The London Olympics
by Neil Parthun
The 2012 Summer Olympics will be held from July 27 to August 12, 2012. While the Games will bring international athletes together in spectacles of sport, it will also bring another spectacle altogether. As with other host cities, London will likely see the possibility of crippling debt, a specter of gentrification and militarization and a profitable relationship with Olympic sponsors that are some of the worst corporate criminals and human rights abusers.
Most Olympic host cities get racked with enormous debt. For example, it took Montreal thirty years to pay off the $2.7 billion it owed in cost overruns from hosting the 1976 Olympics. One of the factors that helped fuel the current Greek economic crisis was the $11 billion spent on the 2004 Games, an amount that nearly doubled the originally proposed budget. So, it should be no surprise that after the pageantry of the Games are over, London will be stuck with a massive bill despite setting aside £9.3 billion for a budget. This is especially galling given the budget cuts and austerity measures already enacted and being proposed by UK leaders.
As the Olympics loom, English housing rights activists are decrying the Games for heightening the already existing housing availability and affordability problems in London. Some tenants near Games venues have reported massive increases in their rent when re-signing leases, notifications of temporary sublets and/or temporary rent increases for the duration of the Olympics. Others have reported attempts at eviction to allow for a clientele that will pay the higher rent prices and allow the landlords to make a hefty profit. But it isn’t just landlords that are engaging in evictions. Residents in certain housing developments have been told by the local governments to vacate their buildings because they will be demolished as part of an Olympic ‘beautification’ effort. These people have not been told about any possibilities of a guaranteed right of return if and when the housing is rebuilt.
While there have been attacks on housing opportunities for the poor, there have also been other attempts at gentrification through the use of the police. Prior to the arrival of the Olympics, London police arrested sex workers in disproportionate numbers in areas where Olympic venues and activities would be located and have begun cracking down on brothels near Olympic venues. By cracking down on these institutions, many sex workers have been forced into the streets which has, according to activists, become a much more dangerous environment for their health and safety. Such harsh police pressure has also made it more difficult for sex workers to feel comfortable and secure to come to police if they were the victims of a criminal offense while working because they fear arrest.
The police have also been given vastly expanded powers to deal with possible ‘undesirable’ people or activities. Certain areas around London have now become legal ‘dispersal zones’ which allow officers to remove any person engaged in antisocial behavior such as soliciting, begging or loitering. Police are telling activists that they must first speak with and clear protests with the police so they can be appropriately managed has also amplified the chilling effects on speech. Any protests that are not appropriately told to authorities beforehand may face immediate removal thanks to the dispersal zones. Furthering belief that the goal is to marginalize protest, a number of activists have been given antisocial behavior orders that prevent them from legally being present at any event where there are Olympic activities and the police have also announced preemptive arrest of people they suspect may disrupt the London Games.
Authorities have also been given wide latitude to protect the corporate image of the Olympics and its sponsors. Under the London Olympic Games Act of 2006, police may seize political posters that disparage the Olympics and even enter private homes to take such signs. It also allows the security forces to deal with businesses that are not official sponsors but seek to use two or more of the following terms in their advertising: “Games, Two Thousand and Twelve, 2012, Twenty-Twelve” as well as “Olympics” or the five rings logo. These protections go above and beyond current copyright law in England and allow for greater protection of the corporate entities sponsoring the Games.
The Games has good reason to want to try to protect the image of their sponsors because they are some of the worst human rights and labor rights abusers. Allegations have arisen that adidas has utilized sweatshop labor to make some of their branded Olympic uniforms. Rio Tinto, the mining company providing the medals, has locked out workers in Quebec because the workers would not stand for retiring workers to be replayed by contract employees earning 50% of the pay for doing the same work. There is also the relationship with BP, a company being called an Olympic environmental sponsor, which perpetrated one of the biggest environmental disasters with the massive oil spill in the Gulf. But most notably have been the protests around Dow Chemical. Members of the Indian Olympic team threatened a boycott over Dow’s relationship with the Olympics as Dow has still refused to make amends and appropriate cleanup the aftermath of the Bhopal gas disaster.
There will be many jobs for the security at the Games that has necessitated over 23,000 police/military to be present. More UK soldiers will be patrolling the Olympics than will be serving in Afghanistan. The overt militarization can also be seen in the sonic weaponry used by US forces in Iraq that will be on scene, the surface to air missiles present on rooftops of apartment complexes across London and the scanners, facial recognition software, cameras, checkpoints and in the tandem presence of police and military patrols. The surveillance equipment will not disappear after the Games end.
International sporting events don’t have to cause these kinds of problems and exacerbate social inequity. But it is up to us to reclaim them. We can have large international sporting events that uplift the human spirit and don’t drag a host city and nation into debt or exacerbate and aggravate already existing social problems. But we must take back the world of sport for the causes of truth, freedom and social justice because while we may always and rightfully remember some of the athletic feats we’re sure to see during the Games, the social and economic impacts of the London Olympics will be around long after the festivities end.