Olympics: property deals, sportswear, superprofits...oh, and some sport

Submitted by Matthew on 23 September, 2010 - 4:37

Sports fan and sports coach Daniel Randall attempts to chart a socialist course through the polluted sea of jingoistic triumphalism and exploit-yourself trickery surrounding the run-up to the 2012 Olympic Games...

With just under two years to go until London 2012, the fanfare’s surrounding the games is getting pretty deafening.

In a recent Daily Telegraph article, head-honcho and Tory toff Sebastian Coe said: “There are two years to go until the Olympic Games begin and we want everyone to start planning their once-in-a-lifetime experience in 2012.” That’s pretty intense: the Olympics is meant to be a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” for us all and we’re supposed to start planning it now?

There’s similar rhetoric from London’s clown-cum-mayor Boris Johnson. “Everyone knows this is the most exciting thing we are going to do in London in our lifetimes”, Bojo says. Mass suicide following the Games is starting to look an attractive option; if it’s really going to be this good, surely everything can only get worse for all of us?

Alongside the “it’ll be the single-most amazing thing ever”, there’s also a strong message about how much better London’s going to be after the games.

There is talk of thousands of new jobs and homes being created as a result of the games, and a mountain of vaguer promises about the “legacy” of the Games. A 2007 list of government promises included a commitment to “transform the heart of East London” (how? for who?). And to “demonstrate the UK is a creative, inclusive, welcoming place to live in, visit and for business”. (Ah business, one did wonder how much that had to do with it).

But what will the experience of the Games actually be like for the working-class people who will make it happen — the construction workers, the transport workers and the sports-apparel industry workers. What will it be like for the working-class people in economically-deprived East London? Is it possible to have a Marxist “line” on the Olympic Games?

Festival of exploitation

The organisational infrastructure of the Olympics has a long and inglorious history of reaction. The International Olympic Committee’s former chairs have included Juan Antonio Samaranch who, prior to taking up his role with the IOC, was a prominent member of Franco’s fascist government in Spain.

The enmeshment of the Olympic “machine” with some of the most notoriously-exploitative multinational corporations in the world (McDonald’s, Nike, Coca-Cola...) is evident just from looking at lists of the Game’s prominent sponsors.

But every Olympiad is necessarily predicated on a much more direct degree of exploitation; the Beijing and Athens Olympics were dogged by controversies surrounding the unsafe conditions on stadia construction sites in which a number of workers were killed or injured. While construction-related injuries have been less prominent in London, a huge amount of exploitation is taking place on the Olympic sites.

A comprehensive and extremely useful report compiled last year by the syndicalist group Industrial Workers of the World documents a series of workers’ rights abuses on the Stratford City site. It said that the Olympic Development Agency (ODA)’s basic commitments, which included paying the London Living Wage of £7.05 per hour, were frequently violated by subcontracted employment agencies.

The report also noted: “a widespread lack of resources for ensuring that workers are safe at work. A number of workers have been seen with insufficient personal protective equipment (PPE), including some of the most basic pieces of equipment. In some work that requires extra PPE, such as cutting, grinding and digging, workers have been allowed to work without dust masks, high-impact goggles and other essential protective equipment. Furthermore, many workers often must carry weights over the legal limit without the appropriate lifting equipment.”

The Games will require London’s transport workers to work substantial amounts of overtime to cope with massively-increased footfall during the course of the Games. The expectation to work a lot harder will undoubtedly cause more than a little resentment amongst workers in a public service currently facing 800 job cuts. And despite the absolute centrality of these workers to the success of the Games, much of the advance media coverage of their role has intimated that they are scheming wreckers out to sabotage everyone else’s good, clean, sporty fun.

A recent Sportsbeat article focused on union “claims” (can’t trust a mere “claim”, remember) that the Games “won’t be held to ransom”, but reminded readers of an RMT strike which disrupted tube travel on the night of an England game (they did it once, they could do it again).

Casting workers in this light fits far better into the media’s virulently anti-union and anti-strike agenda than acknowledging the possibility that if transport workers can’t deliver top-quality services if 800 jobs are cut. With other vital public sector workers, such as firefighters, also facing massive cuts, the Olympic aristocracy — Johnson, Coe and the rest — need to know that they can’t have their cake and eat it; they can’t slash and burn their way through London’s public sector workforces and then expect everything to be tip-top come 2012.

The exploitation extends well beyond the M25 (and indeed the shores of Britain).

The Olympics, and in fact the whole multi-billion pound professional sports industry, relies for the production of its basic commodities (primarily apparel and equipment) on some of the most naked, brutal exploitation that takes place in the world today.

Apparel manufactures such as Nike, Adidas and Reebok — whose logos and insignia will be inescapable throughout the Games — have been repeatedly exposed as sweatshop employers. The Playfair 2012 campaign (www.playfair2012.org), a well-intentioned if politically limited effort headed up by various union bureaucrats, lists countless testimonials from workers (mainly in the global south) working for big-name sportswear brands who face slave wages, 12-hour shifts and union-busting bosses.

