Five Ring Circus: the London 2012 experience


In a very few weeks the razzle-dazzle Five Ring Circus will come to town.  Wall-to-wall television coverage and breathless newspaper hype will extol the virtues of the Olympic juggernaut, with paeans to dedicated young athletes in peaceful competition doing their bit to foster world harmony and the wonderful legacy of the Games.

What won’t get much attention is the horrendous impact the Games will have on the East End of London. 12,000 additional police are being drafted in from outside London, to be joined by 10,000 G4S private security guards, thousands of military personnel and a contingent of 1,000 American military and FBI officers. Since 1 May a dispersal zone around the Olympic Park has been in place, which permits police to ban two or more people from the area for up to 24 hours and, if they refuse to comply, arrest and charge them.  The maximum penalty is 3 months’ imprisonment or a fine of £5,000. The police have additional curfew powers to ban young people under 16 from the dispersal area between 9pm and 6am, unless they are accompanied by a parent or responsible adult over the age of 18.  Additionally, the police will be able to use Section 47A of the new Protection of Freedoms Act which permits the police on the ground to stop and search without having reasonable suspicions of any criminal or terrorist intent. This power has not been used yet, but until the European Court of Human Rights ruled them out of order, police stop and search powers under Section 44 of the Terrorism Act have been used in an increasingly repressive fashion, particularly against young people and BME communities. The police may try to use pre-emptive arrests and detention to stop people exercising their right to peaceful dissent or protest , as they did last year on the day of the Royal Wedding, though this action is currently being challenged in the courts. The Olympic Act gives the police the right of forced entry into private property to remove unauthorised advertising or protest banners. Plus surveillance drones will fly over the Olympics venue.

Surface-to-air missiles are to be installed on the tops of tower blocks, guarded by armed military and armed police. There was no public consultation about this and no risk analysis has been done, even though SAMs, like other weaponry, can and do malfunction, with drastic consequences. Also shooting down aircraft in such a heavily built-up area would risk causing as much death and other collateral damage as any rogue aircraft might inflict. The Northern Ireland experience over the last forty years shows that the presence of armed soldiers or police in residential areas leads to deaths: not the shooting of armed criminals or terrorists, but ordinary citizens – perhaps adventurous children, or people whose judgment is impaired after a few drinks or recreational drugs. There will be more armed military and police personnel on the streets of London than ever before, including during the First and Second World Wars.

The streets are being cleansed of those considered at odds with the upstanding Olympic image. Brothels in the East End are being raided and closed down. Sex workers are being compelled to move away from the areas they know and where they are known, to new, more dangerous locations. Alcoholics are being shifted out of the area by the use of Anti Social Behaviour Orders.

The police have made it clear that protesters will get short shrift. Dissent in the run-up to the Olympics, for example about the concreting over and building work on Leyton Marshes, has been crushed, with protesters being given draconian bail conditions. The police will be setting up mobile police custody suites, away from the monitoring of Independent Custody Visitors. The changes to the way courts operated after the riots last summer, with all-night sittings and the production-line dispensation of extremely rough justice, are likely to be reinstated. The Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Bernard Hogan-Howe, has a vision of “total policing” by which he means using the massive powers at their disposal to intimidate, coerce and brutalise anyone the police judge to be a threat to the ideal Games, to which they are fully signed up.

And the nightmare for East End citizens doesn’t end with this fierce crackdown on civil liberties. The transport system in London is simply not up to dealing with the massive influx of millions the Olympics will bring. Journey times will lengthen considerably, and those with the misfortune to live near the cross-London route with priority VIP lanes will only be permitted to cross the road when the police allow them to. These VIP-only lanes will cause unconscionable delays to those needing to travel to hospital by non-emergency ambulance for treatment such as dialysis. The priority routes and general traffic chaos will be enormously disruptive for businesses, who will have to reschedule deliveries to the middle of the night, which will impact badly on local residents’ rest.  Some businesses have already been forced to relocate away from the East End and, given the very difficult economic climate, others will undoubtedly go under due to the additional tribulations imposed by the Olympics.

Those East-Enders who thought hosting the Olympics in their backyard might lead to substantial job creation in an area of high unemployment in the run-up to the Games have been sorely disappointed; the major contractors sub-contracted out to their usual support firms, bypassing locals. And similar disappointments have been in store for those who hoped that Olympic proximity, so disruptive of normal life during the building phase, might facilitate obtaining tickets for the events.  Corporate favouritism on behalf of sponsors and dignitaries combined with the high cost of tickets means that the local presence at the Games will be minute.

