log in

Help boost radical media and socialist organisation

Join Counterfire today for a minimum of just £5

Join Now

  • Published in Olympics

Neil Faulkner looks at the political history of the Olympics and how global corporations are using London 2012 to broadcast their lies and promote their products

The people of Bhopal protest Dow Chemicals' sponsorship of London 2012All sport is political, and all sport mirrors society. Local amateur sport – the pastime of ordinary people – is a community activity controlled by those who take part. Much about it may mimic the practices of professional sport, but its politics remain essentially democratic.

Professional sport, on the other hand, is too important to our rulers to be run in this way. They use sport for PR, prestige, and profit, and there is no way they are going to hand over control of something so valuable to ordinary sports fans. So professional sport is controlled from above by corporate hierarchies.

PR and Profit

The more high-profile the event, the tighter the control from above. There is none more high-profile than the Olympics. They provide an exceptional opportunity for the ruling class to trumpet its propaganda. So we have Dow Chemicals using London 2012 to give itself a PR makeover by sponsoring the Games – the company responsible for the worst industrial disaster in human history, with more than 25,000 deaths so far, more than 100,000 suffering debilitating illness, and still no clean-up of the contaminated ground-water at Bhopal in India.

Then there is BP – famous for Canadian tar-sands extraction, the Deepwater Horizon disaster, and its green-and-yellow flower logo. BP is the ‘Official Oil and Gas Partner’, providing the fuel for the 4,000 official vehicles that will be helping to make London 2012 ‘the greenest Games ever’.

And ATOS, an international information-technology services company with revenues of €8.6 billion in 2010. ATOS boasts of sponsoring the Paralympic Games for disabled athletes. Meantime, back in the real world of Con-Dem Britain, ATOS is profiting from hounding the disabled into poverty. It has the contract to impose ‘work capability assessments’ designed to justify withdrawal of benefits.

Because sport is about promoting good health, the official sponsors also include Cadbury, Coca Cola, and McDonalds. Part of the deal here appears to be airport-style searches at the entrances to Olympic venues in order to confiscate children’s packed lunches and force their parents to buy them overpriced chocolate bars, fizzy drinks, and junk-burgers once inside.

Because sport is about the great outdoors and a clean environment, British Airways and BMW have also been invited to help. BMW’s contribution will be to provide the fleet of official vehicles (the ones for which BP will be providing the fuel).

And so it goes on: a list of mega-billion global corporations using London 2012 to broadcast their lies and promote their products.

Prestige

Ruling classes have used top-level sporting events for displays of dynastic, national, and imperial prestige for at least 2,500 years.

After conquering Greece, Alexander the Great erected a temple inside the religious sanctuary at Olympia to house statues of his royal dynasty – a vulgar assertion of raw imperial power designed to substantiate his self-proclaimed role as champion of Hellenic civilisation.

Pierre de CoubertinThe Roman emperor Nero, representing another dynasty of conquerors, went one further. Special games were held in his honour at Olympia, two new events were introduced to the progamme, and the emperor was declared the winner in all the contests in which he chose to participate.

The modern Olympics are just the same. Their founder, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was very rich, very aristocratic, and very reactionary. The Germans were making a name for themselves by excavating ancient Olympia, and Coubertin thought the French should not be outdone. ‘Germany has brought to light the remains of Olympia. Why should France not succeed in reviving its ancient glory?’

Coubertin was convinced of the improving character of competitive athletics in moulding the social elite of imperial nations. ‘Through physical fitness, sound competition, true amateurism, and the spirit of fair play,’ writes games historian Moses Finley, commenting on Coubertin’s purpose, ‘the natural elite of France, drawn from the aristocracy and the prosperous middle class, would provide their fatherland with new and inspired leadership at home and in the colonies overseas …’

The baron, an aristocratic paternalist to the core, hoped ‘the lower classes’ would embrace his vision for a revival of the games. But he was clear that only the most exceptional among them would be likely to compete, since ‘inequality is more than a law: it is a fact …’

Women – of all classes – were also marginal to the Coubertin vision. None participated in the first modern games held in Athens in 1896, and the proportion remained miniscule until the 1920s, and was still small until the 1970s.

Nazis and Stalinists

By 1936, the Olympics had become the premier sporting event in the international calendar. Rival states now competed for the prestige of hosting them. That year, they were held in Berlin, and Nazi propagandists turned them into a massive celebration of Nordic race-myths.

‘The facilities were monumental,’ writes Allen Guttman, historian of the modern games. ‘The pageantry, which can still be vicariously experienced in Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary film Olympia, was truly extraordinary.’

The Olympic torch - a 'tradition' invented by the Nazis for the 1936 Berlin GamesAmong the innovations was an enormous iron bell ‘to summon the youth of the world’, a torch relay involving thousands of runners to ignite the Olympic flame, a performance by thousands of male and female dancers, and a ‘cathedral of light’ created using a multitude of searchlights whose beams converged high above the stadium.

