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The Olympics and the City

Oscar Reyes went to Athens to look at how the Olympics affected the life of the city, and found a legacy of privatization and surveillance. Back in London, he draws the lessons for the capital's own Olympic Bid.

April 1, 2005
10 min read


Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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The banner on the Millennium Dome reads ‘London 2012’. This doesn’t look like a very good bit of PR to me. It looks like an apparition: “we wasted £800 million on one white elephant, just think what we could do with a whole herd of them.”

That’s more or less the situation in Athens where almost all of the 36 purpose-built Olympic venues now lie empty. The main Olympic complex remains closed to the public. The Peace and Friendship Stadium has reported leaks and electrical faults, the marathon route and a new US$380 million tramway have caused severe drainage problems, and the floor of the Galatsi indoor arena is covered in broken glass. As costs mount, even the Greek government admits to a lack of planning: “We did not have a reliable post-Olympics plan in Greece. Many venues were designed without their post-Olympic use in mind,” says Fani Petralia, the deputy Culture Minister who was the country’s top Olympic official.

This comes as no surprise to the city’s anti-Olympics campaigners, however. “The venues aren’t needed for the normal life and sporting needs of the city” says Campaign Anti-2004 activist Haris Konstandatos. “They were constructed in open public spaces that should have been kept for socially useful projects or as free, green spaces.” The Olympic bandwagon has moved on, but the city’s inhabitants are still coming to terms with the legacy of the Games – including the destruction of public spaces, a massively increased security apparatus, and a huge public debt. So why is the field to host the 2012 Olympics the most competitive ever?

Competing to consume

The key to this paradox lies in the promotion of competition between cities under conditions of neoliberal globalisation. Increasingly, local government and corporate strategists look at the development of cities through the framework of international competitiveness. With the decline of production-based jobs, the leisure industry is seen as vital to economic growth. This was certainly the case with the Athens Games, which sought to project the image of a ‘competitive mega-city’, a regional hub for the Eastern Mediterranean and a desirable tourist destination. But it is equally true of London, where the Greater London Authority has promoted the vision of a ‘world city’ in which financial services and corporations flourish.

The Olympic Games, whose five-ring symbol is recognised by around 90% of the world’s population, is the mega-event of choice in the bidding race for consumer-oriented development. But the costs of such a strategy are stark, since it can lead to greater urbanization and the deepening of the divide between core and periphery. As a result of the 2004 Games the unequal allocation of resources between Athens, where almost half of the Greek population resides, and the rest of the country has grown more severe. The Olympics has also polarized Athens itself, with the evidence pointing to gentrification rather than regeneration in the areas that it has touched. In the most extreme case, it resulted in the forced resettlement of Roma families to make way for Olympic venues.

Athens is by no means unique, however. Gareth Poynter of the University of East London points out that “the consumption-led services growth model, implicit to Olympic bid strategies, has tended to generate an acceleration of an urban regeneration and development process that has exacerbated income and wealth differentials within cities.” The risk of Olympics-led regeneration is that it displaces poverty rather than redistributing wealth. And that is a story that East London residents, who have seen the Docklands developments of the 1980s and the Millennium Dome pass by without the promised ‘trickledown’ effects, know only well.

The Trojan horse of privatisation

Things will be different this time around. Or so say the backers of London’s 2012 Olympic Bid, who have worked hard to promote the Games as a vehicle of genuine regeneration. London Mayor Ken Livingstone promises a “lasting and sustainable legacy,” whilst the London Development Agency Deputy Chair John Biggs talks of “investment, not only in the physical transformation of the area, but also in local communities by creating new job opportunities and improving health and education resources in the area.” The Olympic Bid committee has even signed up to an ‘ethical’ Olympics charter, promoted by The East London Communities Organisation (TELCO), which contains promises of affordable homes in the Olympic park.

These are impressive promises, but if the history of Games-driven regeneration is anything to go by they will not be met. A far more typical story is one in which planning concerns are routinely flouted and residents voices are ignored. In Athens, several venues were erected against planning laws or through special regulations. Local opposition was only dampened by the promise that a number of venues would be provisional. Yet this hasn’t happened and, as the cost of keeping vacant buildings escalates, there is much talk of offloading them onto the private sector. “The venues will stay and be privatised, since maintenance costs cannot be met by the local authorities” says Haris Konstandatos. “But as the private sector moves in, it reserves the right to add extra facilities to make the venues more attractive investment propositions.” The result is a double blow for the city’s residents, with the Olympics blazing a trail of privatisation which is then extended even further in the aftermath of the Games.