The final, enduring downside of the Olympics, not just for East-Enders but the entire population of the capital, will be their cost which London taxpayers will be bearing for decades to come. Already estimated at £11 billion by the Public Accounts Committee, with security costs having been wildly underestimated in the Olympic bid, which put total costs at £2.375 billion, the basic economic argument in favour of hosting the Games simply won’t wash. Based on the 13 Summer Olympics between Tokyo in 1964 and London this year, only one produced a net profit. That was Los Angeles, which had no infrastructure costs to speak of. The Winter Games show a similar pattern, when infrastructure projects and onerous security costs are taken into account.  The much-vaunted legacy of infrastructure, housing and sporting facilities for local people will prove a chimera. The Olympic Village has been sold to the Bahraini Government’s investment arm, in breach of original commitments to boosting social housing.  All the stadia will be owned and run for commercial gain not public good; attempts to sell the main stadium to a football company are already underway.  And parts of the infrastructure will end up, like the Millenium Dome, as costly white elephants.

The people who will be profiting from the 2012 Olympics are the commercial corporate sponsors with exclusive monopoly rights. McDonald’s is the only branded food that can be sold at the Games and Coca-Cola the only drinks provider. Local businesses face prosecution if they use Olympics branding. The worldwide TV audience offers a tremendous marketing opportunity for multinational sportswear companies, which is why Adidas has spent around £100 million to be the official sportswear partner of the London Olympics and sponsor of Team GB.  It is not simply the money that these firms make that is the attraction, it is the ability to associate their products and capitalist enterprise with the Olympian spirit and ideals that is priceless.

Despite the massive intrusion of the Games into the lives of East-Enders, there has been no national or even London-wide opposition. Such opposition as exists has arisen late in the day, in the main from East End groups campaigning on their individual issues, rather than on a collective front. There are a number of reasons for the lack of protest and resistance, unlike that voiced by the NO GAMES campaign in Vancouver in the run-up to the 2010 Winter Olympics, and the “Bread not Circuses” campaign that successfully kept Toronto out of the Olympics bid. The first is widespread acceptance of the big lie that the Olympics are about sport, which is pushed by the International Olympics Committee, LOCOG, national and local London politicians and media. There is a virtual suppression of any discussion about the real driver of the Games: corporate greed supported by state repression, excluding any consideration other than corporate needs.  The second is the absence of any powerful body with the clout to ensure widespread public debate on civil liberties abuses given that none of the mainstream political parties is willing to raise such issues, and that Liberty (the ineffectual successor to the once strong National Council for Civil Liberties) has not uttered a word about the impact of the Games on civil liberties. Finally, opposition has been left far too late. The recent call to boycott the Paralympic Games, because of the role of ATOS (the official IT partner of the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games) in depriving thousands of sick and disabled people of their benefits, will founder because there is simply not enough time to organise, given the resilience of the myths about what the Olympics stand for.

In these circumstances, tactical objectives in the short term (run-up to and duration of the London Olympics) are of necessity constrained. Campaigns are already underway to limit the misuse of anti-civil liberty powers, such as the one demanding that MOD abandons it plans to place surface-to-air missiles on rooftops. (See petition on The Newham Monitoring Project, an independent community-based anti-racist organisation set up in 1980, will be seeking to combat restrictions on movement and arbitrary arrests during the Olympic period, with trained legal observers circulating in the Olympic dispersal zone and a 24-hour emergency helpline (0800 169 3111). The “Our Olympics – Reclaim London 2012” group is planning a mass day of action on 28th July, the day after the Olympics open. Challenges are being mounted to the physical disruption of the Olympics – e.g.: by non-VIPs using the VIP lanes. And monitoring groups like Newham Monitoring Project, Fitwatch and the Campaign against Criminalising Communities continue gathering data so that challenges to the police can be made on hard evidence, not just anecdote.

So, what is to be done? Campaigning needs to begin now for the removal of the excessive restrictions and police powers after the Olympics are over. Contact needs to be made with civil liberties campaigners from previous Olympic Games seeking advice about how restrictions were fought and gains achieved, and what kind of rights “legacy” resulted out of the Games. And a wide-ranging debate needs to take place about establishing an effective British civil liberties forum that links local groups with a powerful overarching body given the current problematic absence of political or organisational leadership at national level.