(The Nazis were fond of torch rallies. The torchbearers of 1936 were chosen to demonstrate ‘the beauty and strength of German youth’. The London organising committee at the next Olympics (in 1948) decided to keep the torch relay because it was ‘traditional’. This delightful Nazi addition to Olympic ‘tradition’ is, of course, with us still.)

The superpower tensions of the post-1945 Cold War also found expression at the Olympics. The competition for medals and national prestige was soon driving huge investments in training facilities. Consequently, more than half the gold medals were taken by just three states at the 1976 Montreal Olympics: the Soviet Union got 47, East Germany 40, and the USA 34.

By now, Olympic sport was being powered by massive state subsidies, corporate sponsorship, and TV contracts. Hundreds of millions of dollars were at stake every Olympiad, and the IOC (International Olympic Committee) and many of the NOCs (National Olympic Committees) were mired in corruption.

The main cause of that corruption was and is intense international competition to host the games. Bribery – both legitimate and hidden – has become a normal part of the process.

IOC members belong to the international elite. They routinely expect (and receive) fawning, favours, and five-star treatment. Some have also been exposed taking massive backhanders. In the 1990s, the IOC director and his leading associates – the centre of a vast web of power and profit – were dubbed ‘The Club’ by their critics.

For the stakes are now very high. Two decades after the Tiananmen Square massacre, when up to 5,000 people may have been murdered as the army crushed pro-democracy protests, the bureaucratic dictators of China were able to use the 2008 Beijing Olympics to whitewash their regime.

Class and sport

Do not be misled by the spin. The Ancient Greeks liked to give the impression that Olympic champions were true sons of the soil. They would tell fables like the one about Glaukos of Karystos, Olympic boxing champion, who mended a plough by hammering the iron share back into place with his fist. But was he really a simple ploughboy? Or did he just do the odd repair job on the family estate?

Dewy-eyed stories are told today about the modest origins of some Olympic athletes. We hear less about those born with the social advantages that make sporting success far more likely. And regardless of origin, champion athletes never remain part of the working class. Olympic status guarantees top-level rewards – prizes, appearance fees, sponsorship deals, lucrative job offers. Medal-winning athletes, like other top celebrities and professionals, enter the millionaire class, the 2% or so who form the modern ruling class.

They join a sporting elite that merges seamlessly into the wider political and business elite. Lord Sebastian Coe, Chair of LOCOG (the London 2012 Organising Committee), is typical. He is a former champion athlete, a rich businessman, and a prominent Tory politician.

Sebastian Coe practises for policing the Games LanesLord Colin Moynihan, President of the British National Olympic Committee, is from the same stable: millionaire businessman and Tory politician. His number two, Andrew Hunt, the British NOC Secretary-General, is the Managing Director of Reliance Security Services, a company with 10,000 employees and worth £240 million.

The boards of both LOCOG and the NOC are stuffed with such people. Of the 19 members of the LOCOG board, 17 are white men (and the only woman is Princess Anne). Half the members are primarily businessmen. Most of the others have lucrative business interests. The Chief Executive Officer is a Goldman Sachs banker. The Chief Financial Officer is a partner in City accounting and consulting firm Deloitte.

None of these people has been elected. None of them is accountable to the public. The LOCOG board represents the rich and the corporations. Its character symbolises the democratic deficit in modern Britain.

This was demonstrated when Coe, with the unashamed arrogance of his class, refused to answer questions from London’s elected political representatives about the proportion of tickets for top events available to the general public.

Overall, three-quarters of tickets have gone on general sale, but the proportion seems to plummet to around a third for events like the opening ceremony and the 100m finals. But we do not know because LOCOG operates as a business corporation and conceals its activities behind a screen of ‘confidentiality’.

This gives the lie to any sense that the London 2012 Games ‘belong’ to the British people. We are paying for them – £12 billion of the total cost is coming from the taxpayer, just £1.4 billion from corporate sponsors – but we have no control whatsoever over how they are run. The secretive businessmen who run LOCOG will not even tell us how many tickets we have been allocated.

Corporate power and London 2012

To enforce corporate control over the London 2012 Olympics, we are to have a security lock-down by 50,000 soldiers, police, and security guards – five times the number of British troops deployed in Afghanistan at the height of the war.

This is presented as a defence against terrorism. It has much more to do with what Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher liked to call ‘the enemy within’. If terrorism was the prime concern, they would not be creating the Games Lanes – essentially a freeway across London for official cars – which is the terrorist equivalent of a pirate map where X marks the spot.

Two classes of road, one for the rich, the other for the restThe security lock-down is directed against the British people – and especially against the socially excluded of East London. It is there to defend class privilege and corporate power against democratic protest. The corporatisation of society goes hand-in-hand with its securitisation.

