Thursday, 26 July 2012

A Ring of Steel for the Five Rings


Author of a new book on the Olympics MARK PERRYMAN argues that the London 2012 security mess isn’t just about staff shortages.

Munich ‘72 will always remain one of the most iconic of all Olympic Games. Not so much for Olga Korbut’s impish performance in the Gymnastics or the Gold Medal haul of Mark Spitz in the pool. It is the lethal carnage resulting from the Israeli athletes being taken hostage by the Palestinian Black September group that Munich will always be remembered for.

In Gaza and the West Bank immense problems remain, the murderous consequences of Israel’s war on the Palestinians only too obvious. Yet in all the commentary on the security threat to the London Games scarcely anyone has observed that in 2012 Palestine competes as a nation-state at the Olympics, under its own national flag. This would have been almost impossible to imagine 40 years ago, the threat of terror can never be defeated by military means, the root causes can only ever be solved via a political solution.
 Of course the Games organisers cannot afford to wait for a political settlement to the cause that frames the terror threat they identify facing London 2012, the fallout from the Iraq war and the continuing occupation of Afghanistan. But recognising there is a reason behind these acts of violence should at least be the starting point for understanding the securitisation of the Olympics. A point almost entirely absent from all the breathless reporting on London 2012 security and why all these tens of thousands of security staff were required in the first place.

It would be reckless to dismiss the bloody horrors that would be the result of any kind of attack on the Games. But security is also about where you choose to draw the line between crowd safety and human liberty. Three examples show how badly London has got it wrong.

First, the Lea Valley Towpath which runs alongside the edge of the Olympic Park. Already the park is enclosed by a sky high fence, topped by razor wires and electronic sensors, with CCTV every few metres and security patrols inside the fence, all to protect the Park from intruders. But in addition  the towpath was closed to public access 23 days before the Olympics even began.  All across London on the edge of Olympic venues there have been similar restrictions imposed.

Second, on the list of banned objects which cannot be taken into the Olympic Park is ‘the flag of any country not competing in the Games’. This is aimed specifically at Free Tibet demonstrators, Tibet is a country not represented at 2012, what possible harm is there if anyone wanted to wave Tibet’s flag as a peaceful protest? Isn’t this what’s called free speech? Again, this is just one example of numerous other instances of crossing the line between safety concerns and policing the right to protest.

Third, the experience of previous events. I have been lucky enough to have been to the last four World Cups. None of this very public mobilisation of the host nation’s armed forces took place, no obvious presence of missiles, warships, aircraft on standby, troops on the streets. There is something about the martial and imperial tradition that seems to insist that in GB we must parade our military hardware for all to see and believe this will somehow act as reassurance rather than leave people asking, why?

The security risk cannot be entirely discounted. But the overwhelming effort of all those employed to guard the Games has nothing to do with terrorism. They are there to prevent any sort of protest and to defend the interests of the sponsors. Another item on the banned list of products to take into any Olympic venue is an ‘excessive amount of food.’ If fans are peckish its not an extra round of cheese and pickle sandwiches the organisers want them tucking into but a Big Mac and all the other officially approved products. 

And when the private sector provider couldn't supply the ever-escalating numbers of staff to frisk fans for their home-made sardines or the wrong brand of fizzy drink to the rescue came the public sector in the shape of the armed services, many recently returned from Afghanistan. Overnight  ‘Help for Heroes’ has turned into cheap labour from Heroes in order to protect not you and me, but Macdonald’s, Coca Cola, Heineken and the rest. A secure Games, but who are they protecting?

Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be (£8, £6 kindle edition) available exclusively from here