As I wrote in my preceding blog, the start of the Olympics has seen the proliferation of dreadfully insipid puff pieces from writers who seemingly have a very shaky grasp on their own mind. The Observer today leads with yet another one which is unable to separate the event from the athletes and so sees the author dismissing his previous concerns as ‘curmudgeonly’ and ‘cynical’. What I find most hilarious about it is that this transformation is due to the Opening Ceremony, an event which pretty much had the sole purpose of being inspirational about Britain and had a massive budget with which to be so. It was never going to fail. Myself, I enjoyed it well enough but what I found curious was that it largely relied on pre-existing associations for its power. When I thought about it afterwards I realised that I had been far less impressed by what was actually happening on screen than by the machine-gun roll call of British achievements, whether that be our brilliant pop history, JK Rowling or the Industrial Revolution. This thought was bolstered by a friend who informed me that his Greek parents would have been hugely confused by much of it.
The part of the ceremony which did truly move me was the simplest – the procession of the athletes. The utter joy and excitement evident on the faces of the athletes was completely infectious and this more than anything resonated as a celebration of humanity, as the Morning Star put it. Yet as my heart was stirred by this I also felt great sadness at what could have been; at the trampling of this spirit beneath the jackboots of profit and elitism.
I get the sense from most of aforementioned puff pieces that they could have been written at any point over the past year by people who haven’t set foot in London, such is their banal predictability in trotting out the same PR lines. The Observer piece quite oddly suggests that the heavily-choreographed and controlled £27 million opening ceremony showed that London ‘was at ease with itself and its many contradictions’. Coming barely a year after the city tore itself apart, a city which is one of the most unequal in the developed world, that is quite the claim.
It was with huge relief, then, that I found myself at the Counter-Olympics demo in Tower Hamlets yesterday. Relief because I was surrounded by hundreds of people who cared deeply about their city and their country; people who went out of their way to wish the Olympic athletes well but did not let this stifle their critical faculties. Posters everywhere demanded ‘Sport for the 99%, not Profit for the 1%’ – these people were far from the ‘curmudgeonly’ moaners opposed to the entire thing, sports and all, that the media keeps portraying. No, these people had a very positive belief in humanity. They cared about social justice; they cared about public ownership of land; they cared about housing and living costs; they cared about militarisation and the wars which make the UK a target; they cared about poverty, exploitation and abusive labour practices; they cared about austerity and the use of mega-events to push its agenda. Again, I felt moved by the spirit on display – people who had given up their Saturday afternoons to make a stand and attempt to highlight some of the issues around the Olympics which the media is now furiously distancing itself from. The atmosphere was incredible – friendly and fun, with people beeping their car horns in support as they passed. There was an interesting observation to be made for those who keep wheeling out the attendance at the Torch Relay as proof of the UK’s unswerving love for the Games, as hundreds of people came out from their houses, pubs, cars etc to watch the march go past – not necessarily in support, but merely because something big was happening.
The march ended in Wennington Green with speeches from such inspirational organisations as War on Want and Defend the Right to Protest. I was thrilled that John McDonnell, one of the minority of principled Labour MPs remaining, appeared to speak of his solidarity for the cause.
The speaker who has most remained with me, however, was perhaps the most ineloquent – a woman from Critical Mass who had been arrested the evening before for peaceful protest. Clearly she was a last minute addition and was a little startled to be speaking before the crowds, yet she spoke matter-of-factly about the circumstances of her arrest – how she had been targeted for passing a bottle of water to a fellow cyclist who had already been arrested, how the police officer who arrested her claimed to recognise her as ‘one of that Occupy lot’. She then spoke of a visit to Critical Mass, some weeks earlier, of an Olympic cyclist (whose name unfortunately escapes me at the moment) who spoke to the organisation and led the members in a chant of ‘I am not afraid of offending my oppressor’. She led the gathered crowd in this same chant and I shouted it with passionate glee – not only as a message to the gathered authorities, the police who had flooded the streets in a clear demonstration of strength, the army guarding the Bow Quarter missiles – but as a message to those who wish to dismiss concern for London and the country as ‘cynical’ and ‘curmudgeonly’.
It was a beautiful day. As we left the Green and walked through a sunny Victoria Park, the ‘people’s park’ which now finds a large part of itself ticketed for entry, I felt almost euphoric. The human spirit is an incredible, resilient force, capable of great things even in the face of hardship and injustice. This is the real message of the Olympics and it’s a message which the Counter-Olympics demo shouted out loud.