Given the integral role played by companies like Nike and Adidas in an event like the Olympics, and the centrality of hyper-exploitation to those companies’ production, Playfair 2012’s noble aim of a “sweat-free” Olympics” is a bit like wishing for an “exploitation-free capitalism”. Sweatshop labour is built into the DNA the modern Olympics, under globalised capitalism.

“...taking over their estates!”

Recent YouTube viral sensation “Being A Dickhead’s Cool” tore into East London’s burgeoning “hipster” community, and included the immortal couplet “I remember when the kids at school would call me names/Now we’re taking over their estates!”

There is a danger that the “legacy” of the Games will be to accelerate increase the process of working-class people being priced out of the area so young trendy types (cooler, more economically mobile, whiter) can move in.

Mortgage Solutions reports sharp rises in property prices in many Olympic boroughs: “Four areas recorded average property prices increasing above the Greater London average of 36%. The Hackney districts of Homerton and Shoreditch have seen average property prices rise by 69% and 53% respectively, while Dalston and Clapton both increased 39%.”

For those people lucky enough to already own their own house, this could be good news; sell up at an above average-price and move to the palace that this kind of money can buy you outside of the capital.

But if you’re, say, a young working-class family looking for a bigger place, or a migrant worker looking for somewhere to live, or a future council-tenant living in a world in which David Cameron’s speculative plans about kicking people out of their council houses after a certain amount of time have become a reality, then this is going to fuck you up a bit.

This process has often been called “gentrification”. On a certain level, there’s a lot to be said for it, given that it involves taking what are usually pretty run-down and unpleasant parts of town and making them a bit more pleasant to live in. The problem is that this process isn’t owned by and managed in the interests of the current residents of those areas and intended to improve their quality of life — it’s owned by private property developers and managed in the interests of profit.

Activists campaigning against the negative social impact of the Olympics have also commented on the physical effect it’s had on space in working-class boroughs.

Despite the promises of regeneration and countless benefits to be reaped by communities in Olympic boroughs, the process so far has been the errection of huge security fences keeping people out of large areas of their own neighbourhood, and a massive increase in CCTV surveillance. Presumably a certain amount of this is “necessary” for safety and security reasons (there are large, dangerous construction sites), but as the IWW’s report notes, the construction bosses are hardly consistent health and safety champions:

“There is also a widespread lack of safety signage around the site. Although there is a good level of signage around the perimeter of the site, where the general public can see it, inside the site there is generally insufficient signage except near the UCATT trade union offices. Related to this problem is the lack of barriers on site to guard against dangers such as deep excavations. Combined with unclear pathway systems, failure to erect barriers in these situations can have potentially fatal consequences.”

The situation has left many local workers wondering whether they’ll still be locked out of the arena when the circus leaves town...

Our alternative

The attitudes one finds to sport on the revolutionary left are extremely varied. They range from outright opposition to all competitive sport (seeing competition in any form as inherently capitalistic) to the “reclaim the game”-type politics behind projects such as FC United which see many sports — particularly football — as essentially working-class pursuits that need to be taken back out of the hands of big business.

With the Olympics, many socialists also oppose the national element and the chauvinism that often accompanies it — for example, the Soviet Union did not participate in the two Olympics which took place during the years in which one might still have reasonably characterised it as a workers’ state of some kind — 1920 and 1924.

Personally I don’t think we have any business being snobbish about competitive sport (either participating or spectating) in general or the Olympics. Anyone who can watch Usain Bolt run the 100 metres and only think about gentrification or corporate globalisation should learn to appreciate the potential of human endeavour. But, unlike football (and even there the case is arguable), there is nothing to “reclaim” in the Olympics.

The entire Olympic project, in its ancient and modern forms, have been inextricably bound up with the military and financial prowess and prestige of states. That project, like those states, is something we should smash — not reclaim.

My political conscience won’t be troubled by watching and enjoying the Games any more than it is when I buy clothes at Primark or shop at Tesco; modern, globalised capitalism is something we have to go through, fighting as we go. We can’t got around it (or, worse, run backwards from it). But I’ll watch the Games with an awareness of what the “Olympic dream” has meant, and will continue to mean, for the workers who’ve made the Games happen and the working-class communities for whom the Games might not deliver very much at all.

We should be putting pressure on local government and the Olympic authorities to turn some of their empty demagogy about the benefit the Games will bring to local communities into reality and fighting for the immense wealth the Olympics will generate to be distributed democratically.

The struggles of workers’ and community rights activists “against” the Olympics are entirely legitimate and should be supported. If they carve out better working conditions on Olympic construction sites or manage to keep rents down in an area that would otherwise be hit by gentrification then that’s immensely positive. But the negative impacts of the Olympics can ultimately only be fought as part of a working-class struggle for a world where sport is organised for pure enjoyment rather than for profit and the needs of workers and our communities come first.

Refusing to turn on the telly for two months in the summer of 2012 probably isn’t going to help that struggle very much.

• The IWW’s report is available at http://tinyurl.com/iwwolympics

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