Some 2.2 million tickets – 25% of the total, and perhaps two-thirds or more at premier events – have been reserved for the millionaires: VIPs, Olympic officials, invited ‘guests’, and corporate sponsors. Most of the public who applied for some of the 6.6 million tickets on sale got nothing. It is estimated that half those who staked £1,000 and two-thirds of those who staked £250 got no tickets. Most poor people never had a chance. The great majority of those living around the Stratford stadium will not be going to the Games.

Meantime, the rich are getting ready to party. Corporate sponsors are doling out tickets as bonuses to staff and ‘hospitality’ to clients. Deloitte is using a large proportion of its freebie tickets ‘to reward staff achievements’. Thomas Cook is marketing exclusive ‘corporate Olympic hospitality events’. City HQs are to be turned into ‘Olympic reception centres’.

The so-called ‘Games Lanes’ will run like a band of class privilege written across the surface of the capital for the duration of the Olympics. In Ancient Greece, athletes and officials walked to the Olympics. In London 1948, they used the buses and the underground. In both cases, they went to the Games the same way spectators did. Not now: not in early 21st century London, where conspicuous displays of class privilege have become instinctive among the neoliberal elite

The outside carriageways on designated roads are to be reserved for a fleet of 4,000 BMWs that will ferry the elite from their 5-star hotels in the West End to the Olympic venues. These Lanes are to be turned into unrestricted freeways: 48 sets of traffic lights will be shut down, 50 local side roads blocked, all the pedestrian crossings closed, and all daytime parking and unloading suspended.

Hundreds of thousands of ordinary Londoners will find the daily routines of getting to work, delivering the kids, and doing the shopping disrupted. Millions will be affected by congestion and delays as traffic is funnelled off the Games Lanes.

Sport and protest

US athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith give the Black Power salute at the 1968 OlympicsOn 17 July 1936, three Jewish tailors from Stepney, Nat Cohen, Sam Marsters, and Alec Sheller, left Victoria Station bound for Spain. They were going to the Barcelona Olympics. The newly-elected Popular Front Government in Spain was boycotting the Berlin Olympics in protest against the policies of the Nazi state. Some 6,000 anti-fascist athletes from 22 countries had headed the call and were en route to Barcelona.

The Games never happened. Three days after Nat, Sam, and Alec set off, General Franco launched a military coup against Spanish democracy and the country was plunged into civil war. Instead of watching international athletics, Nat, Sam, and Alec became volunteer soldiers in an anti-fascist army.

The 1956 Melbourne Games took place immediately after a workers’ revolution against dictatorship had been crushed by Soviet tanks in Budapest. The Hungarians found themselves matched against the Russians in the semi-final of the water polo. Blood soon discoloured the water. The Russians, who were losing, abandoned the match.

At the closing ceremony that year, the athletes, disgusted by great-power politics and the jingoism of world leaders, broke from their national blocs, joined hands, embraced one another, and went around the stadium singing and dancing.

The 1968 Mexico Games are now most memorable for the iconic image of American athletes John Carlos and Tommy Smith giving the clenched-fist salute of the Black Power movement from the victors’ podium as the US national anthem was played. Their gesture symbolised the anger of hundreds of millions, from the jungles of Vietnam to the campuses of California, at the murderousness and racism of the world’s dominant imperial state.

Build the protests

Now it is our turn. Cameron, the Con-Dem government, and Britain’s corporate elite are using the Olympics to broadcast two messages. The first, addressed to international capital, is that Britain is prosperous, well-ordered, and open for business. The second, addressed to the ordinary working people of Britain, is that, though times may be hard, we should wave the flag and enjoy the spectacle – bread and circuses; but without the bread.

The elite intend the Games to be a celebration of class privilege and corporate power in world where they are getting richer and the rest of us poorer.

We should make it our business not to let their propaganda and triumphalism go unchallenged. We should aim to use the Olympics to broadcast a call for mass resistance. We should use the occasion to begin to turn the Age of Austerity into an Age of Protest.

At the very least, the grotesque sponsorship deals with Dow Chemicals, BP, and ATOS should be terminated, and the equally grotesque Games Lanes should be shut down.

Protests have already begun. The Drop Dow Now: Justice for Bhopal campaign has attracted widespread publicity (www.bhopal.org and www.dropdownow.org). The Occupy Movement has set up camp on Porters Field, part of Leyton Marshes in East London, where local opposition has been overridden to build Olympic basketball practice courts.

Now we need to fan the opposition from a wide range of groups into a storm of protest against the Neoliberal Olympics.


Counter olympics networkCounter Olympics Network mass-action planning meeting, Saturday 14 April, from 11.00am to 4.30pm, Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, near Liverpool Street Station.

Go to www.counterolympicsnetwork.wordpress.com for further details. And check out www.gamesmonitor.org.uk

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner

Neil Faulkner is a freelance archaeologist and historian. He works as a writer, lecturer, excavator, and occasional broadcaster. His books include ‘A Visitor’s Guide to the Ancient Olympics‘ and ‘A Marxist History of the World: from Neanderthals to Neoliberals‘.