Monday, June 25, 2012

Demonstrate Against The Corporate Olympics


COUNTER OLYMPICS NETWORK
PRESS RELEASE

WHOSE GAMES? WHOSE CITY?

CRITICS OF LONDON OLYMPICS ANNOUNCE LARGE SCALE EVENT TO COINCIDE WITH FIRST SATURDAY OF GAMES

The Counter Olympics Network (CON)[1] announces a march and rally in London’s East End on Saturday 28 July, assembling in Mile End Park (near Mile End tube station) at 12 noon, and marching to Victoria Park for a family friendly People’s Games for All which will include speeches, entertainment, “alternative games”, and children’s events.

Already more than 30 organisations officially support the event, with more coming on board all the time[2]. They include anti corporate campaigns, civil liberties groups, local trades councils, green groups, anti militarists, community groups, other anti Olympics campaigns, disability activists, and others. It will be an event which symbolically “reclaims” the Games, a party to which everyone is invited. It will present a truer and more optimistic vision of Britain than the officially promoted one of a militarised and austerity ridden country that is content to be hijacked by millionaire politicians and their corporate friends[3].

The Counter Olympics Network links people and organisations critical of some or many aspects of the 2012 Games. Issues of concern include:
– the corporate takeover of the Games (with sponsors that profit from sweatshops, poison local people, pollute the planet, and so much more);
– the eviction of local people from their homes and businesses to make way for the Olympic sites, and prioritising the interests of global corporations at the expense of small businesses;
– the privatisation of public space;
– the introduction of repressive policing and surveillance in conjunction with the Games, and the use of the Games to promote acceptance of the militarisation of society (in particular – siting missile launchers on domestic roofs in East London, employing 42,000 private security staff on top of the vast police and military presence, increasing stop and search powers which target and alienate local young people, placing warships on the Thames and at Weymouth, and introducing preventive detention and ASBOs to intimidate peaceful anti-Olympics protesters);
– the threat to both the lives and livelihoods of Londoners caused by the VIP Lanes for dignitaries on London roads;
– the encouragement of nationalism, in contradiction to the supposed spirit of the Olympics;
– the sanctioning of gender apartheid in Olympic teams;
– the “body fascism” mentality in elite sport;
– the hypocrisy of a Paralympics sponsor, ATOS, which is also responsible for wrongly removing welfare payments from tens of thousands of people with disabilities;
– the multi-billion-pound expenditure, much of it on temporary facilities, and most of it unnecessary at a time of supposed austerity.


CON helps to provide a co-ordinated voice for a wide range of groups which share the desire to provide a counterbalance to the overblown mainstream pro Olympics propaganda. CON is also concerned that the Orwellian security apparatus and regressive legislation put in place to protect brands, privilege, and privatised public space won’t all disappear after the Games.
CON supporter Julian Cheyne said today, “The 2012 Olympics have turned into a corporate festival of world security, consuming billions of our money to increase private profits, while the elderly, disabled, sick, unemployed, young people and other groups are punished for a crisis caused by the finance industry. To stand by silently would imply we consent to this; and we do not. If you are as fed up with all of this as we are, come and join our Counter Olympics gathering on 28th July.”

NOTES:
1) For further background on the Counter Olympics Network, see http://counterolympicsnetwork.wordpress.com.
2) The current list of (35) groups and organisations supporting the event is:
ALARM
Athletes Against Dow Chemical’s Olympic Sponsorship
BADHOC
Blacklist Support Group
Brent Trades Council
Coalition of Resistance
Counterfire
Defend the Right to Protest
Disabled People Against Cuts
Drop Dow Now
East London Against Arms Fairs
G4S Campaign
Games Monitor
Hackney Green Party
Hackney Trades Council
Hackney Woodcraft Folk
Haldane Society of Socialist Lawyers
Haringey Trades Council
Islington Trades Council
Jewish Socialist Group
Lewisham People Before Profit
Lewisham Stop the War
Lewisham Trades Council
London Green Party
London Mining Network
Netpol
Occupy London
Our Olympics
Save Leyton Marsh Campaign
Space Hijackers
Stop the Olympic Missiles
Thurrock Heckler
UK Tar Sands Network
Waltham Forest Trades Council
Youth Fight For Jobs

