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The Olympics in an age of discontent

April 18, 2012

 April 17 marked 100 days until the beginning of the 30th Olympic Games in London. There is a duality that emerges as a major sporting event arrives. On a purely sporting level, excitement levels rise at the prospect of the best in the world competing against each other but at the same time the impending social and economic disaster becomes clearer in the public’s mind, resulting in mixed feelings. In the case of London, the duality is heightened by the fact that lavish spending on the games will be occurring at a time when savage austerity measures have been imposed on people by the Conservative- Liberal Democratic government.

The British government is projected to spend $14.5 billion on the Games ($9.6 billion above its estimate), while last November David Cameron announced the doubling of the budget for the opening and closing ceremony to $125 million. This is despite the previous Government’s Olympic minister Tessa Jowell admitting that had they foreseen the economic crisis, they would have not made a bid for the Olympics.

Never one to let facts get in a way of an appealing argument. Sebastian Coe, conservative politician and chairman of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, turned this argument on its head in 2008 when he said that spending on the Olympics is not only positive but it will provide a pathway out of the recession. “No-one would have chosen this downturn but the Games could account for 6 to 7% of economic activity in this city over the next five years, not to mention the impact it could have on other parts of the country…That’s why we should be on the front foot – in good times or in bad this is a project that really has an extraordinary impact.”

The extraordinary impact has yet to show itself, in the years since Coe made his comments the UK economy has overall gone backwards by 0.8%, while unemployment has increased from 1.94 million to 2.67 million. Moreover, public spending could well exceed the $14.5 billion projected (since it is already 200% over budget), leaving even more public debt to be paid.

As The New York Times reported, “it is clear that even in flush times, the Olympics carry a considerable financial burden. The 1992 Barcelona Games left Spain with a $6.1 billion debt. Athens estimated that the 2004 Games would cost $1.6 billion, but in the end it was $16 billion. Meanwhile, it took Montreal nearly 30 years — until 2005 — to pay off the $2.7 billion it owed after the 1976 Summer Games.”

Spiralling debts due to the Olympics have made the majority think in a time of austerity, the cost is too high, reported on April 18 that a “BBC poll [has] found 64% of 2,007 people thought taxpayers had paid too much to cover the Games’ This sentiment makes particular sense when at the same time the government is pumping in money for the olympics, 30 billion dollars is being ripped out of the health budget.

However, it isn’t just the financial aspect of the games which which has led to bubbling discontent underneath the surface of the games. Perhaps the biggest controversy has been the sponsorship of the Games by Dow Chemical.

Union Carbide, the company responsible for the horrific gas leak in the Indian city of Bhopal in 1984, was bought out by Dow Chemical.It is estimated that 25,000 people have died of gas-related diseases as a result of the accident.

The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal stated about Dow’s sponsorship, “Both companies have refused to submit themselves to the jurisdiction of Indian courts on various matters relating to the disaster and other environmental fallouts. Union Carbide has even been declared a fugitive from justice by the Indian courts. Dow and Union Carbide are directly responsible for the massive human tragedy that continues to unfold in Bhopal. Children of gas affected parents, and those of parents consuming contaminated water have severe and debilitating birth defects.The Olympic organisers could not have chosen a worse partner than Dow. The partnership goes against the spirit of the Olympic Games, and violates its commitment to ‘justice, peace and environmental sustainability.’

The group Bhopal Group for Information and Action stated “The International Medical Commission on Bhopal, composed of 15 professionals from 11 countries and twelve areas of expertise that visited Bhopal in January 1994 and conducted epidemiological and clinical studies have reported that more than 50,000 persons in Bhopal are suffering from total or partial disability because of their exposure to the toxic chemicals of Union Carbide.”

The New Zealand Herald reported on the 18th of December that, “In 2009, at the 25th anniversary of the tragedy, the BBC took a sample of water from a hand pump in constant use just north of the plant and had it tested in the UK. It contained nearly 1000 times the World Health Organisation’s recommended maximum amount of carbon tetrachloride – a substance suspected of causing cancer and liver damage.

The Indian Government unsuccessfully tried to convince the British government to drop Dow. Activists are now calling on the Indian Government to boycott the Games. David Cameron, however, has said that even a boycott of the nation representing over 1 billion people will not lead to them dropping Dow. He said if the boycott happened, he would be “desperately sad. But I cannot tell people to come. I have fulfilled all my responsibilities.” He also referred to Dow as a “reputable company”. Dow, however, is far from alone in being a controversial sponsor. They are joined by Rio Tinto – linked to thousands of deaths in Papua New Guinea, and BP – responsible for the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

This from a Games claiming to be the most sustainable games of all time. A member of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, responsible for the games ethical practices, Meredith Alexander, resigned over the commission claiming that Dow bears no responsibility for Bhopal. However, the sinister influence of corporations over the olympics will also be on display every time an athlete performs. The Independent newspaper has found that the clothing made for the Olympics was ““being manufactured for Adidas in sweatshop conditions in Indonesia, making a mockery of claims by London 2012 organisers that this summer’s Games will be the most ethical ever”. Its editorial stated that, “The working conditions reported by staff at the Indonesian factories are unconscionable. Workers tell of pitiful wages, unreasonable production targets, appalling hours and even outright abuse. The London 2012 Organising Committee – which supposedly requires its suppliers to adhere to higher standards – should be ashamed of itself.”

All of this combined with the inevitable ticket problems has lead to a certain gloominess within Britain itself about the Games, raising the possibilities that the Games themselves will see political and industrial action. Len McCluskey, general secretary of the UNITE union, Britain’s biggest union, stated “The attacks that are being launched on public sector workers at the moment are so deep and ideological that the idea the world should arrive in London and have these wonderful Olympic Games as though everything is nice and rosy in the garden is unthinkable,” and that “The unions, and the general community, have got every right to be out protesting. If the Olympics provide us with an opportunity, then that’s exactly one that we should be looking at.”

David Cameron said the comments were “completely unacceptable and unpatriotic”. He was joined by leader of the Labour Party Ed Miliband who said, “Any threat to the Olympics is totally unacceptable and wrong, This is a celebration for the whole country and must not be disrupted.”

But it won’t be Dow chemical who is left to pay off the debts incurred by the games. It is not Ed Miliband’s hometown which was poisoned. It is not David Cameron who has to work in sweatshop conditions, nor is it Sebastian Coe who is feeling the effects as public services are being gutted. The London Olympics was sold on the concept of ‘one planet 2012 and it is precisely because we only one planet to live on that there will be protests at the Olympics. It is also why all those truly supportive of sustainability, let alone social justice, will be supporting them.


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