Hi. As today marks the first day of the Olympics as well as large protests against them, in the face of massive police and security forces trying to prevent them by hook and crook, I thought it important to get some background via two short, penetrating accounts by America's finest sports columnist. It should interest even non-sports lovers, as demonstrating the tentacles of the biggest corporations in the world and their hold on many governments, their armed forces and the Olympics. Neither Zirin nor I demean the incredible athletes competing in the games. This should be useful over the next two weeks of Olympic inundation and what happens to London and England in the future.
Mind the Gap: London's Olympic Games are Falling Down
Upon returning to the United States after two weeks amidst London's pre-Olympic terrain, I have some final thoughts that I hope the International Olympic Committee and the UK's Tory Prime Minister David Cameron take to heart. I also hope that the Olympics lead corporate sponsors, British Petroleum, Dow Chemical, and McDonalds take a timeout from devising the latest cutting edge trends in evil and listen as well. Your games are in trouble. Your games are in trouble because the people who actually have to live in London alongside the Olympiad are mad as hell. And it's only May.
After two weeks of listening to everyone with an opinion about the Olympics in other words, "everyone"- it's clear the entire affair suffers from Annie Hall Syndrome. At the start of Woody Allen's 1977 classic, Woody talks about the two elderly women at the Catskill resort who complain that the food is terrible while also adding, "And such small portions!" Londoners are annoyed at the inconvenience brought by the Olympics, incensed by the security crackdown... and outraged that there are no tickets available. This is hardly a petty complaint. Corporate partners have gobbled up the seats, leaving the overwhelming majority of the city with their nose pressed up against the glass. In London, where the pubs dot every block and open onto the streets after work in a daily party open to all comers, this comprises a cardinal sin. As Neill, one of many bartenders I encountered said to me, "It's like a big to-do that no one invited us to attend!"
The security crackdown and constant paranoia are discomfiting enough (fears are being disseminated about the Irish. Seriously.) But what singes the locals is the idea that the Olympics are a party that will stick them with the bill: a hangover from hell without the drunken rapture that by all rights should precede it.
All Olympics produce debt like a cow produces methane. But this one happens in the context of a double-dip recession. It happens with round-the-clock U.K. media coverage of the "Euro-panic", as voters in Greece are threatening to tell Angela Merkel, David Cameron, and the European Union to take their austerity agenda and cram it sideways. The fears of crisis and debt surround even the cheeriest propaganda about the looming Games. The BBC led every broadcast while I was there with these two separate stories. First, "Crisis in Greece" and then with a different anchor, reporters, and even music, "Getting Ready for the Olympics." Nowhere was any discussion that the 2004 Athens Olympics, came in at over 10 times the proposed budget. Those games aggravated the crisis Greece is currently slogging through, with the country's homeless now even squatting in dilapidated, unused Olympic structures. There is scant discussion that these London games could come in at 10 times their proposed 2005 budget as well, causing another "debt crisis" that will be taken from the hides - not to mention the pensions - of the UK's workers. At several events involving trade union workers and bureaucrats, the message was repeated to me over and over: "When the Olympics are over, the gloves will come off.
In other words, faced with the pressures of austerity and recession, Cameron and company are cooling their jets until the Olympics are over and then they will try to do their level best to disembowel the unions and further cut taxes for the wealthy. Why wait until after the Olympics? Because Cameron needs the unions cooperation to make sure that the games come off on time and on schedule. They need to make sure the unions don't take strike action or join the demonstrations planned for July 28th, the first Saturday of the Games. This is why they agreed to sizable bonuses for London's subway workers. Anything to make sure that the Olympics show London, and more critically David Cameron, in the best possible light.
I have no doubt that all the top sports reporters will write uxoriously about London and all it's quaint customs, and the cameras will point at only those cheering the events on, waving the Union Jack. But make no mistake: the Olympic Torch is not the most noteworthy thing passed from Greece to London. It's the looming struggle against austerity. David Cameron might want to wait until after the Olympics to "take the gloves off" but he's not the only one willing to go bare knuckles over the future of the UK.
