Olympic Legacies

The following are some thoughts taken from the conclusion to my PhD thesis on the sort of challenge that the Olympics represent to Iain Sinclair, and indeed, to other artists and writers living in London. I’ve decided to put them up here for a couple of reasons: firstly, because I think the collection of Olympic facts I’ve managed to amass are pretty extraordinary, but also because it gives some of the background to the piece that my sister, Rowena Hay, and I wrote for the forthcoming collection The Art of Dissent: Adventures in London’s Olympic State, edited by Hilary Powell and Isaac Marrero-Guillamòn. On hearing about the collection, my initial thoughts were that if you were to draw a venn diagram of ‘People who hate the Olympics’ and ‘Artists who live in East London’, it would look something like this:

Olympics Venn Diagram

So we tried to write something a little bit against this grain. However, the more I found out about the Olympics and the more time I spent near the site, the less and less I liked them. It’s not hard to see that the games represent simultaneously both an extraordinary enclosure of public space and an iniquitous transferal of wealth from the public to the most venal of capitalist speculators; yet at once, there is a deeply Utopian aspect to the project also. Who wouldn’t assent to the Olympic Values of ‘Respect, Excellence, Friendship, Courage, Determination, Inspiration, Equality‘? How can we think about the Olympics in a way which doesn’t just wish them away or condemn them, but instead thinks them differently? Not, by the way, that I’m suggesting that I’ve managed to do this…

Thoughts on Iain Sinclair and the Olympics

The old men say their fathers told them that soon after the fields were left to themselves a change began to be visible. It became green everywhere in the first spring, after London ended, so that all the country looked alike.[1]

It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.[2]

Iain Sinclair’s most recent book, Ghost Milk, focuses, amongst other things, on the 2012 Olympic Games, whose principle site lies on the edge of Sinclair’s home borough of Hackney in East London. It is perhaps worth noting the extraordinary extent of this trespass into the author’s home turf. At a time during which all of the major UK political parties are united in their agreement on the need for financial austerity in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, the scale an d associated costs of the Olympics are staggering: the Public Accounts Committee, the UK Parliamentary spending watchdog, has estimated that the final cost of the games to the taxpayer will reach as much as £11 billion, exceeding the current budget of £9.3 billion,[4] which is itself significantly larger than the initial forecast cost of £3.4 billion, on which basis in 2005 London won the bid to hold the games.[5]

This economic cost is accompanied by spatial incursions on an unprecedented scale: in addition to the 500 acres of the Olympic park,[6] sections of the London road network have been set aside for Olympic use, with a fine being levied on unauthorised vehicles using designated ‘games lanes’ for the duration of the events.[7] Spectators arriving at the main Olympics site in Stratford by train or tube will enter via the new Westfield Stratford City shopping centre.[8] Accordingly, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) is extremely jealous of its intellectual property: ‘branded’ food and drink will only be available from McDonald’s, Coca Cola, and Cadbury,[9] not companies noted, one might add, for the healthiness of their products. Payments at Olympic venues will only be accepted in cash or by Visa, another official Olympic partner—no other credit or debit cards will be accepted.[10] Guidelines produced by the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) indicate that use of the Olympic Symbol, the Olympic Motto (‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’), the words ‘Olympic(s)’, ‘Olympiad(s)’, ‘Olympian(s)’, or ‘anything similar to them, or translations’ in a commercial setting without permission could be considered copyright infringement.[11] In addition, use of one or more of the following—‘Games’, ‘Two Thousand and Twelve’, ‘2012’, ‘twenty twelve’—or two or more of ‘Gold’, ‘Silver’, ‘Bronze’, ‘London’, ‘medals’, ‘sponsors’, ‘summer’, also represent potential infringements.[12] Restrictions on advertising and trading have been established around the Olympic venues,[13] and clothing bearing ‘political statements or overt commercial identification intended for “ambush marketing”’ will not be permitted within Olympic venues.[14]

