London’s Olympic fog
The scenes of wild British rejoicing in July 2005, when it was announced London would host the 2012 Olympics, have faded and been replaced by visions of doom. Once the games begin, the sheer beauty of the sports will take over, but for now, most media attention is given over to threats, to chaos, to failure.
The day London celebrated in 2005, four British Islamist terrorists killed 52 people in four different bombs attacks, three on the metro system, one on a bus. Seven years later, the shadow still hangs heavy. The security arrangements include sharpshooters, missiles and, most recently, 3,500 soldiers called in because the security provider, G4S, was found last week to have failed to deliver the necessary number of trained guards.
Britain does grumbling as well as any country: It’s hard to find any Londoner who does not use the word “chaos” to encapsulate what he or she thinks will happen to London’s traffic and public transport from late July through August. Residents have been encouraged in that view by signs everywhere on the metro warning that “this station will be very busy during the Olympics.”
There is also a class-war dimension – which is never far from British debates. Special traffic lanes are being created down which VIPs will be whisked to and from the stadiums, in limousines lent by BMW. “What about the rest of us?” is the response of choice to that piece of obliging the noblesse.
In polls, most non-Londoners think the Olympics won’t benefit them, with the Scots and the Welsh especially sure of that (though they’re looking forward to the games themselves). In a survey done last week by Reuters, most economists agreed that the UK economy might get a temporary boost but no lasting benefits and would run the Olympics at a loss, as Athens did in 2004. Even in London, there’s a dispute about how far the vast works undertaken in East London to build the stadiums and the Olympic village will benefit the poor borough where they’ve been sited, one third of whose inhabitants are immigrants, many recent arrivals and many quite poor.
Nothing the Olympics touches seems to be an unambiguous triumph. The clothing company Ralph Lauren has been criticized left and right for having the Olympic uniforms it made for the U.S. team produced in China. Harry Reid, the Senate Majority Leader, opined over the weekend that they should all be burned and American-made garments put in their place. And the Olympic curse doesn’t just apply to the current iteration. The Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City in 2002 were said to have been salvaged by Mitt Romney, who took charge of its organizing committee when it was mired in a bribery scandal. Now, the alliances he made in that project – and some of those associates are contributing heavily to his presidential campaign – are alleged to be of a doubtful ethical standard.
The Olympics are drawn into every possible national controversy because they’ve become such a huge national event – socially, politically and economically. They’re now tied to national prestige and status, a means by which nations can prove themselves and show off their ability to compete on the world stage. As a result, they’ve become as much a possible terrorist target as was the World Trade Center. The WTC epitomized Western capitalism; the Olympics epitomize Western pride and corporate boosterism.
The original Olympic Games lasted well over a thousand years, from about 800 BC to the mid-third century AD (and perhaps longer). They were part of a four-year cycle of religious festivals in honor of the God of Gods, Zeus, which took place in Delphi, Nemea, and Corinth with the climax in Olympia, on the Peloponnese peninsula in western Greece.
“Olympick” games – so spelled and so-called in homage to the classical games, descriptions of which had been preserved in Greek and Roman texts – were resurrected in England in the early 17th century, first of all in the Cotswolds, near Oxford. These were crude affairs, with bear baiting, pole-tossing and shin-kicking as central events. There was even a competition as to which contestant could make the ugliest grimace. Still held, they were popular and lively, if not chaotic – often promoted by publicans to increase trade.
Two centuries later, they were enfolded into the 19th-century passion for self- and national improvement, and were seen as serving manly and martial virtues. The French Baron Pierre de Coubertin founded the International Olympic Committee in 1894. The Olympics then bit by bit became part of both a nationalistic brand and a network of corporate interests.
They are now events prepared by armies of organizers (and, in London, protected by a real army) and paid for by billions in corporate and taxpayer’s funds. The Olympics have become so central because they are fused with nationalism and global corporations, and have severed any connection to religion, or to popular participation.
Is London 2012 poised for disaster or for triumph? Whichever, it will be massive. The Olympic Games, to be watched by billions, have now ascended to a very modern Olympus, far above us.
PHOTO: A soldier patrols by a gate at the beach volleyball venue ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games in London, July 16, 2012. The London 2012 Olympic Games start in 11 days’ time. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor. // Vehicles are driven in lanes next to an Olympic lane on the A4 road in west London, July 17, 2012. REUTERS/Toby Melville