London Games 2012 - The Olympic legacy

Vitai Lampada

(‘They Pass On The Torch of Life’)

There’s a breathless hush in the Close tonight –

Ten to make and the match to win –

A bumping pitch and a blinding light,

An hour to play and the last man in.

And it’s not for the sake of a ribboned coat,

Or the selfish hope of a season’s fame,

But his Captain’s hand on his shoulder smote –

‘Play up! play up! and play the game!’

Sir Henry Newbolt 1862-1938

Sir Henry, a minor English poet, expresses the lofty ideals of imperialist Britain. It is a propaganda poem. The later verses move on from the cricket pitch to the battlefield where the doughty British soldier is urged to fight the good fight by killing native Sudanese at the behest of his valiant Captain. In an imperialist world, this is sport.

Today, with the summer Olympics and the Diamond Jubilee celebrations upon us, the British working class, wracked by the robbery that is called ‘austerity’, is in for a season of gross hypocrisy, lies and intense sentimental drivel dressed up as patriotic spirit and noble endeavour. The ruling class and an international rich elite hope that we will be so bemused that fleecing us for all we are worth will go unnoticed. Citius, Altius, Fortius, they say. Faster, Higher, Stronger is what they hope to be.

Lighting the torch

Much of the Olympic ‘brand’ is dressed up with low-grade religiosity and piety to give it the aura of ancient Greece. Revived by the Nazis for the 1936 Games, the torch ceremony starts with the lighting of the Olympic flame by po-faced, nubile ‘maidens’ on Mount Olympus in Greece from the rays of the sun at dawn. This was as close as any woman would get to the ancient Games. The real origins of the Olympics lay in the need for the Greek city-states to train their armies and discipline their citizens. Only the privileged minority could take part.

In 2012 the benighted Greek population, struggling to stay alive, ignored the torch ceremony. Appropriately, it was attended by a modern elite, including sponsors like Lloyds Bank. ‘This flame will travel from the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games to the country that gave us the spirit of fair play,’ said Jacques Rogge, International Olympic Committee (IOC) president, without a flicker of irony. Raising the level of utter tosh to new heights, Lord Coe announced: ‘The Olympic flame will visit every nation and region, shining a light on the people, places, communities and cultures of the United Kingdom. We have found the very best in our torchbearers, who like Olympic athletes, will inspire a generation.’ Proving him correct, the 2012-appointed torchbearers enterprisingly dashed to eBay to sell their torches at a profit even before they had travelled their allotted 300 metres. The circus had begun.

The creed: 1) Corruption

The organisers would like the Olympic creed to underpin the ethics of the Games: ‘The most important thing in the Olympic Games is not to win but to take part, just as the most important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle. The essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.’ This is the ruling class message to the workers and oppressed: ‘expect life to be a struggle and don’t expect to win’. The humble spectators who have paid for their tickets and the participants who have trained hard to compete are not what this is all about. Today’s capitalist Olympic Games are about making profits. The real hallmarks of the modern Olympics are corruption, racism and broken promises.

The Olympics have no democratic content. The ruling body, the IOC, is a self-appointed gang of the international rich, a sprinkling of royalty and very few retired sportspeople. The Olympics, both Summer and Winter varieties, have predominantly taken place in the northern hemisphere in imperialist nations. The Games have never been held in an African country. Attempts to alter the balance of power by giving national bodies a vote on the running of the Games have always been blocked by the IOC: to do so would shift the balance of power away from Europe and the United States. After all, there is money to be made.

Widespread corruption was exposed with the 2002 bid by Salt Lake City, US, for the Winter Games. At least 20 of the 110 IOC members were bribed to vote for the Salt Lake City bid to the tune of $3-7m. The whistle-blower, an IOC member, stated that this corruption had affected at least three other host cities over the previous ten years: Atlanta, Nagano and Sydney. Accusations of corruption also surrounded the choice of London for the 2012 Games, with professional agents promising to secure the votes of some of the 124 voting IOC members in exchange for money.

2) Racism

The 1936 Berlin Games are famous; black US sprinter Jesse Owens trounced Hitler’s message of Aryan supremacy by winning four gold medals. But that is not the whole story. The summer Games had been awarded to Berlin before Hitler came to power in 1933. When it became clear that the Nazi agenda was to use the Games as a propaganda vehicle, the battle was on to shift the Games to another venue or organise a boycott. The US national body, headed by Avery Brundage, who was later to become IOC President (1952 to 1972), resisted all pressure and ensured that the Games stayed in Berlin. Behind the scenes, the only two Jewish athletes in the US team were removed.