Alexander Wolff, the great journalist from Sports Illustrated is stationed in London and wrote this week, "Every time I come to England I'm struck by how the lowbrow mingles with the high." But in London the "lowbrow" are angry and the "highbrow" are scared. They mingle only in the shared sense that a storm is coming to the British Isles. The summer will be filled with games. But an epic fall awaits.
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Protests are Coming to the Olympic Games
To be in London, two months before the 2012 Summer Olympics, is to feel a bit like a fish in an aquarium, with people constantly poking at the glass. Cameras adorn nearly every street corner and police vehicles are more prevalent than double-decker buses. It's easy to understand why many are saying enough is enough.
On Saturday, July 28, protesters will be gathering in London to just say no to the priorities imposed by these most corporate of Olympic Games, and it's hardly difficult to understand why.
Security forces are busily militarizing the urban terrain. Olympics security officials recently unboxed the military-grade Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), an eardrum-shattering weapon that has been war-zone tested in Iraq. There are plans to station surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of London apartment buildings. The Royal Navy's biggest warship will sit along the Thames. Typhoon jets and Lynx helicopters will be ready for action. Scotland Yard has stockpiled more than 10,000 plastic bullets. Police are constructing mobile stations to facilitate swift bookings. And "dispersal zones" have been set up where police can freely ban anyone they deem to be engaging in antisocial behavior.
None of this comes cheap. Londoners were told that the Olympics would cost £2.4 billion. Projections that include ballooning infrastructure costs are now looking at £24 billion, ten times the original bid's estimate. They were told that the games would be funded with a "public-private partnership," but the "private" end is now picking up less than 2 percent of the tab. In such an atmosphere, protest is inevitable, but the people coming out on July 28 are angry about more than militarization and debt. There are other issues drawing people into London's privatized public square.
Olympics sponsorship has become a full-throttle, corporate cornucopia. London Games sponsors include icons of health and fair play like McDonald's, British Petroleum and Dow Chemical. In the name of good health, McDonald's is handing out "activity toys" for kids to play with after munching down their Happy Meals. BP isno jokean official "sustainability partner." Dow Chemical's prominent presence is a slap in the face to London's large South Asian population, given the notorious gas disaster in Bhopal, India, that killed more than 20,000 people and left hundreds of thousands more suffering in its wake. In 1999, Dow Chemical merged with Union Carbide, the US firm responsible for the Bhopal nightmare.
The UK Tar Sands Network has been active, helping carry out a gutsy intervention at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre where, dressed in Shakespearean garb, activists stormed the stage and delivered a brilliant monologue"To BP or Not to BP?"and urged patrons to tear out BP's sponsorship symbol from their program.
Behind this Bizzarro World where McDonald's means health and BP stands for sustainability are the plutocrats and moral midgets of the International Olympic Committee.
More than a year after the Arab Spring, this is one dictatorial operation still chugging along. Originally a decaying assemblage of barons, dukes and counts, the IOC has now broadened its membership to include our modern royalty, the mega-wealthy. Having only allowed women as members in 1981, the IOC is the 1 percent of the 1 percent, a global cosmopolitan elite that drips with privilege.
To stage the games, host cities must submit to a laundry list of IOC demands, and London is no exception. It has set aside 250 miles of VIP lanes for exclusive use by members of the "Olympic Family," including athletes, medics and corporate sponsors. London organizers are required to secure nearly 2,000 rooms for IOC bigwigs in the finest five-star hotels. To control commercial space in favor of the Olympics' corporate donors, the "Technical Manual on Brand Protection" dictates, "candidate cities are required to obtain control of all billboard advertising, city transport advertising, airport advertising, etc., for the duration of the games and the month preceding the games to support the marketing program."
As the games approach, and you begin to mark your favorite athletic contests on your calendar, remember that at noon on July 28 there will a different kind of event: when campaigners come together not to celebrate the breathtaking athleticism of the Olympics but to challenge the breathtaking audacity of Olympic elites.
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