The last Letter from the UK was written more than two weeks ago as the Olympic Games opened in London. Yesterday the games closed with a spectacular party to match the opening ceremony. For sixteen days millions in Britain and, so we are told, billions worldwide have marveled at a brilliantly choreographed spectacle that put to shame the best efforts of Busby Berkeley and Cecil B. De Mille. The mainstream media, from The Guardian and New Statesman to the Sun, the BBC and every other commercial TV channel, were unanimous in their unstinting acclamation of “the best Games ever”. As Union flags were waved in their millions, the words of Britain’s monarchist anthem were invoked by IOC president Jacques Rogge, to conclude that the games had been “happy and glorious”.
Back in 2005 it was estimated that the 2012 London Olympics would cost £2bn. The actual cost has turned out to be £9bn. Although Britain is still stuck deep in depression, facing years of ever harsher austerity, according to a Guardian/ICM poll (11.08.) 55% of Britons consider that “the games are cheering up the country in hard times, and are well worth the money”. This is against 35% who regard them as a “costly distraction from serious economic problems”. It seems that the young are most enthusiastic, with 60% saying that the games are worth the money. Opinion in Scotland is less impressed, with only 42% holding this view while another 42% consider the games a costly distraction. A spokesperson for the Counter Olympics Network (Guardian, Letters 13.08) was quite encouraged by the dissent of more than a third of Britons from the majority view. Looked at from the standpoint of London during the games, this sounds a bit like whistling in the wind. Day after day the hundreds of thousands packing the stadiums, the teeming crowds at the Olympic park and the thousands lining the streets and routes of the numerous events could hardly be ignored - except by those who chose to stay at home and turn off their radios and television sets. The Counter Olympics Network critic is certainly right in remarking that “virtually the whole of the media and most politicians have lost all sense of proportion in a self-reinforcing orgy of Olympics hysteria”. But what did he expect? That’s what happens during the Olympic Games. To take only the last 20 years, from Barcelona in 1992 to London 2012, in each case the games have been a corporate bonanza in which all sense of proportion has been lost. It might have been hoped, and possibly expected, that this time it would be different due to the dire economic climate in which the 2012 Games are being staged. But in Britain there are plenty of precedents for successful austerity jamborees, going right back to the 1930s and 1940s. This one has upstaged them all.
The 2012 games are no different from the others in having showcased corporate sponsorship. Everyone knows that the winning athletes, despite their formally amateur status, are set to make millions from promoting corporate brands, while most of the ‘losers’ will sink into oblivion. In an age of hyper-celebrity, the big winners will either reinforce their status as super-celebrities with multi-million earnings (Usain Bolt, whose net worth is about $30 million, could make $100 million by the time of the Brazil Olympics in 2016. He has made $9 million from Puma alone simply by wearing their brand of shoes), or enter the ranks of super-celebrities. Mo Farah, the 5.000 and 10.000 meter gold medalist, could make more than £2 million in sponsorship and advertising, while heptathlon gold winner Jessica Ennis, who has deals with Adidas, Omega, British Airways, Aviva and BP, stands to make £3.5 million. The biggest winners of course are the corporations whose brands the athletes’ endorse. Needless to say, most of the young people who rise to such dizzying heights of sports and athletic prowess are not at the outset motivated by the attractions of celebrity and money. They submit to rigorous regimes of training and self-discipline to achieve their goals. But, like professional footballers, they enter a world that is dominated by corporate power and finance and it is almost impossible to escape its clutches and its allures. Coming, as many in Britain and the United States do, from poorer ethnic minority backgrounds, the attractions are all but irresistible.( All but; one exception comes to mind because he has just died at the age of 60. The Cuban heavyweight boxing legend, Teofilo Stevenson won three successive gold medals at the Olympic Games in Munich, 1972, Montreal, 1976 and Moscow, 1980. The US promoter Don King offered him $5 million to challenge world heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali. He refused with the memorable comment “What is $5 million compared with the love of eight million Cubans?” The Guardian’s boxing correspondent commented recently: “Had he gone, he might well have won.”)