The origins of this gap between warm promises made before the Games and the cold, hard reality of its aftermath lie in the way that decisions about the Olympics get made. The International Olympic Committee (IOC), which has overall responsibility for the event, is simply not designed as an instrument of public policy or urban planning. What it is geared to do, rather, is to stimulate competition and corporate sponsorship. This has led to an unhealthy climate of greed, commercialism and rampant corruption within the IOC. But it has also resulted in an event whose governance is above the control of local populations. Put simply, when hundreds of millions of dollars in corporate sponsorship are at stake, what is the likelihood of local populations having a voice?

Counting the costs

While the Games are the responsibility of the IOC, however, their legacy is not. Host cities are contractually obliged to bear the costs of any debt incurred as a result of hosting the Olympics according to IOC rules. This is particularly problematic since, with the exception of Los Angeles where regeneration was never considered an issue, the modern Olympics have consistently lost money. The 1976 Montreal Games resulted in debts of around £600 million, whilst the cost of the 2000 Sydney Olympics to the public purse was closer to £800 million, over twice the initial estimate. These figures look certain to be dwarfed by the costs of the Athens Games, which could top 10 billion euros according to some estimates – five times the original budget. Panos Totsikas, coordinator of Campaign Anti-2004, notes that the public purse is the hardest hit: “The money comes from public funds, and because there’s been extensive borrowing by the state the future generations could suffer. This is a normal story in other Olympic cities too but with Greece being small country, and additional security costs, the debt here is particularly high.”

The record of sporting mega-events in Britain is a poor one too. Sheffield Council is still carrying an annual debt burden of £22m arising from the World Student Games in 1991, and the overall cost is estimated at anywhere up to £400 million. And if London’s profligate spending so far is anything to go by, the signs aren’t promising. £30 million in public funds have been allocated to the Olympic Bid alone (as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport Tessa Jowell recently confirmed), and the allocation of Lottery Funding means the true figure could be much higher. Rupert Litherland, a boat owner in Walthemstow and an anti-Olympics 2012 campaigner, says that this has already had detrimental effects on the sporting life of the area: “In terms of grassroots sport, we’re seeing money diverted in the form of Lottery grants from community sports projects to this big spectacle for elite athletes. Already in London over the last year there’s been a freeze on community sports Lottery grants in order to fund the bid. We’ll feel the ripple effects across the UK if we get the bid.”

Before a single venue has even been built, the London 2012 team has also embarked upon a massive Public Relations exercise which has visibly transformed the city’s public spaces and transport system. 35,000 ‘Back the Bid’ posters have been placed at bus shelters and underground stations, whilst five major stations have been dressed in Olympics 2012 branding. Tube trains routinely sport ‘Back the Bid: Make Britain Proud’ stickers, whilst 40 buses and 100 taxis have been decked out as moving billboards. Whole trains have been decorated with Olympic logos – which are even woven into the seats in a few cases. The cumulative effect of this propaganda exercise is to further extend the scope of advertising beyond its traditional billboards. The symbolic economy of the city is transformed as more space becomes fair game for advertisers. This effect can already be seen on the Docklands Light Railway, where Olympic trains are interspersed with others promoting the London Arena and Diet Coca Cola.

Securing the Olympics

There is a more sinister side to all this, however, which manifests itself in the use of the Olympics to militarize urban space. The 2004 Games, the first to be held since September 11, were woeful in this regard. The Greek government used the occasion to push new anti-terror legislation through Parliament, and during the Games themselves restrictions were placed upon freedom of movement within the city. Athens was prepared as a potential battleground for the ‘war on terror’ with patriot missiles, fighter planes and US battleships all on standby. The US$1.5 billion cost of this massive security operation also included 70,000 security personnel and 16,000 soldiers. Accompanying these measures, the Athens Olympics saw the introduction of a bewildering array of security technologies: CCTV cameras, chemical sensors, and a vast computer surveillance network.

This is clearly good news for some people. For example, an Israeli Manufacturers Association recently reported that “US$200 million worth of [Israeli] security products were sold to companies and organizations tasked with providing security at the Athens Olympics.” But it is more ominous for the population of the Greek capital, since the bulk of this expensive security apparatus still remains. Haris Konstandatos argues that the Olympics was “used as an excuse for spending money on police infrastructure and the introduction of new anti-terrorist laws. Huge amounts of money were spent on equipment that didn’t work. But the part that works is now used for the surveillance of Greek society.”

Back in London, the picture is likely to be a similar one. Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair has already revealed a £224 million plan for Olympic security – and this does not even account for the possibility of military personnel being deployed, as they were in Greece. The Greatest Show on Earth, it seems, would be accompanied by one of the largest security operations ever mounted in the UK. Long after the TV cameras have moved on, the CCTV would still be watching. And that’s a spectre we would be foolish to ignore.

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Oscar ReyesOscar Reyes is an associate fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies and is based in Barcelona. He was formerly an editor of Red Pepper. He tweets at @_oscar_reyes


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