Yes, the 2012 London Olympics are almost upon us. If you’re unlucky enough to live in London, your giveaway evening newspaper has been providing a thrilling day-by-day countdown which I think may have begun on 7/7 in 2005, the glorious day after the capital won the Olympic bid. I’m no fan of the London Evening Standard – which is given away free to grumpy commuters each night and, as such, is by definition worthless, although it can claim to be less unloved than the morning Metro – as you have to machete your way through so much propaganda in order to get to the actual local news, but it’s been especially impenetrable this year, with the Mayoral elections, the Jubilee, Heathrow and now the Games. It’s difficult to know where the editorial ends and the advertorial begins.
But hey, such blurring of truth and profit is very much in the spirit of the Games. I didn’t vote for the Olympics. Ordinary Londoners were never asked if we wanted the biggest sideshow in sport held here, and part-funded by our council tax. We were promised regeneration of some of the East End and Docklands. We were promised a fabulous upswing in commerce and opportunity (“Every sector of the economy will benefit from the staging of the Olympic Games”, went the bid). We were promised a second Westfield shopping centre. We were promised millions of tourists descending up our already full and already filthy city. Some of these dreams may yet come true – there’s a brand new Westfield now in Stratford, whose car parks have already been closed for the duration of the games – but estimates about how many people are coming here on holiday were hugely optimistic, as many non-Olympic “vacationers” have been understandably put off, either by the threat of crowding, or just being blown up.
Let’s contextualise my disinterest in the Games. As a punter I’m really not that bothered about athletics. Sport in general is not something that gets me going. You know I dabble with football, and I ended up watching that tennis match at last year’s Wimbledon that went on and on and on out of peer pressure, but as a rule, as a spectator, I prefer artistic rather than physical endeavour. That’s just my personal choice. I have nothing against sport, or sportspeople. I care about my health and used to love going to the gym when I could afford it. Better to do sport, whether it’s a kickabout in the park or the fully-fledged sacrifice of training for the Olympics, than sit around doing nothing. What I have against these Olympics is that, as a Londoner, I get all of the aggravation and none of the benefit.
It’s not just that the Tube and buses are going to be overcrowded, although that’s pretty annoying when your job involves a lot of travelling about in London, and, I expect, even more annoying if you have a nine-to-five job that can’t realistically be “done from home”. London’s bus drivers are threatening to strike for a bonus payment, as their jobs are going to be extra stressful between July 27 and August 12, and August 29 and September 9. But passengers can’t strike. We’re stuck with it. (I think anyone whose job is going to be made harder by the Olympics should be entitled to a bonus.)
What I really object to is the relentless bombardment of corporate sponsorship. It seems tragic to me that sporting endeavour has to be privately funded. If we lived in the benign Communist utopia of my fevered dreams (and I haven’t worked out all the details yet), sport would be state-sponsored for the health of the nation and the pride of representing your country. So would the Arts. The minute you hand over the Games to advertising “partners”, and these “partners” are then able to literally dictate which credit card you use to apply for tickets, and which fizzy drinks you drink in the stadia, and which burgers you eat, then the sport comes a poor second to profit. And when even the top sports stars must flog their spandexed arses in TV ads in order to keep fit – Usain Bolt clowning for Richard Branson a typically undignified example; Victoria Pendleton getting her actual kit off for men’s magazines for more subtly commericial returns (FHM: “Victoria has the sort of legs that could, should you inadvertently find yourself in a sexual embrace with the woman, kill you”) – it’s a sad world indeed.
As a user of the already creaking London Transport network, I have for some time been assailed on all sides by adverts telling me not to travel in London during the Olympics and the Paralympics; to stay at home; to choose an alternative route; to avoid certain lines and stations; to fuck off. Even worse, there are ads everywhere put up by Procter & Gamble, the American multinational petrochemical giant, whose $82.6 billion turnover for 2011 is helping to fund a big chunk of the Olympics. P&G, as they’d prefer us to call them, want volunteers in London to help clean the place up, using P&G cleaning brands like Flash and Febreze. That’s right, the company that makes Flash wants us to give up our own time to clean the city before the tourists arrive. If they’re so keen on cleaning, why don’t they pay out-of-work Londoners the minimum wage to clean the streets? Just a thought.
On the subject of cost, the Guardian came up with some figures back in April. Originally slated to cost about £2.4bn, Olympic costs had already jumped to £9.3bn by 2007. The total kept rising. The House of Commons’ public accounts committee revealed costs were heading for around £11bn. Then Sky Sports worked out that, including public transport upgrade costs, the final score was closer to £24bn. By continually revising the budget upwards, the Olympic Delivery Authority have been able to say that the whole thing will finally come in under budget. But it’s all based on made up numbers. Big numbers that are constantly being moved about.
The Olympic village was supposed to be financed by Australian developer Lend Lease, but private investors scarpered when the economy imploded in 2008, leaving it to the government ie. us. In August 2011 they sold the village at a taxpayer loss of £275m to the Qatari ruling family’s property firm. (Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt called this “a fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games”. He’s not still Culture Secretary, is he? Really?)
As for security, after initially estimating the need for 10,000 police officers, they’ve since had to tap the military for 13,500 reserves at a time when a) the country is still fighting a war, and b) military personnel are being cut along with every other corner of the public sector. We’ve got ships situated in the Thames, Eurofighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on top of tower blocks. The cost of security has increased from £282m to £553m. There are less than 13,500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. (Londoners get the security bill, by the way. I’m not leaving a tip.)
I guess there’s never a good time to hold the Olympics, but London definitely drew the short straw holding them at such a time of economic woe. (April’s Guardian Comment Is Free article about “celebration capitalism”, from which I’ve drawn most of these figures, is here.)
Every huge international sporting event is an advert for something. And the London Olympics just seem worse because they’re on my doorstep and I’m having my face rubbed in them. Even if you’re excited about the sport – and I understand there will be some sport somewhere in the middle of all this branding and synergy – it’s hard to argue with the assessment that it’s a public-private partnership that needs some serious counselling.
For the record, these are the private companies who are funding the Games.
Dow Chemical Company
Procter & Gamble
British Airways (thanks for despoiling The Clash’s London Calling in your TV advert, as if Scouting For Girls didn’t do enough damage to it at the Olympics homecoming gig four years ago)
Thomas Cook Group
United Parcel Service
Official suppliers and providers:
Boston Consulting Group
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
London Heathrow Airport
Rio Tinto Group
Have I missed anybody?