3) Some of the major corporations behind the Olympics, whose activities CON supporters oppose, are BP, DOW Chemicals, McDonald’s, Cadburys, ATOS, Coca Cola, G4S, EDF, and Rio Tinto. See the official London 2012 website (http://www.london2012.com/about-us/the-people-delivering-the-games/olympic-partners) for a full list of official Olympic sponsors. See also the article “London 2012 Olympics’ shameful corporate sponsors” on the website of Games Monitor, a prominent CON supporter (http://www.gamesmonitor.org.uk/node/1609).
4) For press enquiries, contact Julian Cheyne (by phone on 020-3560 4064 or 07988 401216, or by e-mail on juliancheyne@yahoo.co.uk) who can also put journalists in touch with experts on many of the specific issues of concern. Note that he is not usually available in the mornings but messages can be left on the landline or by email.
5) Besides the main CON website (http://counterolympicsnetwork.wordpress.com), there is also:
CON’s Facebook presence (https://www.facebook.com/pages/Counter-Olympics-Network/392140590828714);
and a Facebook page for the 28 July event (https://www.facebook.com/events/291553350941427).
You can follow CON on Twitter (@counterolympics);
and also share news about the 28 July event on Twitter (#ProtestJuly28).

No limos! No logos! No launchers

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Why It's Kicking Off At The Tennis

The trouble with blogging about sport this summer is the sheer number of events you can cover. No sooner have you got your head around the Olympics than the athletics trials take place, when you’ve watched the cricket the football starts… So it’s catch up time on Inside Left as we revisit David Nalbandian kicking out at – and then being kicked out of – the final of the Aegon Championships tournament at Queen’s Club.

Nabandian, a set up against Marin Cilic, stretched to reach a ball out wide and hit a forehand return that landed a good distance beyond the baseline. In his frustration he lashed out, kicking a small advertising hoarding. What is a fairly commonplace occurrence was transformed into controversy by the presence of a line judge sat immediately behind the board, which crashed into his shin at point blank range leaving a nasty gash. Nalbandian quickly apologised to the judge, who in an almost Masonic gesture, rolled up his trouser leg and pointed at blood heading down to his sock. It was a scene more centre stage at a West End farce than Centre Court at the premier Wimbledon warm up. Nevertheless Nalbandian was disqualified and the match came to a premature end.

Almost immediately Nalbandian was grabbed by the BBC to be interrogated by Sue Barker, who seemed intent on playing the role of moral arbiter demanding that the Argentine present a mea culpa to the disappointed crowd. What she got was something quite different. Nalbandian’s acknowledgement that rules had been broken was accompanied by a stinging rebuke of the tennis establishment, the ATP, players’ schedules and the quality of playing surfaces.

Nalbandian certainly had the air of a man intent on getting his retaliation in first. But he reminded me of that person you work with who, having been caught breaking some rule or other, figures they have nothing to lose and gives their boss both barrels. With months or years of pent up frustration bubbling away under the surface the pressures of the ATP tour burst out with righteous indignation.

And he has a point. There are more than 60 ATP tournaments this year, not to mention the four Grand Slam events, the Davis Cup and the Olympics as well. Players are under huge pressure to compete to earn ranking points and to fulfil the wishes of the sponsors who pay a pretty penny to associate themselves with the game. At the start of the year 140 players got together to discuss a boycott of the Australian Open in protest against what Andy Roddick called the “insanity” of the tour. The Australian former world number one is contractually obliged to appear at the Slams, most of the Masters series and a whole host of smaller events.

"U2 doesn't ask to go on tour,” said Roddick. “They go on tour. So I think that's kind of the fundamental issue at hand." Tennis players, like so many other sportspeople, are governed by rules and organisations whose primary purpose is the delivery of a sporting product. The players have little if any control over the game when compared to corporate sponsors and television execs. The financial rewards may be extortionate but the effect is that players are treated like machines, their bodies broken by the constant stress and exertion. As the BBC’s Jonathan Overend has said, The time has come for tough negotiations and hard decisions for the long-term health of the sport. That's not to mention the leading players who, let's face it, are the ones who do the most to sell the sport to the world.”

Is there no other way of structuring the tennis calendar? Do the players have to be run into the ground for the sake of profit? Is it really necessary to fence in officials with advertising? Is the ATP really so hard up for cash that they need to create corporate boxes for individual line judges? And when you look at these issues is it any wonder that the crowd at Queen’s Club were so sympathetic to David Nalbandian?

Thursday, June 21, 2012

What Makes The Olympics So Popular?

The sporting event that attracted the largest-ever global television audience didn’t actually have any sport in it. The opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games attracted between one and four billion viewers depending on whose figures you want to believe. Estimates suggest 4.7 billion people (70% of the world’s population) watched some part of the Games over the course of its two-week duration.  It has become something of a cliché to talk of the Olympics as a ‘mega-event’, but such statistics would suggest that it would be more accurate to describe it as the mega-event.

