The London 2012 security mess isn’t just about staff shortages. Mark Perryman asks just who the abundant precautions are there to protect.
Munich ‘72 will always remain one of the most iconic of Olympic Games. Not so much for Olga Korbut’s impish performance in the Gymnastics or the Gold Medal haul of Mark Spitz in the pool but the lethal carnage resulting from the Israeli athletes being taken hostage by the Palestinian Black September group.
In Gaza and the West Bank immense problems remain, the murderous consequences of the Israel-Palestine conflict only too obvious. Yet in all the commentary on the security threat to the London Games scarcely anyone has observed that in 2012 Palestine competes as a nation-state at the Olympics, under its own national flag; this the result of a political settlement that would have been unimaginable 40 years ago.
Of course the Games' organisers cannot afford to wait for a political settlement to the cause that frames the terror threat they identify as facing London 2012 (the fallout from the Iraq war and the continuing occupation of Afghanistan). But recognising there is a motivation behind these acts of violence should at least be the starting point for understanding the securitisation of the Olympics.
It would be reckless to dismiss the bloody horrors that would be the result of any kind of attack on the Games. But security is also about where you choose to draw the line between crowd safety and human liberty. Three examples show how badly London has got it wrong.
First, the Lea Valley Towpath which runs alongside the edge of the Olympic Park. Already the park is enclosed by a sky high fence, topped by razor wires and electronic sensors, with CCTV every few metres and security patrols inside the fence: all to protect the Park from intruders. The towpath was closed to public access 23 days before the Olympics even began - a trend visible across London's Olympic venues.
Second, on the list of banned objects which cannot be taken into the Olympic Park is ‘the flag of any country not competing in the Games’. This is aimed specifically at Free Tibet demonstrators. Tibet is a country not represented at 2012: what possible harm could arise from someone waving Tibet’s flag as a peaceful protest? Isn’t this at the heart of freedom of speech?
Third, the experience of previous events. I have been lucky enough to have been to the last four World Cups. None of this very public mobilisation of the host nation’s armed forces took place, no obvious presence of missiles, warships, aircraft on standby, troops on the streets. There is something about the martial and imperial tradition that seems to insist that in GB we must parade our military hardware for all to see and believe this will somehow act as reassurance rather than leave people asking, why?
The security risk cannot be entirely discounted. But the overwhelming effort of all those employed to guard the Games has nothing to do with terrorism. They are there to prevent any sort of protest and to defend the interests of the sponsors. Another item on the banned list of products to take into any Olympic venue is an ‘excessive amount of food.’ If fans are peckish it's not an extra round of cheese and pickle sandwiches the organisers want them tucking into but a Big Mac and all the other officially approved products.
And when the private sector provider couldn't supply the ever-escalating numbers of staff to frisk fans for their home-made sardines or the wrong brand of fizzy drink to the rescue came the public sector in the shape of the armed services, many recently returned from Afghanistan. Overnight ‘Help for Heroes’ has turned into cheap labour to protect not you and me, but Mcdonald’s, Coca Cola, Heineken and the rest.
Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be (£8, £6 kindle edition)