These restrictions have had concrete, if farcical, outcomes: examples include a florist in Stoke which has been forced to remove their Olympics-themed window display under threat of legal action from Coca Cola,[15] as has a butcher in Weymouth, whose rings of sausages apparently attracted the ire of Olympics officials.[16] Political protest will not be permitted within or in the vicinity of the Olympics venues, and already there has been censorship of dissenting views, the social networking site Twitter having suspended the account of the protest group Space Hijackers on the request of LOCOG due to copyright issues.[17] Extraordinarily, in 2008 Hackney Council prevented Sinclair himself from launching his book Hackney, That Rose-Red Empire at Stoke Newington Library on account of his critical stance towards the games.[18]

Whilst the Olympic and Paralympic games will themselves last only a matter of weeks, there has been much trumpeting of the legacy of the games. In addition to The Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, ’up to’ 11,000 homes will be built on Olympics site in the twenty years following the Olympics.[19] Of the 3,000 that will be available from 2013, half of them will be ‘affordable’, though as Anna Minton points out, this in itself is a slippery term, and the current Conservative administration understands the word to mean anything up to 80% of market rates.[20] As a recent article in The Independent notes, this means a two bedroom property in the Olympic park would only be affordable to those with an income in excess of £30,000 per year:[21] figures produced by the Greater London Authority in 2010 put the equivalised median income for households in Newham (the borough in which Stratford is located) at £23,265 per year, whilst 26% of households in the borough earn less than £15,000 per year.[22]

It remains to be seen what the eventual legacy of the London Olympics will be in East London. However, previous games have left an ambiguous mark on their cities: the 1996 Atlanta games, for example, saw a net increase in the cities’ housing stock of around 4,000, but critics have noted that this urban renewal has tended to favour the rich at the expense of the largely poor residents of the neighbourhoods that were demolished to construct the Centennial Olympic Park.[23] Disregarding the politics of gentrification, neither is it clear as to whether the Olympics has a positive impact on the economies of host countries. The most extreme example of the sort of financial liability that can be incurred is that of the 1976 games held in Montreal, the $2.759 billion debt amassed only being paid off in 2006,[24] and, as Paul Kitchin notes, only Los Angeles 1984 and Atlanta 1996 have managed to balance direct costs with revenue.[25] The 2004 Athens games raised the Greek state budget deficit by 6.1% of GDP, which, as Roy Panagiotopoulou points out, is one of the main reasons why Greece was placed under EU monitoring in 2004.[26] Moreover, the debts incurred by the Olympic project are a contributing factor to that country’s current economic woes, and at the time of writing Greece is on the brink of exiting the Eurozone with potentially catastrophic consequences both for the Greek people and the world economy as a whole.[27]

I cite these statistics not because of their particular relevance to Ghost Milk—though I would argue that they form part of the context to which this book responds—but to note the challenge that the sheer scale of the Olympic developments represents to Sinclair’s writing. It is not an overstatement to describe the ambitions of the 2012 Olympics as totalitarian in scope: as the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) itself notes in its own literature, ‘Preparations are now underway for how London and the UK as a whole will look, feel and operate during the Games’.[28] Indeed, a large part of the increased spending on the Games comes in part on the basis of the scale of the security operation needed to police them: according to The Guardian, 13,500 troops will be deployed to guard the Olympic site, more than are in service in Afghanistan at the time of writing.[29] Missiles have been installed on sites around East London,[30] and the aircraft carrier HMS Ocean will be stationed in the Thames at Greenwich for the duration of the games to provide ‘airspace security’ and ‘logistics support’.[31] It almost goes without saying that this militarisation of urban space and the top-down model of political and economic intervention enacted by the Olympic project is deeply antipathetic to the sentiments of Sinclair’s work. Downriver, for example, can be read as a polemical (and at times hyperbolic) reaction to the redevelopment of the Docklands area of London in the 1980s; London Orbital’s stated purpose is to ‘circumnavigate the [Millennium] Dome […] at a safe distance’;[32] Lights Out for the Territory makes frequent and highly critical reference to the tightly-controlled and perpetually surveilled streets of the City of London.