As soon as the London Olympics are over, contact needs to be established with civil rights campaigners in Glasgow, 2014 host of the Commonwealth Games, in Sochi and Rio de Janeiro, hosts of the 2014 and 2016 Olympics, and Tokyo, Madrid and Instanbul, the three remaining bidders for the 2020 Summer Olympics. It is almost c

ertainly too late to halt the first three Games, but prior knowledge of the London experience may help them exercise more control over events than has been achieved here.  There are 15 months to go before the preferred bidder for 2020 is selected, which leaves time before the deal with the IOC is set in concrete to encourage a popular understanding and debate of what the Olympics, as experienced by local people and taxpayers, are really about and why, and whether the Games can ever be genuinely in the people’s interests.

Anti-capitalists can be helped by studying the Olympics. They demonstrate quite openly the nexus between corporate interest and the operations of repressive state institutions, a nexus that is not normally so blatantly on display in capitalism’s metropolitan heartland. They require action to protect civil liberties and the right to dissent, and provide a focus for campaigning against the corporate commercialisation of our lives and the exploitation of peoples and environments across the globe.





  1. James D
    June 12, 2012 at 11:17 pm · Reply

    This is an excellent and long overdue article. It’s not perhaps surprising that there’s been so little organised opposition to the Olympics so far, given that we’ve been bombarded by a barrage of pro-Olympics propaganda for the past seven years. Yes, seven. I suspect that when (not if) the supposed benefits fail to trickle down, there will be a lot of anger in East London. It’s an area already simmering with discontent, especially inner-city youth.

    Everyone needs to get behind the campaigns. A good start would be to challenge any Olympics enthusiasm you encounter from friends and colleagues. Many people are simply unaware of how saturated the games are with corporate capitalist domination. Many feel uneasy about the impact of the games but, given the propaganda onslaught, don’t feel confident enough to ‘come out’ as Olympics refuseniks.

    Most importantly, the demonstration against the surface-to-air missiles in East London on Saturday 30th May is vitally important. It should be a priority for all anti-capitalists not just in London, but across the country. As the article says, nowhere is the link between corporate domination and the militarisation of public space more explicit. It needs to be opposed.

  2. billj
    June 13, 2012 at 4:10 pm · Reply

    I hear what you’re saying James, but I don’t want to halt the games. I’m not against professrional sport and have always thought its strange that the left is.

  3. GrahamB
    June 14, 2012 at 8:26 pm · Reply

    Not about the article but whenever sport is mentioned I’m always reminded of this shocker from Chris Bambery, SWP 1996:

    With gems such as:

    “Most people prefer swimming in a warm sea to a chlorine saturated swimming pool. Interestingly, swimming in the sea is fun, because people indulge in play, rather than in trying to outdo each other. In contrast swimming pools are increasingly laned-off and extremely competitive, intimidating people who want a leisurely swim up and down and making it impossible for a family or a group of friends to play.

    Socialism will not be a society where 22 men still play football (far less where another 30,000 people will pay to watch them) or men and women crash up and down a swimming pool competing against each other and the clock. Physical recreation and play are about the enjoyment of one’s body, human company and the environment. Sport is not. It is about competing, doing better than the next person, being the best. It is about obeying arbitrary rules – an ideal preparation for the capitalist productive process.”

    Competition in sport and competition in the capitalist mode of production – not quite the same thing.

  4. James D
    June 14, 2012 at 8:29 pm · Reply

    I’m all in favour of sporting competitions, Bill. After all, the Second International organised the Workers’ Olympiad in Barcelona in 1936 in protest at the Nazi Berlin Olympics. However, I don’t think the London Olympics is just about sport, it’s about so much more than that – militarism, corporate theft, and the social cleansing of East London to name but three non-sporting objectives. Obviously there is a complex relationship between capitalism and sport. I don’t see any reason why sports fans can’t enjoy the athletics, and still protest at the things we all oppose as anti-capitalists.

    I have to say, though, that the enforced enthusiasm shoved down our throats over the past few years, with any criticism of the games and their impact ridiculed or silenced, has led me to feel slightly nauseous at the thought. But that’s just me.

  5. James D
    June 14, 2012 at 9:01 pm · Reply

    Historical corrective: The Barcelona Olympiad was organised by the Spanish Popular Front government. Not the Second International.

  6. billj
    June 15, 2012 at 10:09 am · Reply

    Well I’m going on holiday to somewhere without a telly, so my enthusiasm was strictly rhetorical!

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