The Olympic Games this year glimmer on London’s horizon, but the Games are more than a smiley-faced sportstopia. The cost of hosting the Olympics has skyrocketed while private funding has evaporated, leaving the British government holding the fiscal bag. Meanwhile, security officials have the green light to militarize the public sphere. The Games have become the pure-grade expression of celebration capitalism, the feelgood complement to Naomi Klein’s “disaster capitalism.”
Host cities routinely underestimate the costs and overstate the benefits of the Games. London is no exception. The city’s bid proclaimed: “Every sector of the economy will benefit from the staging of the Olympic Games.” Originally slated to cost about ￡2.4 billion (US$3.81 billion), Olympic costs had jumped to ￡9.3 billion by 2007. The UK’s National Audit Office noted that public sector funding has almost tripled, while private-sector contributions dwindled to less than 2 percent. Recently, the House of Commons’ public accounts committee revealed costs were “heading for about ￡11 billion.” Meanwhile, Olympics critic Julian Cheyne of Games Monitor calculates costs at ￡13 billion. A Sky Sports investigation included public-transport upgrade costs, catapulting the five-ring price tag to ￡24 billion.
The public-pays-private-bails theme crystalized in the construction of the Olympic village. Originally envisaged as a ￡1 billion centerpiece of London 2012’s urban regeneration plan, the village was to be financed by Australian developer Lend Lease. (The deal reeked of cronyism — David Higgins, the chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority until February last year, previously headed Lend Lease.) However, the 2008 economic collapse and credit crunch led private capital to abandon the project, leaving it to the British government. In spring 2009, Olympics honchos admitted the village would be “fully nationalized” — that is, paid for by taxpayers.
Olympics history is marked by the production of metropolitan jungles teeming with white elephants. London organizers were anxious not to add to the herd, so in August last year they sold the village at a taxpayer loss of ￡275 million to the Qatari ruling family’s property firm. Quizzically, British Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport Jeremy Hunt championed the transaction as a “fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games.” Such surreptitious subsidies are standard practice with Olympic-induced urban development. Host governments have the incentive to backstop projects to avoid embarrassment on the global stage, while private firms punt responsibility when the going gets tough.
Meanwhile, security officials are exploiting the Olympics as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to multiply and militarize their weapons stocks, laminating another layer on to the surveillance state. The Games justify a security architecture to prevent terrorism, but that architecture can double to suppress or intimidate acts of political dissent. The Olympic Charter actually prohibits political activism, stating, “no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” What “other areas” means is open to broad interpretation. So despite Olympics human-rights rhetoric, the charter dictates — if indirectly — that local authorities squelch political activism. On cue, London police recently vowed to scour social media to sniff out any organized protests or disruptions.