All of which begs the question: why are the Olympics so popular? If we judge the Olympics by sporting criteria alone then really it has no right to be such a huge event. If you look at the sports that regularly figure in the top ten highest viewing figures for a sporting event then there are few if any surprises: football, American football, baseball, athletics, Formula 1, and occasionally rugby and cricket. Of these only two, football and athletics, feature in the Olympics and even then the (men’s) football competition is much derided as the poor relation when compared to the World Cup or Champions League

There is a school of thought that answers the question by pointing towards the wide diversity of sports on offer at the Games. So, for those of us here in the UK who are fed a staple diet of football, rugby and cricket this is our one chance to witness the joys of minority sports. There may well be some truth to this. As a sports-addicted child I can remember being thoroughly captivated by the sight of Turkish weightlifting legend Naim Süleymanoğlu. Yet I simply do not believe that this alone can explain the phenomenal status of the Games. As someone said to me recently, “The thing about the Olympics is that most of the events are shit.” Now, while I might have worded it slightly differently, you can see what he’s driving at. The prospect of our quadrennial dose of canoeing, table tennis and rhythmic gymnastics simply cannot explain those 4.7 billion viewers.

Obviously these sports remain on the very margins of public interest for a whole host of reasons, not least because broadcasters don’t see any demand for them (ie profit in them). I’m sure that if Rupert Murdoch thought he could make money out of skeet shooting you’d see every Sky Sports presenter waving a gun around on air to advertise the “Super Sunday Shootout”. But recognising the insidious role of multinational media corporations allows us only to see why some sports may not be as popular as others – not why the Olympics are so popular. And it certainly doesn’t solve the “Usain Bolt Paradox”.

Athletics is not a marginal sport and, having discounted football, it is the only sport to both regularly appear in the most watched list and feature at the Olympics. As such it is the ideal choice to illustrate the draw of the Games. The undisputed blue ribbon event at both the Olympics and the IAAF’s World Championship is the men’s 100m. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt won Olympic gold in 2008, and then added the World title in 2009. In each race he set a new world record. According to the people at initiative, sports futures a total of 390 million people watched Bolt in Beijing, while only 93 million watched his race in Berlin the following year. On purely sporting criteria I would argue that the figures should be reversed. Bolt was an established global superstar in 2009, it was clear that he was going to launch an assault on the world record (he slashed a tenth off it – the largest reduction since electronic timing was introduced), and the return of American sprinter Tyson Gay meant that the field was of a higher quality and more competitive than the Olympics final. Still the audience was only a quarter of the 2008 Games. If the answer to the Usain Bolt Paradox is not to be found in sport, where does it lie?

With some justification you can point to three areas – outside of sport – which help to make the Olympics the mega-event we see today: its history; advertising; and nationalism.

With its appeals to the past glories of classical civilization, and its own role in notable moments of more recent history (given the IOC’s constant attempts to proclaim the Games above politics it is somewhat ironic that many of those famous moments have been deeply political) the Olympics do indeed have a fairly unique past. And it certainly helps that each Olympiad is accompanied by wall-to-wall coverage, as newspapers fill column inches and corporations emblazon their products with those famous five rings. The IOC and the sponsors who make up the The Olympic Programme are notoriously secretive about the cost of sponsorship, but it is safe to assume each company is paying in the region of $100m for their exclusive worldwide rights. Whatever the actual figure is, it is certainly large enough for the IOC to require bespoke legislation from the Olympic hosts. The effect is that I can open my fridge and find three separate items proclaiming to be the official something-or-other of the Olympic Games.

Inevitably nationalism continues to play a large part in the appeal of the Games. This guy admits to having no knowledge of niche sports but is quite happy to accept a gold, silver or bronze if it moves ‘his’ country up the medal table. And this much to the chagrin of the IOC who stipulate in the Olympic Charter that the “Olympic Games are competitions between athletes in individual or team events and not between countries” (Chapter 1, Section 6). The staging of the Olympics is an ideal opportunity for our rulers to reinforce their ideology of ‘the national interest’, rather than the interests of (our) class – especially at a time when we are (yawn) “all in this together”. And of course it gives David Cameron the chance to blather on in quite staggeringly unoriginal fashion about putting the ‘Great’ back into Great Britain.

