of the Olympic Games were price levels.”

London is already one of the most expensive places on earth. For millions of Londoners buying a home in their own city has become an unrealisable fantasy. Property inflation – which always accompanies Olympic developments – is just what London doesn’t need.

Despite much talk of London’s Olympic “legacy”, it remains unclear what this will consist of and how it will be measured. That’s in the nature of the Olympic deal: the commitment of the host city to have the facilities ready on time is ironclad; everything else is, at best, aspirational and negotiable. As 2012 approaches, meeting the timetable will take precedence over other considerations, including the safety of construction workers and the wishes of local people. Crucially, a precondition for bidding for the Games is the agreement by the host city to carry all their costs and liabilities. The risk is off-loaded to the public sector, but not the revenue. The two major streams of Olympic income – broadcast rights and the international sponsorship programme – remain in the hands of the International Olympic Committee. This shadowy and profligate body will determine the shape of the spectacle for which London is the host, and it is primarily to this body that the agencies constructing and managing the Olympic site will be accountable.

You’d think that such a one-sided arrangement would deter potential bidders, but not so. The myth that the Olympics are a boon endures, despite the evidence. It fits neatly into the neo-liberal model, in which cities (and countries) compete for investment on a global playing field, in which the priorities of private investors are the arbiters of social development, in which brand promotion equals increased market share.

London, however, is not a brand, or to be more precise, promoting the London brand on the global marketplace is nor the same as promoting the sustainable welfare of Londoners. The city’s great crises – economic inequality, sclerotic transport, a degraded environment, over-stretched public services – will not be addressed or mitigated and in some cases could be exacerbated by the Olympics.

The Olympics are an engine of distortion. Already, in response to rising costs, the government has raided existing funding for the arts and for grass-roots sport. As the 2012 deadline approaches, the Olympics are likely to swallow an ever larger share of the budget for the cultural life of the nation. The physical legacy will do nothing to correct the imbalance. London already enjoys a surfeit of internationally known sports venues (football, cricket, athletics, rugby, tennis). What it needs is accessible playing fields, of which the Olympics provides not one.

Shortly after London was awarded the Games in 2005, the British government rushed through legislation aimed at protecting the Olympic brand from ambush marketing. In its attempt to uphold the exclusive rights of organisers and official sponsors, the new law restricts freedom of expression in a manner that under other circumstances would have set off alarms. Somehow, because it’s the Olympics, we let our guard down and allow ourselves to be imposed on.

Perhaps too late, Londoners are turning sour on the Olympic project and especially the Olympic propaganda. In a recent poll, only 28 per cent agreed that the financial risk was “worth taking” because of the potential benefits, whereas 44% thought “the money could be better spent on schools and hospitals.” A vast majority – 89 per cent – did not believe the Government’s claim that the cost of the games would be no more than ?9.3 billion. Only 3 per cent thought that the 2012 Games would be delivered on or under budget.

So the Olympics can be added to Iraq as another source of popular cynicism. The Games become a juggernaut of vested interests (government, corporate and media). Those who resist its priorities find themselves fighting an unequal battle. For Londoners, the primary Olympic experience will be one of disempowerment. We neither own nor control the spectacle that will be staged in our midst, at out expense.

It’s not that I’m hostile to the Olympics. On the contrary, I’m a fan. Despite the widely noted disparity between Olympic ideals and practises, there remains something uniquely compelling about this quadrennial global assembly of talent, with its admixture of big and little sports, big and little countries, amateurs, part-timers and dedicated professionals. It’s a two-week demonstration of the varieties of human excellence; here the chunky weightlifter, the lithe gymnast, the bespectacled sharpshooter, play their parts alongside the magnificently proportioned decathlete. And a closely contested 1500 meter Olympic final is an unrivalled three and half minute drama. It’s just that, as a Londoner, I wish it was taking place in someone else’s city.