Moving on up: as the Olympic buildings went up, so did rent prices for locals. Photo by martin_vmorris under a CC licence.
Up until a week or so ago, I lived a short walk from the site of the London Olympics. Ever since the time of the bid, people in the area have been told optimistic stories of how the event would ‘regenerate’ the area to ‘benefit everyone who lives here’ by ‘reducing poverty, supporting healthier lifestyles and developing successful neighbourhoods’. I’m not convinced. On the strength of events so far, it is doing the exact opposite.
It began with stories in the media of landlords evicting their tenants to make way for Olympic lets, prompting a wider rents crisis. Then it hit us: a substantial rent increase (justification: ‘we’re entitled to charge the market price’) followed by eviction. The flat-hunt that ensued revealed an average one-bed flat in Hackney to cost more than the entire annual salary of most low paid workers.*
When being shown round possible flats to live in – usually by estate agents when the residents were out at work – the rent notices stuck up on fridges were hard to miss. A whole domino-rally of downsizing has been set off. When the story broke about East Londoners living in sheds some people outside of the capital were surprised. Here it’s just life.
Neither does the vague promise of ‘successful neighbourhoods’ inspire confidence. There have been reports that there will be more soldiers on duty in London than there are currently in Afghanistan, guns placed on the roofs of residential blocks, pre-emptive banning orders used to stop protests, and the use of badly trained and aggressive security guards. The Metropolitan Police’s new promise of ‘total policing’ could be easily confused with totalitarianism.
So what about those healthier lifestyles? Putting aside the increased air pollution for a moment, it does seem likely that there will be more walking and cycling. Cheerful cartoons on buses and trains feature obedient citizens opting not to take public transport, accompanied by the euphemistic warning of ‘transport hotspots on event days’.
Yet the alternative car-free canal pathways are going to be closed down. Officials say this is on security grounds. Locals suspect this is a ruse to prevent any passerby from glancing into events without paying. Even on the roads, cyclists are being threatened with fines of £200 ($300) should they stray into one of the 108 miles of ‘VIP’ lanes reserved for exclusive use by Olympic participants and sponsors.
To add insult to injury, some of the sponsorship deals go beyond irony. Despite the Olympic spirit of fair play, official sportswear partner Adidas stands accused of maltreating its workers. Thousands of community-spirited local volunteer stewards will be used as adverts for fast-food giant McDonalds. The ‘official sustainability partner’ is BP.
There has been some resistance. Cheeky campaign group Space Hijackers raised a smile when they satirized the partnership deals by declaring themselves ‘the official protesters of the Olympic games’. The London Organizing Committee ordered their Twitter account to be dismantled on ‘brand affiliation’ grounds, only for it to be reinstated with thousands more followers as a result of the media furore that ensued.
Another group put out a spoof press release declaring that BP had pulled out of its role as sustainability partner, and managed to give a live radio interview before they were outed. On the streets, the human rights group Newham Monitoring Project has trained up a team of community legal observers to record police actions during the period, while the housing charity Shelter is putting extra resources into supporting residents of East London.
But while actions that highlight the hypocrisy of Olympics organizers and support the victims are useful, the problem is much deeper. In a way, the Olympics have only intensified the effects of the poisonous cocktail of corporate power and authoritarian government that has been building in Britain and across the world for the past few decades.
One-time Olympic competitor Julian Boykoff calls it ‘celebration capitalism’. Building on Naomi Klein’s theory of the ‘Shock Doctrine’, he argues that corporate and government élites now use sporting events as well as major disasters to tighten their hold on power.
But perhaps these events are also symptomatic of a system approaching the end of the line. In a comparative study of the decline of 11 different empires, John Glubb argues that when empires enter their final phase, they are characterized by something he describes as ‘truly surprising’: the exaggerated importance of sporting events as an attempt to distract populations from other issues.
Let us hope that his observation has predictive capabilities. Then, like the remains of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, the Olympic Park of London will one day serve as a reminder to future generations that the people and ideas that dominate and suppress a society cannot do so forever.
*Data from Foxtons estate agents, 15 June 2012, showed an average Hackney one-bedroom flat at over £17,000 ($27,000) a year.
Tim Gee is the author of Counterpower: Making Change Happen. He will be touring the United States throughout July. See tour dates here.