Yet in the ways in which his works satirise the political conjunctions to which they are opposed, Sinclair’s writing tends often towards an apocalypticicsm that finds itself expressed, for example, in the suggestion of an arc of continuing violence inscribed in history in Lud Heat; the messianism that ‘Sinclair’ and Joblard detect in Whitechapel’s threatened backlots in White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings; or in the transformation of Britain into a one-party state led by a demonically-possessed Thatcher in Downriver. How, then, to formulate a response to a gentrification project whose scale eclipses its predecessors by several orders of magnitude? On visiting the Athens stadium some years after the 2004 games in Ghost Milk, Sinclair describes a post-apocalyptic landscape:

A museum without walls on a bulldozed meadow of mud. An island, between motorway and railway, surrounded by glass boxes, failed corporate entities, unpopular estates, scrap-metal dumps, breakers’ yards, mosaic walls with laurel-wreath symbols. The death of the grand project is the history painting of our time: W. P. Frith’s Derby Day, without the people, the excursionsists, gypsies, toffs, gulled punters. All that human noise is missing, only the set itself is worthy of commemoration. Great fireworks, great razzmatazz. And then? Crippling debts. White-elephant stadiums that cost a fortune to keep empty. New roads choked with tractor protests. Airports closed. Angry, stone throwing mobs demonstrating the consequences of fiscal mismanagement, chicanery by international bankers, a culture of tax avoidance and brown bagism. National pride suborned by a word the Greeks patented: Hubris.[33]

The ‘Grand Project’ represents the suppression of ‘human noise’, yet it is the exclusion of the mob that will bring such hubristic endeavours to an end. Given the dire state of the Greek economy and the re-emergence of the far-right in response, Sinclair’s comments here are both prescient and apposite. Sinclair goes on to note that the Surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico lived in Athens as a young man, arguing that he ‘understood all too well that great cities achieve their essence as ruins.’[34] However, if Benjamin’s Arcades Project can teach us anything, it is of the redemptive potential of such ruins, and of our moral responsibility to read in the fragment the whole of which it might once have been a part and of which it might one day still be. Sinclair’s writing, at its best, matches up to this injunction, yet the landscape depicted above seems little more than a waste land. Indeed, I would argue that much of the power of Sinclair’s work derives from the ways in which he sees in the shells of such grand projects not the signs of salvation, but of our extinction.

I would, however, like to draw attention instead to the above passage’s treatment of art. Whilst for Sinclair the rewriting of space enacted by such Olympian projects leads to disintegration and social collapse, his references to painting—Frith, de Chirico—suggest also a hope in the redemptive capacity of artistic works (in the broadest sense) to enable us to imagine how things might otherwise be. At one point in Valences of the Dialectic, Frederic Jameson makes an heroic effort to think the supermarket chain Wal-Mart dialectically: to see in it, for all its many and damning flaws, ‘the shape of a Utopian future looming through the mist, which we must seize as an opportunity to exercise the Utopian imagination more fully, rather than an occasion for moralizing judgments or regressive nostalgia.’[35] Much as Wal-Mart’s operations have, for Jameson, multiple deleterious effects, the Olympics are, from Sinclair’s perspective, inflicting great damage on London. The challenge that the Games represent to his writing, therefore, is whether the imaginative capacities of the alternative visions he champions are adequate to the task of redeeming the Olympic legacy, in whatever shape that it might take.

