The Olympic Games have been associated with three of the most inspirational moments in the struggle for black emancipation. In August 1936 Jesse Owens confounded and humiliated the Nazi dictator Hitler by winning an unprecedented four gold medals at the games in Berlin. Twenty four years later Cassius Clay was crowned as the light heavyweight boxing champion in Rome. He was lauded on his return to the US, but still found himself refused service in “whites only” restaurants and targeted by racist gangs.
The suggestion that this provoked him to cast the medal into the Ohio River is, sadly, apocryphal. What is not in doubt is that he was influenced by Malcolm X, joined the Nation of Islam, and changed his name to Muhammad Ali. At the height of his fame the self-styled “Greatest” was stripped of his world heavyweight title for refusing to fight in Vietnam.
But the most memorable moment came in Mexico in 1968. Following their success in the 200 metres, the gold and bronze medallists, Tommie Smith and John Carlos, stepped onto the podium and collected their gongs. As The Star Spangled Banner began, they proceeded to raise a gloved fist to symbolise their affiliation to the growing Black Power movement. If you look carefully at that wonderful image you will note that the white Australian athlete who separated the two on the line is also wearing a round badge in support of his fellow athletes. The sporting careers of all three men lay in tatters but lifelong friendships were born. Smith and Carlos were pall bearers at Peter Norman’s funeral in 2006.
Circus of nationalism
Contrast these acts of defiance and solidarity with the nauseating sight we are more likely to see when the circus comes to London in August. I guarantee that not one of the successful competitors will be able to begin their lap of honour until a flag has been draped round their shoulders. This will be followed by more flag flying and a rendition of the winner’s national anthem during the medal ceremony.
Those of us with longer memories may recall the media outrage when Daley Thompson, one of the greatest athletes ever, was captured whistling rather than patriotically belting out God Save the Queen when he won gold in 1984. Those Games in Los Angeles symbolise the real nature and spirit of the modern Olympics.
Before then the Games had been in the doldrums. The summer Olympics of 1972 in Munich were marred by the murder of Israeli athletes and officials by a group linked to the Palestinian struggle. Montreal in 1976 was a financial catastrophe from which the city and the state of Quebec have never fully recovered.
In addition, 25 African countries pulled out on the eve of the Games in protest at the sporting links between New Zealand – which had sent a team – and apartheid South Africa, which had been banned since 1964 following a concerted campaign that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) opposed but ultimately could not resist.
The 1980 Moscow Games took place at the height of the Cold War and were boycotted by the US and 64 other countries. A tit for tat boycott of Los Angeles was subsequently mounted by 14 Soviet Bloc countries. Both these Olympics were therefore undermined by the absence of many of the world’s finest competitors. For those athletes, the years spent submitting to drugs programmes and destroying their bodies were wasted.
Los Angeles was, however, a commercial triumph for the IOC and set the template for future Games. Peter Ueberroth, the chair of the Organising Committee for those Games, realised the need to be more ruthless in exploiting sponsorship opportunities. He set about leveraging in sponsorship that meant that those Games turned a surplus of over $222 million, with the IOC pocketing “expenses” of more than $50 million.
On the surface, there is a facade of purity about the Games. This is symbolised by the oath taken on behalf of all athletes at the opening ceremony and the torch, nobly relayed from the ancient site of Olympia to the main stadium where it lights a flame that burns until the closing ceremony. In addition, unlike in most modern sports, no advertising is allowed on the perimeter boards of the stadiums or on the outfits of the competitors.
But outside of this the Games, alongside the football World Cup, are the biggest advertising jamboree in the world. Companies, including well-known promoters of healthy living such as McDonald’s and Coca- Cola, pay millions to be the “official food or drink” of the Olympics. Sprint champion Usain Bolt may claim that the secret of his success is a diet of chicken nuggets, but somehow I doubt it (and although I’m no expert, I would not advise anybody to follow that lead). In addition, though the inside of the Olympic stadium will remain unadorned, the outside will be covered by a £7 million “wrap” paid for by Dow Chemicals. A subsidiary of this corporation, Union Carbide, will forever be associated with the world’s worst chemical disaster at Bhopal in 1984 which has claimed an estimated 25,000 lives.
“The world in a city”
London’s bid for the 2012 Games was a marketing triumph. It included a brilliant video, “Sport at Heart”, featuring David Beckham and Kelly Holmes running past a series of London landmarks and inspiring ordinary people to imagine what it would be like. The final pitch to the IOC in Singapore was even more impressive. The delegation of 100 included not just “the great and the good” but also 30 Newham schoolchildren from different nationalities. The message was simple: here you would find “The world in one city”, a welcoming host community for every competing country. In addition, the key watchword was “legacy”. We were promised that the sporting facilities would be made available for community use after the Games. Ultra-fast broadband would link up the entire borough of Newham to the information superhighway. Schools were to be wired up to the media centre and the Olympic Village turned into affordable housing once the Games had gone.
These have proved to be expensive words and empty promises. The cost of the Games has rocketed. Few of the tickets for the most attractive events have ended up in the hands of the public. Less than 50 percent of the spectators at the blue riband 100 metre finals will be ordinary people. The stadium we have paid for is to be largely dismantled and sold off, quite possibly to a Premiership football club. Meanwhile the recession has put paid to the promises about the Olympic Village. One of the closest local schools, Rokeby, was forced to vacate its site in Stratford to allow the property developers to move in and the media centre is to be dismantled after the Games are over.
Local businesses were promised that they would benefit from tourism. Ordinary people were to be inspired to participate in sport and those who own property in Newham were offered the tantalising prospect of a huge increase in the value of their homes. There is, of course, absolutely no guarantee that any of this will happen – though there is evidence that some landlords are evicting people so they can cash in on premium rents for a few weeks from Olympic tourists.
What we have been given is “Stratford City”, a fancy new Westfield shopping centre. Marketed as the “gateway to the Olympics” this is quite literally the case. The lucky few who have got tickets will be corralled through Westfield in order to reach the Olympic site. In doing so, they will have no option but to pass by huge outlets for posh retailers such as Gucci, Tag Heuer and Prada. Ahead of the Games one rarely sees a single punter in any of these shops. Designer clothes and flash watches are well beyond the budgets of most people living in east London. It is hard to think of the presence of these retailers as anything other than a cynical attempt to cash in on the Games. If the recession continues to bite I would anticipate that these brands’ departure from Stratford will rival the speed of the “Lightning” Bolt.
What is not in doubt is that, along with the expense, the Olympics will deliver weeks of inconvenience and disruption. Londoners have already been advised to expect lengthy delays on the transport network, while specialist lanes will sweep the great and the good across the city to the Olympic Park.
Unite union leader Len McCluskey courted controversy when he suggested that his members might consider industrial action during the Games. He was swiftly and universally denounced in parliament and quickly retreated. But McCluskey was right to remind us that the austerity proposed by the coalition government will blight our lives long after the sporting jamboree has left town.
It was ordinary working people who built the stadiums on time and it will be transport workers and hospitality staff who will ferry people to and from those venues and cater to their needs. I have lived in Stratford for 15 years and have watched with wonder as thousands of workers from across the globe have transformed the local landscape since 2005. Despite their exclusion thousands of ordinary Londoners will volunteer and make the athletes and guests welcome when the Games begin. It is worth reflecting on what would happen if all of those people chose to withdraw their labour and support.
I have to confess I love sport. A part of me would love to be there when the pistol is fired to start the 100 metres final. I would shed no tears, however, if a display of workers power was to bring this hypocritical circus to a juddering halt.
John Carlos will be speaking about the Olympics at Friends Meeting House, London, on 21 May at 6pm
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