The greatest sporting, and money-making, show on earth
Manny Thain, from an edited version of an article in Socialism Today (monthly magazine of the Socialist Party, CWI England and Wales)
The 2012 Olympic Games, held in London, will start with the ‘Opening Ceremony’ on Friday 27 July, watched by an estimated audience of 1 billion people around the world. Beyond the sporting excellence, Manny Thain looks at the crass commercialisation and increased state repression that accompanies the ‘greatest show on earth’.
World records will not be the only things broken at this year’s Olympic and Paralympic games. Promises for a lasting legacy – affordable housing, decent jobs, increased sports participation, and the rest – are being broken, too. The greatest sporting show on earth has been dragged down by crass commercialisation, and become a test-bed for increased state repression.
It all began with a lie: that the London Games would cost £2.4 billion. That figure was never credible. Inexplicably, it did not include VAT or security expenditure. With these costs added, the bill would have totalled £3.9 billion – 20% VAT on £2.4 billion equals £480,000, plus the wildly out-of-control spending on security, around £1 billion.
So far, however, the elastic Olympics budget has been stretched to £9.3 billion. It all adds up to a massive swindle, a rip-off for working-class and middle-class people who stump up the most in direct and indirect taxes.
The government (via taxpayers) is paying £6.2 billion of that, the rest coming from the lottery (an indirect tax on the poorest). Despite assurances that the private sector would part-fund the major construction projects, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee, reckon that less than 2% of the Olympics budget has come from private funding.
The London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (Locog), the body in charge of ’delivering’ the Games, has raised another £2.1 billion to stage the show. Two-thirds of this has come from sponsorship by big business.
Locog gets a contribution from the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The rest is from ticket and merchandising sales – again, mainly out of our pockets. Locog is headed by Lord Sebastian Coe, a gold-medal-winning athlete, former Tory MP, a ’world ambassador’ for Nike sportswear, and multi-millionaire.
The IOC’s main sponsors each pay over £60 million on ten-year contracts. This is capitalism, so in return for that money the corporations wield colossal power. In other words, at this fiercely competitive event, the organisers go to extraordinary lengths to protect the sponsoring companies from competition. It is unlawful for non-sponsors to use the word ’Olympics’, the five-rings symbol or the Games’ mottoes.
To protect broadcasters’ rights, spectators are not allowed to upload images of events onto YouTube, or post pictures from inside the Olympic village on social media. Twitter will block non-sponsors buying promoted ads with hashtags such as #London2012. Athletes are banned from uploading video or audio recordings.
It remains to be seen how strictly the laws are applied to individuals, but the impression given so far is that the authorities really do mean business.
It is impossible to get a breakdown of ticket allocation for all the events. Lord Coe & Co refuses to provide this information. What is clear is that the more prestigious the event, the more the ticket allocation favours officials and sponsors.
The Guardian reported that, of the 80,000 seats available for the men’s 100m final, only 29,000 (36%) have gone to the public. For the finals in the velodrome, 2,500 of the 6,000 seats will go to the public.
Even this late in the day you may get a ticket if you have connections with officials from 54 of the world’s 204 countries represented at this year’s Games – the source of a booming black-market trade. The IOC has been forced to announce that it will investigate, although any report will probably be delayed until after the Games are over. What it shows is the rotten state of world athletics’ administration, run by an unaccountable, privileged clique at the top.
The preferential treatment for the 70,000 members of the so-called ’Olympic family’ – officials, athletes, media, assorted hangers-on – does not stop there. It is one thing to ensure that the athletes are well taken care off.
They, at least, play a worthwhile role at the Games. It is quite another to roll out the red carpet to thousands of cosseted, bloated bureaucrats and political leaders, some from the world’s most oppressive regimes.
They will be given exclusive border control lanes to speed their way through customs. They will be rushed to the sporting venues and hospitality suites along special road lanes, whizzing past the ’little people’ struggling through London’s traffic. Transport officials have warned of 100 days of travel disruption for the capital’s residents.
An extra 585 civil service workers are to be drafted in, while summer leave has been cancelled for existing staff. Yet 880 jobs have been cut from the UK Border Force since 2010 by the Con-Dem coalition government. As soon as the Games are over, the axe will fall again, with a further 1,550 workers due to be sacked in 2014/15, culling staff numbers down by 18% to a total of 6,440.
Of all the legacy commitments, you might think that the aim to increase participation in sports would be straightforward. Half the job will be done by the incredible performances on track and field.
But the government has abandoned its target of getting one million more people playing sport by 2013.
The numbers swimming regularly in 2010-11 actually fell by 435,000 compared with 2007-08, with those playing tennis, football and rugby also falling. Among those aged 16 to 19, overall sports participation fell by more than 100,000 to 825,900.
The Con-Dems have taken the baton from New Labour, whose policy of selling off school playing fields ensures that young people get off to a very bad start. Since 2004, the budget for school sports has been slashed from £216 million to £35 million, with 3,400 sports coaches and coordinators sacked, and grants for 1,300 proposed playgrounds scrapped.
The Con-Dems have put the boot into people with disabilities, in spite of another legacy promise to widen their access to sport. At present, 18% of disabled adults undertake physical activity for more than 30 minutes a week, compared with 38% for non-disabled adults. The government plans to replace disability living allowance (DLA) with personal independence payments from 2113.
DLA is a non-means-tested benefit worth between £20 and £131.50 a week, paid to about 3.2 million people. It helps with the extra costs of transport, equipment, care and other needs. It has been crucial in enabling disabled athletes to participate and compete.