But do any of these factors demarcate the Olympics from other global sporting events? Are they entirely unique to the Games? Can we really say that the FIFA World Cup is devoid of history, advertising and nationalism? I think not, although you may argue that there are questions of degree at stake. What raises the Olympics above other sporting events is, I think, the fact that it positions itself as something more than a mere sporting event. Baron Pierre de Coubertin imbued a set of values into his renovated Games, considering them as an attempt to foster understanding and respect between people of different countries:

“the revived Olympic Games must give the youth of all the world a chance of a happy and brotherly encounter, which will gradually efface the people’s ignorance of things which concern them all, an ignorance which feeds hatreds, accumulates misunderstandings and hurtles events along a barbarous path towards a merciless conflict.”
Coubertin’s outlook has been characterised as “idealistic internationalism” by the historian John Hoberman (in this excellent and highly recommended essay). Unlike the internationalism of the socialist movement, which sought the abolition of national boundaries, Coubertin’s was essentially a right wing internationalism based on the continued existence of nation states. In this he saw no problem or contradiction – even as the Nazis marched the Olympic Torch across Europe.

At the heart of the Olympics is the same tension that can be found in Coubertin’s thought: it simultaneously holds the promise of a better world and yet does nothing to challenge the status quo. This idealistic internationalism is fundamentally flawed, and the gap between reality and rhetoric is all too apparent in the Olympic Games, but the lofty ideals have a resonance with people across the world. Amidst the ravages of war, poverty and bigotry the Olympics allow people to feel part of something larger, something more meaningful, something better. This is the mystique described by John Carlos in his autobiography, and the reason so many athletes talk so enthusiastically of their experiences in the Olympic village. The power of the Olympics, and what makes it qualitatively different from other sporting events, has less to do with sport and so much more to do with its message of solidarity, community, and shared humanity. Its tragedy is that it is destined to deliver so little.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Marxism, Play and Sport

This was originally written for David Renton's blog, lives; running, and appeared under the title, "Why people love sport and why people hate sport: sport as the alienation of play". It is an attempt to analyse the relationship between play and sport, whilst recognising that any such endeavour is immediately faced with the problem of defining 'play'. This is something rarely touched upon by Marxist writers - a quick google search of "marxist theory of play" will return just seven results.

While I certainly would not claim that this piece - a mere 1500 words - represents a theory of play, I would hope that it does mark a step in the right direction. It is part of a much longer, more detailed article that I have been working on for some time and which should, with any luck, be published later this year or early next. I post this precis of my work here because over the coming months I will revisit the themes and issues it raises. Any comments, thoughts or observations are most welcome.

I once took a friend, a confirmed sports sceptic, to a game of rugby. As we watched two front row forwards, a combined forty stone of muscle, sweat and intent, collide with unnerving force he turned to me and said, “I don’t know what these guys are doing, but it certainly isn’t playing.” In a summer full-to-bursting with sporting contests – the Olympics, the Euros, Wimbledon, the test series – we’ll hear countless commentators talk of players, playing and plays in sports. But what is the relationship between sport and play?

Answers to the question have historically fallen into one of two camps. The first, exemplified by the liberal-idealist Allen Guttmann, sees sports as being a distinct subset of play, marked by its physicality, its competitiveness and its rules. In short, it argues that while not all play can be considered sport, all sport is necessarily play. The second argument, and one that characterises much of what passes for sports theory on the left, is the complete rejection of a link between play and sport. This is typified by the work of Jean-Marie Brohm whose book Sport - A Prison of Measured Time is held in far greater esteem than it deserves. In it he makes the point that “a child who practices sport is no longer playing but is taking his place in a world of serious matters”.

The problem facing such writers is that their theory of play is so lacklustre – or in Brohm’s case, entirely absent - that the attempts to analyse the nature of sport inevitably fail. Instead of theorising play in any meaningful way they are reduced to listing a set of characteristics that are used to describe, rather than define, play. These characteristics include spontaneity, a certain sense of freedom, fun, a separation from everyday life and make-believe, although this is by no means an exhaustive list. In the absence of a working definition nearly all the serious writers on the topic fall back on the same four words: play is not work. Or to give it a sophisticated feel, they talk of play as being a non-productive or non-utilitarian activity. And when they’re feeling particularly wordy, they describe play as being autotelic, i.e. it is an activity performed for its own sake.

This commonsense dichotomy between work and play might seem to be a fair approximation to reality but it is fraught with problems, and it is possible to arrive at a far more satisfying and insightful definition of play by using Marxist concepts. I would argue that play is the unalienated, simultaneous production and consumption of use value. I’m aware that such a phrase is not only horribly unwieldy but also requires a fair amount of ‘unpacking’.

