Olympic paradoxes: the Games’ ambivalent impacts on London

The selective logics of inclusion operating throughout the project, and the news that private interests will be the prime beneficiaries of the 2012 Games, means that the ultimate paradox of the Games might be the hope invested in them, says Lea Sitkin

Lea Sitkin
17 April 2012

From asking 15 year old London East End schoolgirl Amber Charles to submit the Candidate File to the International Olympic headquarters, to having 30 young people accompany the delegation to Singapore, London’s successful Olympic bid was based on a vision that went far beyond the delivery of a 17- day sporting spectacle. The city was marketed as a cosmopolitan and multicultural haven where “300 languages are spoken every day and those who speak them live happily side-by-side”. At the same time, and in contrast to the more glamorous French presentation, the Committee emphasized the benefits the Games would produce by regenerating the local area and inspiring young people to improve their lives through participation in sport. As Committee Chairman Lord Coe said in his concluding remarks, “Choose London today and you send a clear message to the youth of the world:  more than ever, the Olympic Games are for you.”

In the context of this utopian discourse, the recent London: City of Paradox conference offered a much-needed forum for discussing the ambivalent nature of the transformations happening in the East End. The location was perfect: hosted at the University of East London (a stone’s throw away from the Olympic Park), the diverse student body has both benefitted from improved facilities as a result of the Games and protested against this summer’s forced closure of the campus for security reasons. Scenes of urban decay and regeneration surrounded us. Uncomfortable, confusing realities were hard to avoid: travelling to the event on the glitzy SERCO-operated Docklands Light Railway, I thought about the many Londoners who could not afford to take the tube, unlike the academics writing about them. 

The conference highlighted the Olympics’ impact on local communities as well as the selective logics of inclusion operating throughout the project. As Phillip Marfleet said during the introductory plenary session, London’s portrayal as a city open to the world is undermined by highly and increasingly restrictive immigration policies in England. In the face of the myth of England as a welcoming nation-state (promoted by Prime Minister David Cameron in a statement of support for Refugee Week 2012), exorbitant visa fees introduced last month ensure a “hierarchy of mobility” between the desirable (rich) and undesirable (poor). This is particularly ironic given that the Olympics – and London in general – is oiled by the often low-paid and precarious work of irregular migrants building the stadia, staffing the hotels, driving the taxis and feeding the tourists who will visit our capital this summer.  In this context it is important to remember the central role that the state plays in this process: as detailed by authors such as De Genova and Bridget Anderson, the deportability of the sans papiers undermines their ability to negotiate with employers on an equal footing and ultimately contributes to their precarity. Overall, as explored in Aletha Holborough’s talk, sustainable employment for local people has failed to materialise. 

Other speakers such as Estelle Du Boulay from the Newham Monitoring Project or Dan Hancox focused on the Olympic security regime’s problematic effect on local populations. Concerned about the threat of both terrorists and rioters, East London will become a highly controlled and militarised zone, staffed by 12 police forces and 21,000 private security guards, including many army recruits. The complex nature of this security regime has serious implications for both accountability and the safeguarding of arrestees’ civil rights. Epitomising the trend towards civil-criminal hybrid controls, dispersal zones will be in operation, allowing a wide variety of governmental actors to order groups behaving in “anti-social” ways to disperse or face criminal action. However, as Christy Kulz explored in her presentation on an East End academy famous for its no-tolerance stance, hegemonic ideas of how a “good body” behaves have problematic implications, not least from a racial point of view.  Finally, concerns abound as to the impact of stop and search practices on the local, ethnically diverse population. The LIBERTY website critiques the incoming Protection of Freedoms Bill for not imposing sufficient time or geographical limits on the use of stop and search without suspicion. Similarly, the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 allows police to stop and search, without suspicion, anyone who is in a designated area.  The problem here is that the power to designate an area is broadly defined and has been used in a way that discriminates against certain ethnic groups.   

Following the recent taping of racial bullying by police officer MacFarlane in the Olympic borough of Newham, questions were raised as to whether the 2,000 extra police officers who would remain as a legacy of the Games will be experienced as a gift by the local community or if, as Jerry White surmised during his comparative analysis of the Brixton and 2011 riots, as a oppressive force. The question is difficult to answer. Deprived local communities are far more likely to be victims of serious crime and undoubtedly have a stake in crime control agendas. At the same time, history teaches us the folly of exercises that secure the safety of some at the cost of others’ freedom. Erosions in longstanding rights to privacy, to protest and to freedom from arbitrary arrest - introduced in “exceptional times” – can soon become the norm.   

The presentations made clear that the Games will have a mixed legacy for the local community. In turn, this raises the question of which parties benefit from the Olympics. As explored in a plenary session on the “Olympic City”, private interests will be the prime beneficiaries of the 2012 Games, ranging from the Olympic Development Agency awarding the project delivery contract to CLM Ltd. to the army of consultants paid to evaluate and audit this process. The sums at stake are astronomic, with CLM Ltd. earning £718million in 2011 and Ernst and Young 12 million in 2009[Footnote], almost entirely funded by the tax payer. Privatisation in this context goes beyond simple public-private partnerships. The wholesale devolution of governance to CLM Ltd. means that commercial interests have in actual fact become public interests. Perhaps the best example of this transfer can be found in the regulations on advertising in the Olympic zone: in addition to their other control functions, Olympics security personnel must also watch out for unauthorised branding, a criminal act under the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006. As Mike Raco commented, the fascinating thing about this development is that it is happening at a time when politicians have taken to lamenting the declining sovereignty of the state. In reality, the state’s role throughout this entire process is very murky. 

Ultimately, the 2012 Olympics offers a fascinating case study of urban renewal trends. On the one hand, it is shaped by a number of long-standing processes, ranging from the exclusion of migrants to the privatisation of public services. On the other, the London model is already being disseminated as a regeneration for future mass public events and urban regeneration projects. Given these highly political connotations, participants emphasized the need to re-politicise the Olympics, engage with the process, use the law to “lock down” contract commitments and find broad-based platforms for formulating a critique. In particular, several commentators discussed the role that local faith groups might play in mobilising opposition. At the same time the ultimate paradox of these Games might be the hope invested in them. Even considering the spiralling costs, the Olympics represents just over 1% of national public expenditure. In the face of the Coalition government’s far-reaching cuts to the foundations of the welfare state, how much can we really expect from a 17- day sporting event? 



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