To enable it to do this, Atos Healthcare, which describes itself as ’the UK’s leading occupational health service provider’, has been brought in to test 11,000 claimants a week under a £100 million-a-year contract.
As a matter of course, Atos passes disabled people fit for work, driven by targets to get 500,000 people off benefits. It has left thousands wrongly denied payment. To add insult to injury, Atos Healthcare is a major sponsor of the Paralympics, paying £62 million over ten years.
Another claim which has fallen at the first hurdle is that the Games will be the ’most ethical ever’. The Independent on Sunday (6 May) reported a survey by Playfair 2012 into sweatshops producing goods for the Games.
It cites mistreatment at factories in the Philippines and China supplying Adidas, and factories run by Next in the notorious free-trade zones in Sri Lanka. None of the factories allow union membership.
Dow Chemicals is a £63 million IOC sponsor and is funding a £7 million fabric wrap around the Olympic stadium. Dow continues to deny any responsibility for the 1984 toxic gas and chemical disaster in Bhopal, India, which killed up to 20,000 people, and injured hundreds of thousands. Legal action is still being pursued in the US and India by victims and their families.
The Olympic Park has also been the focus of many protests by construction workers blacklisted in Britain, with effective trade union organisation kept off site.
One legacy guaranteed by the London Olympics and Paralympics will be a further strengthening of the repressive powers of the state. The security operation behind the Games is the largest in the UK since the Second World War.
Alongside 13,500 troops and thousands of police officers, there was to be 48,000 private security staff. The company G4S was to train 23,700 personnel and should have had 10,000 on duty in a contract said to be worth £284 million.
The Games will boost the privatisation of security services, further undermining any accountability to local communities.
Central to an understanding of the Olympic/Paralympic Games swindle is seeing how the bid was won and the stitch-ups that followed.
Before London won the Olympic bid, the Chelsfield property company had plans to build a huge shopping complex in Stratford, in the east London borough of Newham. In 2004, it was bought out by three companies: Westfield, the world’s biggest shopping centre operator, Multiplex, which built Wembley stadium, and the Reuben Brothers, property/asset dealers who made a fortune in Russia in the 1990s.
Public support is considered to be critical to any successful bid. So, the Olympic Bidding Committee (OBC), then chaired by Lord Coe, asked for the backing of Telco (The East London Communities Organisation – now known as London Citizens).
With members throughout the East End, including the support of around 80 community and religious groups, Telco had a bit of clout. It drew up an ’ethical Olympics agreement’, including demands for affordable housing for local people, education, health and jobs on the London living wage. The agreement was signed in 2004 by Lord Coe, Ken Livingstone (then mayor of London), and Labour London Assembly member John Biggs, deputy chair of the London Development Agency.
The OBC was wound up once the bid had been won – with the plans to regenerate Stratford a major selling point, and including benefits to the other ’Olympic boroughs’: Tower Hamlets, Hackney, Waltham Forest and Greenwich. The Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) quango was set up in 2006 to plan and develop the facilities after the Games. It refused to meet Telco or recognise the agreement on the grounds that the ODA had not existed when the agreement was signed!
Meanwhile, Westfield had bought the other companies out. It passed the housing rights on to the developer, Land Lease. By this time, the subprime mortgage crisis was looming. The Land Lease deal collapsed and Westfield was stalling on work on the shopping centre.
As the New Labour government was preparing its £50 billion bailout and part-nationalisation of the banks, £5.9 billion of public money was pumped into the Olympic project to bail it out, too. The government agreed to finance the athletes’ village, taking Land Lease on to manage it. Westfield was given £200 million of public money to pay for roads leading to the shopping complex.
Again, money taken from taxing working-class and middle-class people was handed over to some of the wealthiest property and construction companies in the world.
When the 500-acre Olympic Park reopens after the Games, in 2013, it will be named the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. It is the first park to be built in London since Victorian times and the first to be called a royal park since then. But London’s eight royal parks were created in 1851 with the passing of the Crown Lands Act.
This transferred parklands owned by Queen Victoria into public ownership. In contrast, the Olympic park and its contents will be run privately.
The Olympic Park Legacy Company (OPLC) is the quango that oversees the park. Chaired by Baroness Margaret Ford, it has already sold the athletes’ village to a consortium led by the Qatari royal family, and plans to sell off the other bits of the park.
The OPLC is to be replaced by another quango, the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), with considerably greater powers over a far larger area. This means that a huge part of east London will be run privately, effectively out of the control of local government.
The legacy promise is that up to 11,000 homes will be built in the Olympic park, with 35% of them supposedly ’affordable’. It is unclear how many of those will actually materialise.
Changes brought in by the Con-Dem government in April mean that rent charged for so-called ’social housing’ (subsidised housing mainly provided by housing associations) can be increased up to 80% of market rent. This is a massive increase.
Newham includes 13 of London’s 15 most-deprived wards. Nearly half the population lives below the poverty line and 70% of children live in low-income households. There are 32,000 households on the council’s waiting list. People have no choice but to rent privately.
The consequence is that very little, if any, of the new housing will be affordable to the vast majority of the people in Newham or the other Olympic boroughs.
The Olympic and Paralympic Games are occasions to celebrate and experience inspirational feats of skill, speed, strength and stamina.
They are a chance to participate in a great global party as athletes and spectators come together, watched by millions. The capitalist system, however, only has eyes for short-term profit.
For the multinational corporations, the Games are just an immense merchandising opportunity. They dictate the pace, aided and abetted by the rotten political establishment and corrupt officialdom.