By defining play as a use value we recognise it as fulfilling a human need. As Trotsky notes in The Problems of Everyday Life, “The longing for amusement, diversion and fun is the most legitimate desire of human nature.”  Whether this need for play is an innate biological drive or socially and historically conditioned is unimportant, the fact is that the want for pleasure and excitement exists. That this creative drive should manifest itself in so many forms is an indicator of humanity’s ingenuity and inventiveness. It is, therefore, possible to see how play is the creation of use value. As Marx outlines:

“Whoever directly satisfies his wants with the produce of his own labour, creates, indeed, use values, but not commodities. In order to produce the latter, he must not only produce use values, but use values for others, social use values.”

By stating that play is an unalienated activity one is able to both incorporate and transcend the quality of freedom that writers identify. But rather than limiting the question of freedom to whether one chooses to play or not, it encompasses the freedom of the players to create and control their play environment. Either individually or collectively people choose how they play; there are no structures delimiting play’s potentiality, nor are managers and supervisors issuing instructions as to the players’ conduct. Furthermore the separation of producer from product, a key feature of alienation, is missing as play belongs immediately and irrevocably to the players.

In similar fashion the notion of the simultaneous production and consumption of use values allows us to overcome the limitations of the autotelic model. Play is still seen as an end in itself, but this definition allows one to avoid being caught in the theoretical trap of the players’ intentions. Equally it renders as redundant the notion that play is an essentially non-instrumental activity. Instead play differentiates itself from other spheres of human activity not so much through what is (or is not) produced but in the way it is consumed. Here the very act of production is the act of consumption. In a dialectical sense they occupy the same moment. Labour produces use values that may be consumed at some indeterminate point in the future but in play production and consumption occur simultaneously. The very act of playing is the satisfaction of the need to play.

How then does this relate to sport? The key to our understanding is, as Richard Gruneau has written, the fact that “the structuring of sport has become increasingly systematised, formalised, and removed from the direct control of the individual players.” Governing bodies exercise control over sports across the globe setting rules and issuing directives. In sport the players are not free to participate, instead they are faced with a series of gatekeepers – managers, coaches, selectors. Some of these people then exercise control over the way in which players play. Tactics are prescribed and, of course, plans and set pieces are part and parcel of the contemporary sporting world. You could easily argue that they predominate. Nowhere is this clearer than in the use of the word ‘play’ in the American version of football. Here a verb suggestive of spontaneity is transformed into a noun denoting a preordained manoeuvre.

At the heart of sport is a constant tension between play and competition. As the importance of the contest – and the financial stakes involved – increases so playfulness gives way to “playing the percentages”, “playing it safe” and “stopping the other team from playing”. But it would be wrong, I think, to say that there is no element of play apparent in sports. When commentators talk of an inspired move or a piece of ingenuity, it is the case that the ludic is reasserting itself in the face of the demands of competition. It should come as no surprise that those sportspeople who acquire iconic status (Best, Botham, Ali) are the ones who look as though they are genuinely ‘playing’ even in the most serious and competitive situation. The nature of the sporting contest, with its unfolding drama and the need for instantaneous individual and collective decision-making, means that individuality and personality can never be wholly removed from a game. It is possible for the quarterback to change the play.

The world of professional sports is not best understood as existing in the realm of pure play, or as its negation. If we use Marx’s criteria and look at “the relation of labour to the act of production in the labour process” then professional sports are the alienation of play.

Equally the use values produced by those playing sports no longer belong to them. Play is now mediated through the prism of capitalist relations reconfigured as a spectacle, and in turn, placed on the market as a commodity. In professional sports use values do not present as the fulfilment of the need of the player, but as the satisfaction of the demands of capital, where spectators are the consumers of a product. The sporting spectacle is no longer the by-product of play; it is the product, deliberately cultivated, and it is now play which is incidental. As Gideon Haigh laments of one sport, “cricket must be sold in order to be played.”

As ‘work’ is the contemporary manifestation of labour, so sport is a historically conditioned form of play. We may still point to its physicality, its competitive nature and the development of physical and intellectual skills as important characteristics, but when defining its relationship to play these alone are insufficient. Instead professional sport is commodified, alienated play. We may, perhaps, be so bold as to re-write the famous aphorism of Marx and say, “Players play, but not in the conditions of their own choosing”.

