A couple of weeks ago I was standing five-deep on the platform at Stockwell tube station, staring up at an empty departure board. A train had broken down somewhere up the line. People were late for work, it was very hot. It was the worst week of tube delays so far this year, with, according to TfL, 33 incidents of severe delays and line closures. Eventually a train arrived, and after cramming on board with hundreds of others, we sped away leaving the platform as busy as it was before. As soon as we were in the tunnel, the stern delivery of the Victoria line announcer filled the carriage, with the warning now familiar to any user of railways in Britain to not leave your bag unattended, or run the risk of it being ‘destroyed by the security services’.
I’ve never liked the Victoria line announcer. She has a sternness in her voice you would never find infecting the chirpy breeze of the Bakerloo line announcer, or the spritely and professional candour of the Northern line. The Victoria line announcer addresses the worms squeezed on her trains with a contemptuous pity. She is busy and modern, as evidenced by her shiny new carriages, compared to the tan and taupe, ’70s hangover trains on the Bakerloo line. When she has to tell you where to alight for a palace or an eye hospital, you are inconveniencing her.
She issued her threats to mind your baggage several times during my short journey to Green Park, laced with a couple of chirpy warnings not to give money to beggars. It might have been the fact that I knew I was going to be late, or just suffering the all too familiar sensation of boiling in a scrum of strangers in a dusty underground tunnel. Or it might have been a combination of the tube-fatigue and the repeated announcements from what, at the end, sounded like a deranged Tory backbencher at the announcer’s helm. In between being warned not to feed the beggars, and with the hot breath of the omnipotent security services on the back of my neck, its sweaty palm clutching my bag, I had a premonition of the future. The near future, that is, and a dystopian one. Yes, the Olympics.
Hourly, Londoners are reminded of this hell on the horizon, looming ever closer like a metropolis-bound meteor in a shit film. The heady days of 2005, when the entire country was in Olympics rapture, seem a long time ago. We were like the party animals on the roof of the skyscraper in Independence Day, with the alien spaceship hovering overhead, holding aloft signs welcoming this strange visitor, gleeful smiles on our faces and dancing madly at the prospect of alien contact. I bet the Bakerloo line lady would have been up there, her carefree moves inspiring even the most demented apocalypse day looter to stop and twist. But, of course, the party skyscraper was the first to get zapped by the spaceship. We’re now six years on from those halcyon days of Labour boom, the pungent smell of big profit and finely pressed suits lining the shining boulevards of the square mile, all the jobs, all the credit, the family home that could function as a never-ending cash machine, always ratcheting up its price with each sweet passing minute. But then, one day in 2008, when an American investment bank called Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy, we were all zapped, as if without warning.
A couple of days ago the EU decided (again) to formulate a last-minute plan to contain the eurozone debt crisis, in part continuing the austerity drive in Greece that is in the process of turning the country into a client state of the IMF. Italy has promised to implement its own austerity programme. The Bank of England is now warning that Britain faces a ‘significant chance’ of going back into recession. But there is light on the horizon. In the face of this apocalypse we’ll have the Olympics. We are still being sold the Olympics as, at best, an event to rescue the British economy, and at worst, something that will at least cheer the hearts of those suffering. We will still have the Olympic Spirit. A desperate cry if there ever was one, and one that rests on an interesting interpretation of exactly what this ‘Olympic Spirit’ might entail.
As well as magnificent feats of athletic prowess, the Olympics also has the added bonus of often resembling a military coup. Prior to the Athens Games in 2004, 70,000 police and troops were drafted into the city to clear ‘undesirables’ from the streets, mostly drug addicts, immigrants, and the homeless. It was reported during the preparations for the Beijing Games that around 1.5 million residents were ejected from their homes. 720,000 were displaced during the Seoul Games of 1988, in a fine demonstration of newly re-gained democratic principles (the Sixth Republic of South Korea had been declared only a year earlier after nearly a decade of violent military rule). The Athens crackdown was repeated again in 2010 in Vancouver, where there were widespread reports of police clearing homeless people from poor districts. I’ll expect to hear the Victoria line announcer warning of more ‘undesirables’ in the months to come. For all this, it also looks as if the cost of the London Games is going to quadruple from initial estimates to over £9 billion.
Aside from resembling a very expensive military crackdown with fireworks and a little athletics on the side, the Olympics also beds with some rather odd company. Athletics sponsored by, among others, such health-conscious companies as Heineken, and McDonald’s, who have pledged to build a 1,500 seater, ‘world’s largest’ outlet on the Olympic site. In direct proportion to this, another ‘international sponsor’, Dow Chemical Company of Bhopal gas leak fame, has so far pledged nothing to the families and victims of the disaster that killed 3,787 people and has caused at least 8,000 deaths since.
For the population, the salesmanship of Parliament, City Hall, councils, and their underling agencies of this bonanza of sports has been schizophrenic to say the least. After constantly being told of the economic benefits of the Games, which will be short-term to say the least, we are confronted with weekly prophesies of doom from Transport for London. Waiting times on several tube lines will be over half an hour, and we are told the network will only ‘cope’ if 60% of workers go absent. Those who can’t work from home, which is probably just about everyone, are being advised to ‘go to the pub’ after work to allow station congestion to clear. A public transport Games indeed, although not quite so when one considers the 109 miles of road that will have a lane sectioned off solely for those travelling to the Olympics, with punitive fines for those who stray into them. If you were planning on taking the bus to avoid the chaos, think again.
London will likely become clogged with armed police and guards, as security companies vie with each other for lucrative contracts. And if that wasn’t enough, another happy addition to the Olympic Spirit fraternity is the constant news stories of the possibility of tenants in rented accommodation across the capital being evicted so that landlords can charge sky-high rents (up to £10,000 a month) to Olympic revellers, a practise that has been confirmed illegal by only six borough councils out of thirty-two. And what will become of the Olympics site after the Games? A few weeks ago the Westfield Stratford shopping centre opened with a fanfare approximating it almost messiah status, a shopping juggernaught-Christ to single-handedly resurrect a leprous economy. A combination of consumer goods outlets encouraging us to spend our way out of recession, and a likely recreation of the now infamously derelict Athens site will most likely appear in the ruins of the cavernous journalists centre.
Simon Jenkins, in the Evening Standard, echoing the concerns of Londoners (a poll in the same newspaper revealed 80% of residents would not be buying Olympics tickets), has called the Games ‘elitist, exclusive and stupefying’ and likened them to a ‘festival for the cosmopolitan rich and their armed guards’. Will Self, in an appearance on Newsnight, described the Games as a ‘creation of capital’, a hangover of the boom years in a dead economy. This analysis looks all too pertinent now. While during the boom years the Olympics might have been the feather in capital’s cap, the icing on the cake that had supposedly brought prosperity to the nation, we now know that that prosperity was a lie, a grim combination of imaginary money, ceaseless credit, and the cooked books of outfits like Lehman Brothers. Six years down the line, the prospect of this Olympic extravaganza is more than faintly depressing, resembling a half-finished temple to the Gods long after Rome has succumbed to the barbarian hordes. And where is everyone? Lining up at the soup kitchen, looking back on the drunken orgies on the last days of empire and feeling more than a little embarrassed.