[1] Richard Jefferies, After London: Or, Wild England, p. 1.
[2] Frederic Jameson, ‘Future City’, New Left Review 21, May-June 2003, accessed March 2012.
[3] Frederic Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic (London: Verso, 2009), p. 421.
[4] Public Accounts Committee, ‘Preparations for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games: Progress Report December 2011’, accessed June 2012. At the time of writing most of the information related to the London 2012 Olympics is available only online or from journalistic sources.
[5] National Audit Office, ‘The budget for the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games’, 20 July 2007, p. 6. accessed 2012.
[6] London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, ‘The Olympic Park’, accessed June 2012.
[7] Transport For London, ‘Avoiding Fines’.
[8] Esther Addley, ‘Welcome to London 2012. But first take a walk through the shopping centre’, The Guardian, Friday 19th August 2011.
[9] The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), ‘Food vision for the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games’, December 2009, p. 25, accessed June 2012.
[10] London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, ‘Payment’, accessed July 2012.
[11] The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, ‘London 2012’s UK Statutory Marketing Rights’, (April 2010), p. 12., accessed June 2012.
[12] LOCOG, ‘London 2012’s UK Statutory Marketing Rights’, p. 24.
[13] London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, ‘Advertising and trading regulations’, accessed June 2012.
[14] London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, ‘Prohibited Items’, p. 2., accessed June 2012.
[15] Anon., ‘Take down those rings! Florist falls foul of ban on Games logo’, The Daily Mail, 29th May 2012., accessed June 2012.
[16] Anon., ‘Sausages “exploit” Olympic logo’, BBC News, 31st August 2007., accessed June 2012.
[17] Shiv Malik, ‘Twitter suspends account for using London 2012 Olympics logo’, The Guardian, 23rd May 2012.
[18] Iain Sinclair, ‘Banned in Hackney – for going off-message about the Olympics’, The Guardian, 22nd September 2008.
[19] Olympic Park Legacy Company, ‘Future of the Park Launch Brochure’, p. 3., accessed July 2012.
[20] Anna Minton, ‘The London Olympics: A Festival of Private Britain’, The Guardian, 24th January 2012.
[21] Charlie Cooper, ‘Price rise for “affordable” housing puts Olympic legacy under threat’, The Independent, Monday 2nd July 2012.
[22] Richard Walker, ‘Focus London 2010: Income and Spending at Home’, (London: GLA Intelligence Unit, 2010), p. 6.
[23] Gavin Poynter and Emma Roberts, ‘Atlanta (1996): The Centennial Games’, in Olympic Cities: 2012 and the Remaking of London ed. by Gavin Poynter and Iain Macrury (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009), pp. 121-131 (127).
[24] Holger Preuss, ‘The Olympics’ in Handbook on the Economics of Sport ed. by Wladimir Andreff and Stefan Szymanski (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2006), pp. 183-196 (184).
[25] Paul Kitchin, ‘Financing the Games’ in Olympic Cities: City Agendas, Planning and the World’s Games, 1896-2016 ed. by John R. Gold and Margaret M. Gold (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 131-147 (147).
[26] Roy Panagiotopoulou, ‘The 28th Olympic Games in Athens 2004’, in Olympic Cities pp. 145-162 (153).
[27] Martin Wolf, ‘A permanent precedent: An exit is likely to shatter faith in the eurozone’s integrity forever’, Financial Times, 17th May 2012.
[28] Olympic Delivery Authority, ‘London 2012 Advertising and street trading regulations Further details, June 2009’, p. 1., accessed June 2012.
[29] Stephen Graham, ‘Olympics 2012 Security: Welcome to Lockdown London’, The Guardian, 12th March 2012.
[30] Jerome Taylor, ‘Londoner’s fury at MOD plans to put Olympic missiles on roofs’, The Independent, 30th April 2012.
[31] Duncan Gardham, ‘Military to help out with Olympic 2012 security’, The Telegraph, 15th December 2011.
[32] Iain Sinclair, London Orbital, p. 457.
[33] Iain Sinclair, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), p. 384.
[34] Iain Sinclair, Ghost Milk: Calling Time on the Grand Project (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2011), p. 385.
[35] Frederic Jameson, Valences of the Dialectic, p. 423.

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