In fact Brundage admired the Nazis and despised communism. He viewed the boycott debate as a useful focus for fundraising: ‘a large number of misguided Jews still persist in attempting to hamper the activities of the American Olympic Committee. The result, of course, is increased support from the one hundred and twenty million non-Jews in the United States, for this is a patriotic enterprise’, he explained. Brundage later wrote to a German correspondent regretting that Leni Riefenstahl’s film about the Berlin Olympics could not be commercially shown in the US, as ‘unfortunately the theaters and moving picture companies are almost all owned by Jews’.

The racism that was fundamental to Brundage’s position did not diminish during his IOC presidency. He claimed to oppose the intrusion of politics into sport: ‘The very foundation of the modern Olympic revival will be undermined if individual countries are allowed to restrict participation by reason of class, creed, or race.’ When it came to apartheid South Africa, however, the IOC under Brundage’s leadership resisted exclusion of the all-white South African team at the 1960 Rome Games, accepting the argument that black South Africans were simply not good enough at sport. And when two US athletes, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, raised the black power salute from the winners’ podium at the 1968 Mexico Olympics, it was Brundage who ensured their expulsion from the team for ‘a deliberate and violent breach of the fundamental principles of the Olympic spirit’. The Nazi salutes in 1936, on the other hand, had been entirely acceptable.

3) More corruption

Another fascist IOC President (1980-2001), Juan Antonio Samaranch, served under Franco in Spain and was responsible for the wholesale commercialisation of the Olympics. Corruption in the IOC was ignored in favour of vast sponsorship deals with giant multinationals. As a result the international Olympic movement is now worth billions and the IOC and its officials expect luxurious treatment. The contract with the IOC to run the Games in 2012 that the Blair government signed is the reason why large parts of London’s transport system will be given over to ferrying Olympic officials and sponsors between venues in style. The best seats and the top class entertainment will be reserved for this elite including the richest (called TOP) sponsors like McDonald’s, fast food merchants, Dow Chemicals, the company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal chemical disaster in India, and Coca Cola. Enough said: spectators must not expect to be allowed to take packed lunches into the stadium. The Paralympics is sponsored by Atos, the company that profits from denying welfare benefits to disabled and sick people. 40% of the revenue comes from these companies and much of the rest from the sale of television rights. The sport is a sideshow.

4) Broken promises

London’s bid for the Olympics promised ‘every sector of the economy will benefit’. Lavish promises were made of urban regeneration and jobs in East London, and a lasting sports legacy especially for young people. All this would be achieved for an outlay of £2.4bn. Weeks before the Games open, the promises have turned to dust. The school sports programme has been cut to nothing and the Olympic village, promised to be the hub of regeneration, was sold in 2011 to the Qatari royal family at a loss of £275m to the taxpayer. Jeremy Hunt, Culture Secretary, welcomed the sale as a ‘fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return’. The athletes’ village will be converted into luxury flats for rent to the rich. The cost of the Olympics will be somewhere between £11bn and £24bn depending what you include. Most of this will fall on taxpayers and Londoners, already hit by recession. The promised private and business sponsorship has dwindled to 2% of the total. The security costs under contract to G4S, excluding the army, police snipers, ground-to-air missiles, drones and a Royal Navy battleship, on the other hand, have doubled. The United States is providing its own security.

By the same token, and in common with many previous Olympics, it is the working class and poor who have lost out in this funfest. In Berlin in 1936 the Gypsies were moved out of Berlin to a concentration camp to make way for the spectacle. Cleansing Olympic cities of the poor and indigent has been the real legacy ever since. In East London, residents, allotment holders and small businesses have suffered. The ‘Olympic’ cafés and ‘2012’ cab companies have been rigorously bullied on behalf of the TOP sponsors, to protect copyright and to ensure, contrary to the promises, that local small businesses do not benefit one jot from an event taking place on their doorsteps.

To cap it all, the Olympic Charter prohibits political activism, stating, ‘no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas’. We can expect ‘other areas’ to include most of the British isles, as the police tool up to practise crushing civil liberties and human rights. Asbos and injunctions have already been issued against protesters. As the sponsors and the international rich uncork the champagne, there is more of this to come.

Carol Brickley

Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 227 June/July 2012