It was timely to hold a session at the Tent City University within the Occupy London camp on the notion of occupying the Olympics a day prior to the Independent reporting that the government are looking to ban demonstrations during the games next year. It emphasised completely what is going to happen, and what will happen, as the government cannot afford to allow for the games to fail (both financially, politically and internationally) – they will move the (*cringe for sports-related metaphor*) goalposts, whatever they are currently, to ensure that when the eye of the (carefully briefed and paying-customers) world’s media is upon London next summer, there will be conflict-free games and tailored soft power and sponsorship messages to be viewed.
They will not fail. They will do what they can to make sure they don’t fail. Even if it involves state brutality of citizens and changes to long-standing bylaws such as the right to protest and squatters rights (see Barcelona 1992) It doesn’t come to much surprise, considering they’ve been displacing communities in East London for the last 6 and half years (it takes 7 years to ‘prepare’ for an Olympiad) – and had put in the ‘planning permission’ to do so, long before the winning bid for 2012 were announced in Singapore 2005.
You see, it’s simple things contained within bidding document files (see gamesbids.com for archive.) that can highlight this in advance – 7-10 years in advance, BEFORE your city bids for the games. Figures such as having to show to the IOC that the city can provide over 170,000 hotel beds for visiting fans, are one of the reasons why those who reside in the poorest part of Vancouver were evicted by their landlords from their lower-cost bedsits so they could be renovated and turned into boutique hotels, so that vistors had a place to stay and Vancouver saw the highest level of homelessness during one set period (watch the documentary ‘Five Ring Circus‘ to learn more)
Occupy the Olympics
Photo by @aral
After a skype call with Olympic critic and activist Helen Lenskyj (who have wrote some excellent books on resisting the Olympic Industry) whilst I was at Occupy Nottingham on Friday, she left me thinking about the privatisation of public space and the contrast of the Occupy movement. You see, every ‘public’ mass event you go to (fireworks, the fair, football, carnivals, the royal wedding) gives authorities the opportunity to move in on your civil liberties, it sticks a fence around it and uses security to make you feel ‘safe’ – when in fact, what it is doing is reducing the amount of space where you can actually call it public. For instance, try taking a photograph in your local shopping mall, it won’t be long before you get asked to leave or accused on being a terrorist – that is a perfect example of the local authorities outsourcing land to private companies to manage. As a participant at Occupy Nottingham told me on Friday, the occupations reclaim and raise awareness to the fact that these spaces, are in fact, being occupied by the corporations – not the people. And the Olympics is the biggest, and the baddest, example of this. I’ve met too many people in the last 2.5 years who have lost their home, their communities for the benefits of a 17 day sporting competition. This is the social and political context I am going to work within for my thesis – and probably the hardest thing I have to write, as I do not want to treat these experiences as throw away data for the REF or some other academic medal. The politics is personal.
What differs the Olympic Games from other mega events of its nature is three-fold – the first, the Olympic charter, the second, its historical context – and the third, Olympic education (the device that I’ve experienced first hand) The fact that they refer to themselves as a ‘movement’ hints at what the charter might contain, it aspires, it claims and it suggests that the Olympics provides a blueprint for living. The movement is governed by an Olympic charter, explicitly laying out the philosophical concept of ‘olympism’ – a way of life. When I was at the International Olympic Academy in September, I wrote about the three assumptions that were being made on my behalf, when discussing the Olympic Charter as document for research:
“1) That we all think that sport is a morally good thing. That is bonds us across communities and it should be considered as something as powerful as saying it is a ‘human right’. The act of sport is a human right.
2) That we see the idea of Olympic education as being a force to carry the message of sport and to help build an understanding that sport is a human right. All people of the world should hear this message and the best way to do this is through education.
3) That through participating in an olympic education program, we are are all advocates for the olympic education movement and will return to our country to spread the universal messages of Olympism. This is why we are here.”
Now I’ve stepped out of that world, and had the time to critically reflect on those experiences, I’m still gravely concerned about what follows such idealistic claims about society, or indeed, the notion that an ideology can be institutionalised through a device such as sport. You see, sport is a sacred cow – it is very rarely critiqued, it is probably one of the last bastians of the 20th century that hasn’t been ripped through the apparent public accountability machine of the mainstream media (or even academia) for the way that it acts. I mean, for the media, even if you aren’t paying for the rights to broadcast the Olympics games, to challenge the sports machine could potentially lose you a quarter of your daily news (and the access that goes along with it.) Furthermore, sport is still very much a television broadcast that remains unfragmented – think about the way football gathers people in spaces, or how big events disrupt existing programming. It very much has to be watched live. Similarly, there are very few academics who find themselves studying the Olympic Games when they detest organised sport and everything that goes with it. There a lot of tensions that come into play – and that could be one of the reasons why sport is a good hiding place for corporations such as McDonalds and CocaCola, corporations that don’t have an ethical bone in their system.