This isn’t simply an academic exercise, nor is it an exercise in self-justification, as we lefties attempt to excuse our guilty passion for competitive sport. The more we can understand the link between play and sport the more we safeguard against writing sports fans off as mere dupes in front of capitalist ideology and the better fitted we are to orientate ourselves on sport’s struggles and contradictions, whether they take place on the pitch, in the stands, or – inevitably – in the boardroom.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Myth of Olympic Legacy

Neo-liberal economic orthodoxy holds that governments are powerless to spend their way out of the current crisis, instead austerity and cutbacks are the watchwords for reaching prosperity. Indeed they go so far as to state that any policy that smacks of the mildest Keynesianism is not only misguided but would exacerbate the problems of recession, pushing the country further down the spiral of debt, despair and dependency. It would be fair to say that this mantra is heard with such sickening regularity from ConDem ministers that it is now more regurgitated than repeated. They have come to talk of Keynes in much the same way as the more blasé economists once talked of global depression: as a historical curiosity one can safely leave confined to the 1930s. To put it bluntly, government spending is bad.

That is until one mentions the Olympics. This is the single area of expenditure that is not simply tolerated but positively enthused over. The costs of London 2012 have rocketed to £11 billion since the initial bid was tabled, yet assurances are made almost daily that the dividends of the Games will far outweigh any prior budgetary concerns. This summer’s festival of sport brings with it the promise of inward investment, of job creation, of increased tourism and regeneration. In other words, the Olympics will act as a Keynesian style stimulus for economic growth. Other than acknowledging the pathological hypocrisy common to so many politicians, how do we explain the doublethink at the heart of the government’s policy?

The answer lies in the reality of staging the Olympics. The Games have become the justification for, and the means by which, a raft of governmental policies are aggressively pursued. Prime real estate is sold to corporations, areas of London have become experiments in social cleansing, civil liberties and the right to protest have come increasingly under attack, and Londoners are subjected to untold disruption to ensure the safe and speedy passage of the corporate hospitality crowd. When one combines the vast costs with the appalling social impact of hosting the Olympics then a picture is painted with which even the most ardent sports fan would find disagreement.

In order to validate their decision to host the Games, governments in each host nation have developed a narrative of legacy. It is the spoonful of sugar to help the mega-event medicine go down. And the promise of urban renewal is a potent argument in the face of anti-Olympic opposition, especially when one considers how little investment some areas of London have received over the last decades. Local people may be sceptical, but they desperately want what the legacy is said to offer. It would be a powerful case for hosting the Olympics if there were any truth to it. History, however, tells quite the different story.

The first thing to note is that the Games invariably overrun their budget. The overspend on the Athens Olympics was around 1000%. Montreal only finished paying off their host-city debt in 2006 – thirty years after they staged the Games. Invariably Olympic boosters point to those Games that recorded an operational profit – such as Barcelona in 1992 – in support of their argument. However scrutiny of these figures reveals an economic sleight of hand worthy of Arthur Andersen or Enron. Capital investment (improvements to a host city’s infrastructure, such as roads, tube lines etc) is excluded from the balance sheet. Since, in the case of Barcelona, this figure is in excess of $9 billion, its omission has a dramatic and decidedly misleading effect. Invariably these massive costs of capital investment are the responsibility of the public purse; operational profits end up in the hands of the IOC or big business.

Likewise the other much-lauded elements of legacy have proven to be little more than white elephants. Helen Lenskyj eloquently details the effects of hosting the Games on the poorest communities here. Venues in successive host cities have been left unoccupied and derelict, with Olympic buildings in Athens used to house the growing numbers of homeless people as economic folly and economic crisis collide in a moment of historical irony and immense human suffering. Studies have shown that the number of tourists travelling to New South Wales actually fell in the years following the Sydney Olympics. For every positive claim made of the Olympic legacy, critics can point to a plethora of deleterious effects.

The London 2012 Olympics now seem to be following this familiar formula. Even Boris Johnson has been forced to admit that there is no “legacy masterplan”. The Olympic stadium is still to find a permanent resident. The promised jobs have turned out, in the main, to be temporary and short-term. The investment has come at the expense of local residents and public spaces. The chances of the Games ‘inspiring a generation’ are looking increasingly unlikely according to the Public Affairs Committee. At the same time the salaries of LOCOG officials show the virtues of adhering to Olympism. LOCOG chief Paul Deighton is being paid £800,000 a year, while Seb Coe collects £350,000. Another 16 LOCOG staff are paid more than £150,000 each.

