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Protest Olympics

The other games


JOHN J MACALOON is associate dean, Social Sciences, University of Chicago. He holds the Olympic Order, the IOC's highest honour for contributions to the Olympic Movement

In the final run-up to an Olympic Games, much anticipation is also focused on the Games' characteristic social and political dramas, not just on the sports events shortly to unfold. Never has this been more the case than with London 2012.

At a number of Olympics, this drama has centered on some aggrieved minority groups in host countries contesting the Olympic project, as many Uighur and Tibetans did with Beijing 2008. Sometimes, regional politics hold centrestage. In Barcelona 1992, the issue was the separatist politics of those for whom the Games were a Catalan not Spanish Olympics. For Athens 2004, Greece's place in the European Community was a dominant (and prophetic) theme. During the Cold War, geopolitics played a big role, and the possibility of last-minute boycotts provided for much theatrics before Moscow, Los Angeles, and Seoul.

And, of course, at every Olympics, the host city's population builds up to its own final verdict as to whether the years of urban disruption were worth it;of whether the permanent municipal improvements from the Games were worth the expense. In fact, no Olympic urban renewal project has been more extensive than the Olympic transformation of London's East End, which was persuasively presented to the IOC as a massive social project that looked to better integrate both immigrant and working class populations through the medium of sport.

The active presence of then British prime minister Tony Blair was important in convincing IOC members at their 2005 Singapore Session. But, as Olympic insiders know, the chief of the candidacy, Sebastian Coe, was still more influential in securing those IOC votes that helped London triumph over Paris.


As a distinguished champion in the quintessential Olympic sport of athletics, Sebastian Coe had a special cachet with the greatly increased number of IOC members, many of whom are themselves Olympians. For the 'active athlete' voting members in Singapore, Coe had the status of a veritable godfather. Former IOC president Juan Samaranch had entrusted him with the task of bringing a sceptical IOC around to the wisdom of establishing an IOC Athletes Commission at the Baden-Baden Olympic Congress in 1981. All subsequent empowerments of active athletes in the IOC can be traced directly back to Coe's successful leadership in Baden-Baden. In Singapore, these voters paid him back handsomely.

The prospect of having the Olympic brand forever placed on the transformation of the most polluted, blighted, and crime-ridden section of one of the world's great cities was also alluring to many IOC voters. Here, too, Coe was an extraordinarily effective spokesman, claiming to have originated himself in East London and now standing before the IOC with his knighthood and parliamentarian chops, attributing it all to sport. Surrounded by multi-cultural and multi-racial youth from London's East End, he evocatively pleaded with the IOC to let sport bestow similar benefits on these impoverished youth of today.

Experts will be debating for some years to come just how thoroughly London 2012 has delivered on its promises of social as well as urban redevelopment in the neighborhoods surrounding Olympic Park, as well as on other initiatives. But the context of the London 2012 project did radically change in the years after Singapore. That project unfolded during a worldwide recession and what many now see as a crisis of global neo-liberalism. England's Labour government gave way to David Cameron's conservative coalition, and Britain undertook austerity policies. These have hit hardest the communities to whom the London 2012 candidacy tried to especially address itself.

The results have been nearly unprecedented for an Olympic host city. A little more than one year out from the Games, London saw largescale urban rioting among these same targeted populations in protest over general economic conditions and particular austerity policies. At every Olympic Games, there are strong local voices arguing against the use of scarce public funds for "one-off" sports festivals and "white elephant" facilities tailored to elites. The chorus of such voices has perhaps never been greater than it is now in London.


Moreover, that challenge has taken on a new international complexion with the rise of the transnational "Occupy" movement that has generated an entirely new vocabulary of protest among the "have-nots" attacking the new concentrations of wealth and power among the "haves" in recessionary times. The Olympic Games return to Europe just as Europe itself seems to be teetering on the edge of fiscal crisis. Will international protesters replace the Christian evangelicals of recent Games as the loudest, most organised group of non-sporting visitors flooding into the host city? Will the traditional inoculation of the Olympic Games against political disruption in the host city's streets and parks hold true in London?

The British government has already announced measures, such as restrictions on public camping, clearly aimed at the distinctive style of the Occupy protests. But the acephalous nature of the movement makes it difficult for security agencies to combat it.

The almost ludic style of Occupy demonstrations and performances are quite congruent with the generally festive atmosphere in an Olympic host city (setting Beijing aside), and it will be hard for political leaders to turn the general public against such demonstrators for "spoiling the fun".

Indeed, one can imagine that "Occupy the Olympics" cadres will feel right at home in the Olympic "live sites", where crowds of unticketed fans, tourists, and locals gather in parks to watch the events on giant video boards while festively cavorting. If so, these London Games may provide an outpouring of public political conversation unseen since Montreal 1976. Indeed, for some, that is what the Olympics are supposed to be about: sport as a means to the end of intercultural communication. Do the political authorities really want to try to interfere with this?

Will "Occupy the Olympics" permanently mark London 2012 in historical memory, or will this movement to rebrand the Olympic Games as an icon of neoliberal capitalism fizzle in the encompassing pleasures of festive sport and international dêtente ? This is the new drama whose denouement we await in July and August.

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