The closing of the Olympic Games in Beijing and the record haul of gold medals by ‘Team GB’ became the perfect excuse for an outpouring of British patriotism last week.
Even London mayor Boris Johnson got in on the act, declaring that ‘virtually every single one of our international sports were either invented or codified by the British’ and that London was ‘the sporting capital of the world’.
The Daily Mail could barely restrain its enthusiasm for the newfound national pride. It reminded its readers that in addition to netting 19 gold medals, Britain is the fourth strongest military power in the world.
‘Our armed forces are the best in the world,’ it added, which is why the Royal Navy has ordered two enormous aircraft carriers to befit our place in the world.
Even the Guardian could not resist jumping on the ‘Back Britain’ juggernaut. It decreed that the 2012 London Olympics ‘offer a once-in-a-generation chance to define the capital and the country for a global audience’.
Those caught up in the enthusiasm are making a myriad of claims about the positive effects that the games would have on Britain, on the deprived areas of east London where the 2012 spectacle will be centred – and even upon thousands of young people at risk of obesity.
East London’s five host boroughs are among the most deprived in Britain. One third of all adults in Newham are ‘economically inactive’ and 65 percent of households have an income of less than £30,000 a year.
Rocketing rents and the building of thousands of ‘yuppie flats’ for those working in the business districts of the City and Canary Wharf have accompanied a chronic shortage of rented accommodation.
Sports secretary Tessa Jowell and British Olympic boss Lord Coe promise that the Olympic Games development will bring an extra 9,000 new homes, ‘many affordable for local people’.
But what does ‘affordable’ mean? Housing association East Homes is currently offering part-rent, part-buy two-bedroom flats in Stratford that are supposed to help people in Newham clamber on to the property ladder.
Their price list states that rent and mortgage payments are expected to be £1061.40 a month – well beyond the reach of most people in the borough.
And no one expects the flats being built to house athletes to be rented out at a level that ordinary people can afford.
But what of the array of sport facilities that will remain after the games? Even here the talk of a ‘legacy’ is seriously misleading.
As 2012 draws to a conclusion, east London will be saddled with an enormous stadium that can handle large scale tournaments, but will be useless for the recreational needs of the local community.
The 2012 mountain biking venue being constructed in South Weald in Essex is estimated to cost £5 million. The event it caters for will last just six hours – and then the facility will be torn down.
The Olympics Aquatics Centre in Stratford will have a seating capacity of 2,500. But its presence will speed the demise of nine local swimming pools in London – including the best pool in the host borough of Waltham Forest, which is short of the £75 million it needs each year to remain open.
Gordon Brown said that he hoped Britain’s success in the Beijing games could combine to help rescue grassroots sport and inspire healthy living.
‘The Olympics can inspire people. More people will give up smoking, less people will become obese,’ he said. However there is plenty of evidence to suggest that the opposite will be the case.
As the cost of the London Olympics has spiralled to £9.3 billion, funds are being diverted from local sporting projects that involve many thousands of people – few of whom engage with sport in order to win a medal.
The big money is now being driven towards creating ‘centres of excellence’ in selected sports where a few hundred potential success stories will be groomed in the hope of Team GB winning a few more medals.
The National Lottery is channelling £2 billion of its funds into the 2012 Olympics, while London council tax bills are expected to provide another £1 billion. Waiting lists for classes at local centres will grow, and prices will continue to rocket.
The pressure to win doesn’t mean more young people getting involved in sports. It means elite sport for a minority of ‘winners’, as Brown made clear this week as he announced that schools should bring back ‘competitive sports’.
‘We want to encourage competitive sports in schools, not the ‘medals for all’ culture we have seen in previous years,’ he said. He went on to say that children could be encouraged to take up boxing in state schools as a way of teaching them self-control.
The notion that some people are ‘good’ at physical games while others are ‘useless’ remains a key part of people’s school experience of sport. It is one reason why so few people in Britain are regular participants in any sporting activity.
Brown is now seeking to compound this view – but perhaps this doesn’t matter if his rhetoric doesn’t meet the reality.
Last week a headline in The Mirror declared that young people should be inspired by Olympic success to ‘drop their knives and take up cycling’. You can’t help but think that fantasy politics has overtaken fantasy football as a national pastime.
For most people, the Olympics will never be a basis for active participation in sport. They will be a TV spectacle and little else.
And the big winners will not be the people of east London, but the multinational corporations who sponsor the event and the International Olympic Committee with its sale of billion dollar TV rights.
There will, of course, be one other beneficiary – the security industry. The home secretary’s Olympic Security Committee is pitching for a budget of £225 million.
This is what it says will be required to make London the surveillance capital of the world during the 2012 games. I wonder how many swimming pools you could buy for that?
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