As the mask of good intent slips away, so the economic rationale of the Olympic Games reveals itself to be little more than good old-fashioned ‘trickle-down’ theory. Mammoth government expenditure is merely the reallocation of public money, which might otherwise have been used for schools and hospitals, to facilitate the Olympic corporate bonanza. While the mass of people are left thankful for the few crumbs that have fallen from the top table so the IOC and big business grow fat on their very own legacy of riches.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Higher, Faster, Stronger - A Critical Analysis of the Olympics

My article on the history and politics of the Olympic Games published in the Irish Marxist Review, which you can read in full here: 
For two weeks this summer London will play host to the Olympic Games. Against a backdrop of austerity-driven public spending cuts, thousands of athletes from more than two hundred countries will contest 26 events, competing “in the true spirit of sportsmanship, for the glory of sport and the honour of our teams”. Awash with brands and corporate logos the Olympics have become the quintessential mega-event; a global, neo-liberal, five-ring circus. Those five rings of the Olympic symbol adorn everything from soft drinks cans to aircraft, the product of billion dollar sponsorship deals. To ‘protect’ the games the UK government is deploying 13,500 troops, locating surface to air missiles on the rooftops of residential housing, and stationing the warship HMS Ocean on the River Thames. London can expect a "sporting jamboree of militarized corporate banality".
A huge thank you to all those who offered suggestions, sent links and recommended books and articles! 


Saturday, June 9, 2012

Cricket on TV - The Machine is Human

Guest post by Joe Ruffell

One would imagine that if once an image could had summed up the the game of cricket it would had been similar to one of those tacky watercolours of village cricket grounds. A little piece of land surrounded by the countryside, taped off but within the distinctly ideological world of the English pastoral aesthetic. Rolling hills in the background et al. Nowadays, it is that great establishing shot of the modern televised game. The long shot, filmed from the stand behind the bowlers arm, as beautifully framed as an Angelopoulos zoom shot. Full of green, white lines, the umpire’s back, the batsman fidgeting and shuffling preparing to play. This is the set up, the contest, no doubt ever present in the sport but foregrounded by the very nature of the televised spectacle. Subtlety and guile, still present in spin and swing bowling, have taken a backseat as fifty over and especially twenty over cricket, shorter games and bigger hitting, made the game a billion dollar concern. Can the bowler blow away the batsman stumps? Can the batsman avoid the ball hurtling down the gauntlet and strike a blow of his own across the boundary rope?

The shot continues: if the batsman makes good contact, a frenzied wobble, pan or zoom to catch up with the ball. This one uninterrupted piece of television forms, save some running between the wickets perhaps, 90% of the action. It is the heart of the televised cricket match. But as in Eisenstein so at Edgbaston. The context that the this one shot appears in actually furnishes the action with meaning. So we get the ball rolling over the rope in close up (the batsmans success) or the reverse shot from the other end of the scowling bowler celebrating a dot ball (his small victory over the batsman). We may have a side on slow motion of the pitch, the helpless player facing down aggressive short pitched neck high bowling. The slip fielders glancing at each other - agony and ecstasy by the split second in ultra slow motion. The crowd from three different perspectives cheering, baying, dressed daftly. And now the first establishing shot again, this time in slo mo to remind us of what he saw in the context of those edits. The montage makes the spectacle.

In his essay The Smash of Rage, mourning the brutality of modern tennis, the great French film critic Serge Daney noted how televised coverage with modern techniques had changed the sport:


"Elegance has therefore disappeared as the TV spectator's eye expected something else from tennis. All this …. deepened the scenography of tennis with a new dimension: that of the close up after the rally, of the disarticulated replay, of the stroboscopic ordinariness of the slow motion, of the microphone at court level. The number of events per second inflated with all the affects, tics, drives and silent rages that a body is capable of.

Since it was no longer a question to suppress the aggressiveness in tennis, and since it was no longer enough to simply observe it on the image, it was about defining the vocabulary of its gestures, a visual vocabulary. … the young ones of the eighties who, despite their gifts, did not all have the famous killer instinct, felt "obliged" to manufacture gestures that everybody could see, inelegant but "human" gestures, where one could read their sadness of never being enough of a killer. This is the moment when the incest happened between television and tennis.

The code of this aggressiveness is now known: closed fists, bended necks, curved bodies and evil gazes. As if it was necessary to maintain oneself as long as possible in a state of hate, without assigning any particular object to that hate. For this frenetic body language is not directed at the opponent, but at one's self-image, at the image the public is creating and the image the cameras are coldly recording."
No doubt the televised spectacle must alter the cricket players image of themselves, perhaps sometimes with mischievously ironic self-deprecation (as in Warne) but more often as the steely professional on-screen. So in 20-20 cricket we have these gladiatorial contests between bat and ball raised to be the very meaning of the game. The old glory, the batsman as artist - doing something incredible to raise a period of play to an amazing level just about survives but the tight rhythm of the montages makes the crowds reaction little more than canned laughter. This is sport in a further alienated form: the big six down the ground does not just signify playful abandon or beautiful technique but a marketing opportunity, the replay will be used to sell mobile phones, fried chicken or Sky Sports subscriptions. The secret that gives the advertisers montage of sixes meaning - the machine is human.

