The recent, controversial decision to remove the Republic of China flag from public display in central London during the Olympic Games highlights the extent to which the sporting event has been hijacked by powerful groups. It took only a little pressure from the Chinese embassy to have the flag unceremoniously removed; imagine, then, the power that has been exerted by corporate sponsors on the Games?
The minimum-wage cleaners may be moving in to tidy up at the east London venue — the latest location in what has become a festival for the global super-rich — but the real legacy of this UK tax-payer-subsidized party will be a lasting hangover.
East London, an impoverished area of the capital, has long been overdue for economic investment. Yet, the area — which saw some of the worst rioting in the summer of 2010 — witnessed the demolition of much local housing, including a long-established Roma camp cleared to make way for the vast Olympic stadium. This was economic cleansing, not the much-needed economic revitalization that had been promised.
Of the widely-reported ￡11 billion (US$17.23 billion) that the cash-strapped UK tax-payer is shelling out, ￡284 million was paid to private security contractor G4S. The firm, which has recruited former members of parliament and lobbies within the UK political system, increased its management fees for the Olympic contract 12-fold and is now bidding for a lucrative ￡2 billion deal to run some of the UK’s over-crowded prisons.
One of the saddest images from the Games were the rows of empty seats during many events. It turns out that these belonged to corporate sponsors who only wanted to attend big-name competitions, like Usain Bolt’s 100m sprint. The Games’ organizers were forced to enlist the army to fill many of the empty places, all while local people — the “little people” — were forced to line up and pay for those few tickets that were available to the public.
As if seeing the logos of fast food giants McDonald’s and Coca Cola endorsing a major sporting event were not maddening enough, the Games’ “partner organizations,” including those corporations, were granted temporary exemptions from both UK corporate tax and UK income tax — a deal reported to be worth more than ￡600 million. Only a successful last-minute, Web-wide campaign forced some of the corporations to decline the UK government sweetener.
Among those taking a prime seat within the giant sports complex were members of the British royal family, and we were invited to rejoice in their name during the Games’ opening ceremony. It is interesting to note that 50 percent of Team Britain’s gold medalists at the 2008 Beijing Olympics were privately educated, while only 7 percent of the country’s population goes to a private school. No doubt Princes William and Harry, who both attended the elite Eton College, would have remembered the fantastic sporting facilities they had access to. Meanwhile, in the east end of London, much of the treasured Hackney Marshes — where locals had played for centuries — was turned into Olympics-related infrastructure and temporary parking.
It is possible to view the Olympics as a fantastic mass event that celebrates sport, competition, teamwork and achievement. However, like the bright lights that illuminate the Olympic Park, the inequalities that the London event helped to perpetuate are blinding.