A couple of days ago the liberal sorts on Twitter worked themselves into a lather over this Guardian column about a mother’s reasoning for sending her child to private school. Given the credentials of many leading the charge, the author would have provoked less ire had her reasoning been that she wanted to give her child the greatest possible chance of a writing gig for a British broadsheet, but that’s besides the point. What really seemed to rile people was the way the author presented left-wing principles as some convenient, ill-thought out folly which quickly crumble when faced with ‘reality’. This is a slur as old as the hills – a variation on ‘a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged’ – but the addition of the wellbeing of children and the implication that anyone really looking out for their offspring would go private was predictably toxic. The response was swift and it was brutal.
This piece on the Olympics, however, has provoked no angry response. Yet it is another variation on the same theme. The author half-heartedly tosses off his reasons for hating the games:
The outrageous corporate sponsorship deals, the exclusivist ticketing model, the broken promises of community engagement, the lack of investment in youth sporting provision, the ground to air missiles on tower blocks, Seb Coe’s smug half-smile
before noting that he’s ‘caught the Olympic bug’ due to watching a ‘brilliant documentary’ about an Olympic athlete. His previous complaints are recast as ‘grumbling’, suggesting they were trivial reasons for a negativity which has been washed away by the inspiring tale of athletic achievement. Again, left-wing principles are portrayed as a silly distraction. The most extraordinary sentence in the column is:
For the first time, I thought about the Games in a vein outside of politics. This was about the Olympic dream in all its battered and worn reality.
Well, indeed. ‘Politics’ being concerned with power, principles and relationships, looking at anything ‘in a vein outside’ of this would tend to remove any tendency towards critical thought. I’m sure Guantanamo Bay seems quite nice when thought about ‘in a vein outside of politics’. After all, the US government tells us that it’s about keeping everyone safe – it’s not about politics, it’s about basic safety!
Aside from the author’s shaky hold on his own principles and mind, the big problem with this piece is that it conflates the current Olympics with the ‘Olympic dream’. You can read about the ‘Olympic principles’ here – suffice to say that the current corporate mega-event is far, far removed from any sense of ‘equality’ or ‘respect’. Private concerns override all else, with even the laws of the country being subservient to corporate interests. We have indeed come a long way from the 1896 Olympics, when the first regulation agreed by the IOC enshrined amateurism into the event.
This extraordinary puff piece makes the same error of being unable to separate the organisation of the Olympics from the athletic achievement displayed in them. I have heard no-one being critical of the latter, yet everyone who seems remotely inspired by this achievement seems unable to separate the two and becomes defensive about the entire event. Of course, this idea that critics are attacking athletic achievement perfectly serves those elites who wish to portray dissenting voices as spiteful moaners.
Yet another Olympics is possible. I’m about halfway through this book which is very good at examining how the Olympics strayed so far from its original principles. I did not realise that corporate sponsorship only entered the Games in 1984 when it was held in Reagan’s America – the neoliberalisation of the Games perfectly illustrating the lie that they are ‘apolitical’. The book also examines the truth behind the propaganda usually wheeled out in support of the Olympics – economic regeneration, employment, a sporting legacy, increased tourism, community engagement – each is examined and each is found to be at best wanting, at worst utterly false. Studies looking at previous Olympic Games and previous sporting mega-events have found that, without exception, they lead to the displacement of the poor (and other ‘undesirables’) from the host cities and increased living costs for those who remain. They even found that jobs were displaced from the Olympic areas once the Games left town. We are already seeing these effects in London, to go along with the militirization of our streets, the weakening of our civil liberties (including, astonishingly, efforts to prevent anti-Olympics speeches at a Counter-Olympics protest in Tower Hamlets), the privatisation of public space (at public expense) and a complete betrayal of the promised ‘legacies’ for the host boroughs.
In short, it’s difficult to conceive of how anyone who identifies as ‘left-wing’, certainly anyone who identifies as ‘socialist’, could not oppose these Games. Yet you find these very people loudly cheerleading the event and repeating the lies fed to them by the Government and the IOC without question. Why? Because, as noted above, they cannot separate their excitement for the sporting events from the ‘Olympics themselves. Their principles become embarrassing distractions from ‘getting behind’ their team. I’ve seen an increasing tendency for people to combat criticism of the event by referring to the ‘enthusiasm’ of those turning out to see the torch procession, a great irony given the event’s origins as a propaganda tool for the Nazis. It’s also not without irony that the global torch procession was scrapped after the countless protests against the Chinese last time around. It is propaganda, pure and simple, and ‘politics’ or indeed any kind of critical thought is not welcome. This is carried through into our national media which, sure, prints a scattering of op-ed columns criticising the Games and articles criticising transport arrangements, but on the whole unquestioningly pushes the narrative of a ‘country united’. Of course many are going are going to ‘give in’ and catch the ‘Olympic bug’ when faced with such a barrage; when told repeatedly that their criticisms are ‘grumblings’ and they are witnessing a ‘once in a lifetime event’. Anyone using this ‘enthusiasm’ as a defence for the Games needs to learn about ‘manufactured consent’. The very transformation of London into a ‘state of exception’ itself creates a sense of an extraordinary event, building excitement on the basis of retracting democratic and civil liberties.
As an aside, I walked through Stoke Newington last Saturday while the torch procession passed through the area and the turn-out was truly pitiful. I wasn’t surprised that the evening news didn’t show images of smatterings of people drinking cider outside a chicken shop. I attended a barbeque at a house on the torch procession route and, of the 30 or so people gathered, approximately 5 went out to see it.
What surprised me was how eloquent and informed people were in their anti-Olympic sentiment. In being surprised I suppose I had allowed myself to be partially seduced by the idea that people were just ‘grumbling’ but this convinced me that it’s not the case.
By all means I expect many with anti-Olympic feeling to be inspired by the sporting achievements. I certainly expect them to be inspired by the Opening Ceremony – it is, after all, the entire point of that event. Yet we mustn’t lose sight of the alienating, harmful effects of the current Olympic model and allow ourselves to become cheerleaders for the transfer of wealth and power to private bodies and individuals. Another Games is possible. Believing this is not ‘grumbling’, it is holding onto important principles and beliefs and those ready to swiftly abandon these in order to cheer on athletes are the ones who should be defending themselves.