The real Olympic legacy

By Jill Segger
May 2, 2012

These were to be the 'legacy olympics'. Regeneration of run down areas, the enthusing of young people with the ideals of sport and healthy activity, the showcasing of the UK (or at least its south-eastern segment), new stadia and facilities - all these have been presented as the quid pro quo for massive expenditure and the likelihood of a gridlocked capital city.

The reality already appears somewhat different. The corporate interests sponsoring the Olympics have made sure that no individuals or businesses can use any words or symbols associated with the Games. The brand police will pursue the small cafe owner who might decide to offer an 'Olympic menu'; hotels have to advertise rooms for the 'Summer of Sport' or the 'Big event', as they are forbidden to use the words 'Games' or 'Olympics' and woe betide the athlete who tweets that he or she has just enjoyed a Pepsi (Coca-Cola is a major sponsor).

As the Olympic Torch comes to the small cathedral town where I go to Meeting, the local Churches Together have decided to put on a public welcome (this, by the way, is not something Quakers greatly warm to). However, the churches will not be permitted to use the Olympic rings on their banner of greeting. The symbol universally recognised and employed since 1920 is off-limits because the legislation is designed to prevent unauthorised “association” on the part of ordinary people with the big corporate interests who have stitched up the event to their own advantage. In vain the Chartered Institute of Marketing description of the restrictions around the London Games as “too draconian” and setting "a precedent... which unduly prohibits businesses tapping into current national and societal events". What chance has the original Olympic ideal of the spirit which “valued moral rewards more than profit” against the power and greed of the big players, supported by Locog?

The London Borough of Newham, one of the most deprived areas in the country, is the site of the 500 acre Olympic Park. Its residents might have expected that the 'Olympic effect' would bring increased prosperity to their neighbourhoods. Instead, the market has had its ruthless way with them and rising rents in a community so close to the hub of the action, in combination with the government's cap on housing benefit, has led to Newham Council seeking to disperse families on its housing waiting lists as far afield as Stoke-on-Trent because it can no longer afford to place them with private landlords. This has been labelled as 'social cleansing' and the hyperbole is arguably justified – best not to be a poor and vulnerable local inconvenience when the more fortunate flock to their ruthlessly marketed quadrennial festival of international competition.

Security at an event which will draw the eyes of the world was always going to be rigorous. But the siting of a battery of surface-to-air missiles on the roofs of flats in Tower Hamlets is - as a Twitter friend remarked - “like something out of a Philip K Dick novel”.

An MoD spokesperson said there are “statutory and prerogative powers that allow the deployment of armed forces and their equipment”. No doubt. But what mechanisms are in place to assess the need, advisability or efficacy of this measure? The residents of the Bow Quarter estate were not consulted and no consideration appears to have been given to the possibility of pre-emptive attacks on these weapons or to the safety of the immediate neighbourhood and the wider area on which debris might fall if a missile were to be fired. No analysis has been presented regarding the efficacy of the deployment in comparison with that of scrambling fighter planes to intercept any airborne threat.

Such measures in a country which is not at war are deeply alarming. They bear eloquent and tragic witness to the foreign policy failures of successive governments and look like braggart actions designed to impress the world with the UK's military power and know-how. A long shadow of fear and unreason has been cast by the dreadful events of 9/11

To be less than whole-heartedly enthusiastic about London 2012 is easily depicted as an unpopular, kill-joy stance. Those aspects of the Olympics which are wholesome and inspiring are rightly held up for our admiration. The boy/girl next door appeal of athletes who work with immense dedication and self-discipline to bring their skills to fruition at the optimal moment is genuinely attractive and the marketeers and power brokers know it.

However, we must not permit ourselves to be bribed or bullied into uncritical acceptance of the official line. Corporate tyranny, market-driven callousness and sabre-rattling to the detriment of civil liberties have deformed the principles of the Olympics. The second clause of the movement’s charter states: “The goal of Olympism is to place sport at the service of the harmonious development of man,with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.”

The world has four years to reclaim this ideal from the slide into dystopia we see being played out in our capital city.


© Jill Segger is an Associate Director of Ekklesia with particular involvement in editorial issues. She is a freelance writer who contributes to the Church Times, Catholic Herald, Tribune, Reform and The Friend, among other publications. Jill is an active Quaker. See: http://www.journalistdirectory.com/journalist/TQig/Jill-Segger You can follow Jill on Twitter at: http://www.twitter.com/quakerpen

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