London has won its battle to host the 2012 Summer Olympics and the City is ramped up with efforts to beautify, complete facilities on time, and put its best foot forward as the host of the Olympics. Rumblings below the surface suggest that all is not well, however, and Olympic protesters are also gearing up for the events. Protest seems to have come an integral part of the Oympics, at this point. Members of the public appear unaware of the issues, the coverage of protests is scanty, and protesters are often simplistically framed as simply being against fun; after all, what’s not to like about the Olympics?
Already, displacement from private homes is occurring as a result of the Olympics, and there will be more to follow. This involves primarily low income, minority communities, including London’s large immigrant population, which is not in a good position to advocate for itself or fight back when displaced. Supposedly, affordable housing is being built to accommodate people displaced by events, but what does ‘affordable’ mean? Housing affordability is calculated in strange ways which tend to disadvantage low income people.
As an extremely expensive city to live in, London is a difficult place to survive for poor people. Landlords resent low income tenants and dream of displacing them in favour of people who will bring in more money, possibly by tearing down and rebuilding to increase density. The Olympics provides an ideal excuse to do this, and landlords are taking advantage of it. Many advocates worry that the pace of housing replacement cannot match displacement, leaving people homeless, crowding into small apartments, and struggling to make their way. And these ‘affordable’ units may have metrics based on unfair eocnomic data; people making well below average, or median, income may find this housing out of their reach.
The recent rioting in London has direct ties to the Olympics. Low income residents living in Olympic boroughs are seeing a lot of money spent around them, but not for or on them. People argue that the Olympics is a public relations exercise, an opportunity to develop stronger connections with allies and promote national pride, but that doesn’t really help people living on the ground in a state of increasing desperation. Youth unemployment in the UK is skyrocketing, and many youth are, understandably, extremely angry about their current living conditions.
Those promises of job creation and better economic circumstances ring false in the face of actual facts from other cities that have hosted Olympics. The events don’t appear to create long term benefits and in fact can bring about a drag on the economy. Cities still need to maintain athletic facilities if they don’t want them to fall into ruin, and need to come up with ways to raise funds to do so, whether it’s charging high fees for events or using more tax dollars on those facilities, rather than social services. It’s hard not to be angry when your benefits are cut and the sports stadium gets a new coat of paint.
The economic impacts of the London Olympics could be substantial:
In May 2007, a report from the Centre for Cities predicted that less than 8,000 jobs would be created prior to the games, and only 311 would be added after the event. The same report pointed out that the displacement of industry from the region would see the loss of 30,000 manufacturing jobs.
This is permanent change. What researchers are talking about is a significant loss of both jobs and culture for many Londoners, for an event that will not necessarily bring about any benefits for them. The UK is slashing social services right and left while sinking billions into Olympic events. This does not exactly inspire confidence when people are looking at a complete destruction of their entire way of life and traditions, which is what the displacement created by the Olympics amounts to. It will also inevitably contribute to gentrification, forcing people out of their homes and communities and into more remote, and unfamiliar, places on a permanent basis.
There’s also a significant security culture that comes along with the Olympics. Already, the rate of random stop and search is on the rise, particularly for young men of colour, and this is going to increase radically as the Olympic events start rolling. Racial profiling tends to, understandably, foster community resentments that may result in explosive contact between youth and police. This is done in the name of ‘safety’ for participants and attendees of the Olympics, but the actual safety of citizens who work and live in the area appears to be a low concern, otherwise police officers wouldn’t be stopping them constantly while they’re trying to go about their business.
Like other cities cleaning up for the Olympics, London is also careful to whisk homeless populations and undesirable businesses under the rug to create a picture-perfect vision of a host city. Going after the most vulnerable, the least able to defend themselves, the city is sanitising itself for the pleasure of guests, many of whom remain entirely unaware of these issues. Of course, these activities associated with Olympics hosted in regions the West likes to think of as ‘backwards’ or ‘oppressive’ tend to attract media attention because the industrialised West likes to crow about its superiority. Perhaps before condemning cities like Rio and Beijing, the West should look to itself, as should attendees and supporters of the Olympics.
The Olympics represent a fantastic opportunity for competitors, and it is hard to imagine turning down a chance to compete with some of the best athletes in the world, at state of the art venues. Athletes also want to stay politically neutral, because of the mission of the Olympics, but maybe it’s time for that to change, for them to start engaging directly with the communities affected by the Olympics, to determine if there is a better way to do this. If there is a way to hold an Olympics without harming people.