If the spectacle is a key element in understanding sport as a commodity, the televised montage is the ultimate shorthand for contest opposed to play. Whether used in the recording of the game itself or advertising purposes it further alienates player and public from a joyful relationship with sports and games.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Ain't Got No Highs: How the Olympics are Changing London

Guest post by David Renton, who runs the lives; running blog. I've asked David to give a first hand account of what impact the Olympics are having on the lives of people living in London.


It’s the small things you notice. Getting ready to board a train from Waterloo station, I see six police officers with semi-automatic pistols. There were of course policemen carrying guns in London before the Olympics; just now, there are more of them. In Stratford, an ugly red observatory tower is built and named after Britain’s richest man, Lakshmi Mittal. There were plutocrats before; somehow this seems more brazen.

In the first quarter of 2012, a greater proportion of London tenants were subject to possession orders than anywhere else in Britain. Lord Coe did not invent the phenomenon of the avaricious landlord. But the London Organisers were well aware that London 2012 would represent a windfall for private landlords to charge inflated rents, this indeed was part of the Games’ supposed attraction. They can hardly have been ignorant of the corollary, that in order to create the necessary empty spaces in which corporate travellers can stay tenants are being forced from their homes.

Speaking at a meeting within one of the London boroughs, the discussion turns to the multiple plastic boxes that have been left at the side of the roads. “Originally, I thought they might be something to do with the London missiles”, a friend tells me, before continuing (ruefully), “now I just think they are holding Olympic road signs”.

I have not myself seen a sign for the Olympic Route Network, nor for the Games Lanes that will cover central and East London, although I like many other Londoners have started to ask myself how I will get to work, when between my home and my workplace there are a series of what posters on the London underground now euphemistically describe as “hotspots”, i.e. parts of the public transport network through which travel times will be reduced to slower than the slowest crawl.

Nor have I seen any graffiti against the Olympics, although images being shared on Facebook are easily traceable to that long expanse of low-rise Victorian housing that covers much of the former marshes of Hackney, Newham and Walthamstow.

My children ask me about the Olympics. For my eldest, already at school, the Games represents a rushed and decontextualized “special topic” on an otherwise unknown ancient Greece. His school took part in a competition to construct a special Olympic torch. There was a vague suggestion that by taking part the children would earn tickets to the Games. Needless to say they have not materialised. And there are similar complaints from schools a
ll across London.

The corporate travellers in their designated coaches, due to be booked in large numbers by the world’s wealthiest companies, have not arrived yet. Neither is their word yet of the super-rich, who will be expecting bespoke parking space for their private yachts and jets on the Thames and in London’s public airports.

'The military manoeuvres have begun. As part of Exercise Olympic Guardian, the airspace above our heads was “buzzed” for several days by fast-flying military jets. More troubling was the photograph, leaked to the BBC, of the sonic crowd-control device now stationed on HMS Ocean in the Thames. The soldiers controlling the weapon have refused to rule out the use of the device on its ear-splitting settings, intended to disorientate and deafen potentially hundreds of people at a time.

The distinctive combination of the Olympics to London life is that it accentuates trends which were already established towards the geographical segregation of the rich and poor, and towards the greater use of aggressive policing, as the old mechanisms atrophy that were formerly intended to generate social consent.

Some of these trends are embodied in the new Westfield shopping centre, which contains almost-unvisited units for designer fashion brands well out of the reach of the ordinary London budget let alone that of Stratford residents. A tell-tale sign is the way in which the shops advertise clothes and watches, but not their price (if you have to ask, you can’t afford it).

The Westfield squats in the space that might otherwise be a genuine civic centre (libraries, town halls, etc). The Westfield is a large shopping area surrounded by private roads, with police and security guards pervasive. You are allowed in to the centre shop, but excluded if you have no money with which to purchase. And if any of the many organisations of the East London left were daft enough to set up a stall, they could expect to be moved on in seconds.

Inevitably the word comes back – from workers and pensioners, as well as those with more money – that they are leaving London for the Games. Meanwhile, those of us who are organising protests against the Olympics do our best to restrain people from voting with their feet. You can’t run from oppression.