But if you align with an organisation that comes prepackaged with its own philosophy, a philosophy that promotes a healthy body and healthy mind, that also requires a hell of a lot of money before it will part with those ideas (and more importantly, its symbolic ritual, it’s only product essentially) then you know that you are not only going to reach global audiences, you are going to have a better chance of looking and sounding more ethical. The perfect relationship. And that perfect relationship is detailed within the Olympic charter – directly after the bit about friendship, peace and solidarity.
The history of the Olympics
Another factor of distraction is the history of the games, tied up closing to the history of ancient Greece (where relics from 2000 years ago shown the rich greeks enjoyed their stadiums, plays and temples) and where the industry was conceived at the turn of the 20th century by Pierre de Coubertin, a entrepreneur that played on the notion of beauty, religion and sport to introduce the modern Olympic games to the “masses.” I could go on, but if you want to read about the link between resistance and the Olympics, right back to the first modern games in Athens 1896, download @currybet’s brief history of Olympic dissent. The reason why I’m mentioning this is to relate to the political and social context of the games origins – think end of 19th century, imperialism, europe-centric governance, military influence (I’m sure there are historians out there who can tell a better story about this than me, I’m the new media person, remember!)
And finally, the thing that separates the Olympics from say, the World cup? The Olympics comes packages with an element of Olympic education. There are Olympic education centres all over the place (I live 1 mile away from Loughborough University, it is reeking of Olympic studies) – but also, rather than simply research centres at universities all around the world, you’ve the Olympic games in school – worldwide. The London Games were sold on the aspect of youth (and much of the legacy claims are about just that) and if you keep an eye out for it, you’ll see things like “Get Set” which is the official link between compulsory education and LOCOG. The Olympic movement is embedded in the curriculum, I’m sure if you are of a certain age, you’ll remember the exposure to previous games yourself, in fact – before I took on this topic as a PhD, I had never encountered the Olympics in any other way apart from watching it during the summer holidays. Because it is what you do. Why do you think the IOC want Olympic education in schools? I can’t help but think that it is all related – especially when I encountered G4S at the Podium Further and Higher Education Conference back in February and they asked me advice on using social media to encourage college kids to apply for security jobs during London 2012 (!)
What can be done?
From the discussion at the tent city university on Saturday, we talked about if the Olympics can be occupied next summer – something that somebody on Twitter declared would be a huge stunt that would result in public uproar. Correct. It would. But it also raises questions about what occupy means and who is occupying who. What can I advise – based on what I’ve seen, read and learned over the last two years?
Looking to past games
What is happening in the UK is not in isolation. It doesn’t take much digging around to realise that every games that have came before have came complete with their own set of challenge on the local, national and international scale. Something that the Olympics, in its current format of every 2 years, is good at is being about to neutralise resistance or to distract from a citizen-reclaimed legacy. Think about how a school term works with the student movement, time and organisation of time is good way of killing momentum towards a cause. As we approach each Olympics, we start to care more as it approaches our lens – but it has taken 7 years to get to this stage. Think about the people living on its doorstep, think about the laws that need to be changed to allow the games to happen, think about where the budgets are going and use the Olympics as a mechanism to critique the rest of the government’s strategy. You can do this better if you look at what has happened before. There are some accessible books that you can read, all available on gamesmonitor’s reading list.
It was ironic that Jon Snow came into my session, right at the moment when we was discussing media responsibility and the games. You see, the media have no responsibility to report critically on the games. If you look at research on media events (Dayan and Katz, 1994) even the most critical of journalists (erm-hm) are suspected in critique around events of this nature. Do not expect them to tell your story. Even if they do, they are in the pocket of the event. They need that access. So they will spin it to suit the general frame. You must tell your own.
Citizen Media and the Games
That why citizen media, social media and independent journalists are your friends – and why no story is too small to be captured. You see, there is one thing that LOCOG and the government can’t control in terms of the Olympic narrative (and what is remembered) is the digital footprint that is left behind. They can evict the Occupy London camp, but the digital trail will tell us more than the statues that were discovered around ancient Greece. You had to win a race to be remembered, to be immortalised, but as long as there are GPS satellites in the sky, data that we leave behind could be the answer to decentralising the narrative around megaevents (read Capalan, 2010 for more.)
Returning to the independent article to conclude, the government and LOCOG are expecting resistance. They are bigger and more aggressive than you can ever imagine. If you take them head on, they will come down on you like a ton of bricks. We’ve seen it with the royal wedding earlier this year, preemptive arrests and threats of rubber bullets and water cannons (sparked from the response to August riots) – you need to and must stay safe. Know your rights, read load about what has happened before and be clever about how you subvert the games. As Chris Shaw advises (Prof. at University of British Columbia, member of the NOGAMES network – and author of the five ring circus, Vancouver’s story) the best way to stop the games is to stop them before you ‘win’ them, when they have been awarded, there is no going back (unless you are Denver 1976, the only games where the citizens stopped it happening) They will do whatever it takes to make sure it goes ahead. The best you can do is to stay safe and make sure that whatever you do this time can be passed on to the next city – a legacy of protest and resistance.