Does the prominent corporate profile and sponsorship mean that there is nothing to be said in support of the Olympic Games, and that the millions who have been captivated by the extraordinary performances of the athletes over the past two weeks are simply dupes of corporate capitalism? That doesn’t make much sense. No-one seriously thinks that McDonalds’ Cadbury’s, Coca Cola and the other prominently displayed sponsors are committed to promoting healthy living and athletic prowess. The G4S fiasco necessitating the use of the armed forces to fill the security breach and the placing of ground to air missiles on local people’s rooftops, together with numerous other examples of organizational bungling, obduracy and ineptitude, understandably caused much anger and resentment. But in spite of all this it has been possible to enjoy and applaud the magnificent achievements of the competitors. It is true that seats in the Olympic venues were priced beyond the reach of most people, but the millions who got nowhere near the action sat glued to giant screens in the open air or TV screens in their homes. And for so much of the time the action was breathtaking.
There was swimming and diving of unimaginable skill. Jessica Ennis’s heptathlon triumph was a joy to behold as was that of double gold cycling champion Laura Trott at the Veladrome. The tremendous performance by the Jamaican men’s relay team, led by the phenomenal Usain Bolt (who had already won gold in the 100m and 200m), clinched a third gold medal for Jamaica by beating the US in the 4x100m in a world record time of 36.85sec. It was a memorable event. Also wonderful to watch were the triumphs of British long distance runner Mo Farah, who won gold medals in the 5.000m and 10.000m. This modest Londoner came to Britain as a refugee from Somalia at the age of eight. These are simply some of the most prominent of the countless competitors who have performed so admirably in London over the past two weeks. Generally the games have gone smoothly and have provided a great experience for the hundreds of thousands of spectators. Now they are over and some evaluation is called for.
Some critics on the left have chosen to ignore the games, except for odd references to the excessive cost and their value to the political elite as a “bread and circuses” (minus the bread) distraction from the reality of increasingly hard times in austerity Britain. There is something in this but it is not good enough. The widespread public engagement with the games and the carnival atmosphere cannot be explained satisfactorily simply as media manipulation. The enthusiasm was genuine and cannot be wished away. How long the mood will last is another question. The successful outcome, particularly Britain’s surprising third place behind the USA and China in the gold medal awards, will certainly be exploited by the government and its media supporters to claim credit for the “feel good” factor. There is already evidence of what the coalition wants to get out of this. They hope that the games may encourage a re-awakening of British “national pride”, by which they mean opposition to Scottish national independence. This card is already being played by all three main parties and will be played harder as the referendum draws nearer. They also want to use thegames as a counter-point to the 2011 riots by claiming that the games represent everything best about Britain – particularly its multi-ethnicity, pride in endeavor and achievement, etc. as opposed to what is presented as the nihilism, ignorance and aimlessness of an unrepresentative section of youth whose behavior requires no explanation other than as mindless criminality. These are two examples of the way in which the “Olympic legacy” is likely to be exploited. In these and other respects the government
will try to distract attention from the miserable state of the economy. Due to the pig-headed pursuit of extreme austerity in the face of depression and mass unemployment, Osborne has succeeded in producing the double-dip recession many predicted. Even Mervyn King is now forecasting that there will be zero growth for the rest of 2012. But, there are grounds for optimism – at least concerning the coalition government’s chances of survival. Once the bunting has been cleared away and the hangover wears off, the real world will come back into perspective.
There are good grounds for thinking that the coalition will not survive until 2015. The Lib Dems have been subjected to extreme humiliation at the hands of their Tory partners. Last year they failed to get their referendum on reform of the electoral system and now they have failed again to get their bill on reform of the House of Lords. These were two of their showpiece policies on entering the coalition in 2010. In both cases their failure was down to sabotage by their Tory coalition partners who basically hold them in deep disdain. But Clegg seems to have had enough. He has announced publicly that the Lib Dems will not support the Tories in their bill to redraw Britain’s electoral boundaries to their own advantage. They appear only now to have woken up to the fact that, if passed, they are likely to be virtually wiped out in the next election – a fate quite likely anyway but, if the Tories get their bill, it would be even more likely. If the Lib Dems jump ship it would leave a minority Tory government limping along until parliament delivers the coup de grace.
Post Script 14. 08. 2012
Lest We Forget.
On August 14. large hoardings went up in London with the flowing message:
There would be no GOOSE BUMPS, GASPS, Records Smashed, Strangers Hugged, or a whole world brought together without the world wide Olympic Partners.
(There follows a long list of corporate sponsors including:)
Coca Cola, Dow, Omega, Panasonic, Visa, Adidas, BMW, BP, British Airways, BT, EDF, Lloyds TSB, Cadbury and McDonalds
We are never allowed for a moment to forget that without corporate sponsorship the most simple and spontaneous of human interactions could not take place. Of the £9bn it cost to stage the London Olympics, the sponsors paid only 6%. The rest came out of public funds.