If the 2008 Summer Olympic Games in Beijing were all about a debutante making a strong and confident entrance on the world stage, then the 2012 London Olympics will have to be compared to a very old hag putting on excessive makeup to try and conjure up one last trick for the passing punter before she fades away into the night permanently.
I hasten to add that this harsh view isn’t my own, but rather what I could distil from reading the number of other articles including by other columnists at Asia Times Online. Yes Father Sisci, that includes you. (See Beijing sets the bar for Olympian effort, Asia Times Online, July 11, 2012.)
Four years ago, there was a fair amount of optimism and an air of expectation with respect to Beijing (see Anatomy of an Olympic winner, Asia Times Online, August 8, 2008). Trepidation if any
was limited to issues such as the quality of drinking water and the potential for elite athletes to suffer from accidental drug exposure from the consumption of unsafe animal products. All that though pales into comparison compared to the amount of fear being whipped up as we seem to have a global media that’s braced for disaster on the following counts:
a. Inadequate infrastructure
b. Strikes and stoppage threats
c. Poor weather
d. Potential for acts of violence
Let us look into these fears individually.
Will the infrastructure cope?
The first major question appears to concern London’s ability to actually stage the games given the woeful state of its infrastructure. I think the complaint is overall a fair cop, having been in both Beijing and London ahead of the respective Games. Then again, the English have managed to prioritize traffic flows in one of the busiest cities of the world for the Olympics, much as this has been widely resented by the (taxpaying) public. Especially notorious are the “Zil lanes” meant for Olympic officials, that have been widely panned as evocative of Soviet-era prioritization of Communist officials over the Proletariat. I wrote a long time ago about the London underground rail network and won’t revisit the topic; hopefully I will not have to revisit the tube ever again either.
The inadequacy of Western infrastructure though is a broader topic that goes to the root of their declining productivity and in many cases, relevance to the global economy. The Asian experience in building infrastructure (see Asia’s permanent advantage, Asia Times Online, February 27, 2010) cannot be replicated easily in the West through ordinary budgetary experiences – instead it would take special events such as the Olympics to galvanize the infrastructure of declining cities. Whether the English have actually managed to spend their money wisely is a matter of some debate, and we will not know the answer to the questions until well after the Games.
Will strikes disrupt the Games?
The second major worry is social as much as it is political. The fact that British society is broken socially was clearly on display a year ago when riots broke out around the capital (see London riots reduce the lies of the left to ashes, Aug 16, 2011) as youth spilled out on the streets despite decades of mollycoddling by an indulgent state. Those worries persist, but to them we must add the likelihood of train drivers going on strike, roads being blocked by striking hospital workers and all the other jetsam from the unaddressed aspects of the financial crisis.
Of the major worries, I would rate this one as sufficiently uncontrollable enough to be a problem should it fructify over the fortnight of the Games. We already have news of striking workers at the main airports, as well as those manning certain key infrastructure roles. Such folks would obviously try to maximize their bottleneck potential at the most opportune time, eg during the Games, with the fervent hope that an unpopular government may come to any round of accommodation to avoid further public opprobrium. The fact the leader of the opposition Labour party appears to have weighed in on the side of Union bosses only adds fuel to this fire.
What about English weather?
There is a rich tradition of joking about the English weather, with my favourite being: “Of course we have summer in England. Why, last year it was on a Wednesday”.
Truth be told though, one could hardly fault the country for their weather but then again, it would have been remiss for the organizers of the Olympics to have missed that minor little detail when deciding where to stage the games in such a manner that at least one could be assured of enough clear days to finish the rather tight schedules. The point is to see whether the organizers have prepared enough alternatives in case of weather disruptions in particular locations or for certain sports that may fall afoul of the weather patterns.
Or you could do what a dear friend of mine has done, which is to only purchase tickets for Olympic events that involve water: rowing, sailing and so on. After all, he reasoned, the rain shouldn’t affect those sports all that much. I didn’t exactly break it to him that outdoor water sports are likely the worst affected by rain; to each their own.
What about terrorism?
There is something about big events that inevitably raises the spectre of violence. Reacting after the horrific shooting in Aurora (near Denver, Colorado) cinema ahead of the new Batmanfilm, the critic Roger Ebert wrote:
I’m not sure there is an easy link between movies and gun violence. I think the link is between the violence and the publicity. Those like James Holmes, who feel the need to arm themselves, may also feel a deep, inchoate insecurity and a need for validation. Whenever a tragedy like this takes place, it is assigned catchphrases and theme music, and the same fragmentary TV footage of the shooter is cycled again and again. Somewhere in the night, among those watching, will be another angry, aggrieved loner who is uncoiling toward action.
I don’t usually agree with the likes of Roger Ebert on most things, but in this case I believe he does have a point. When you boil it all down, the Olympics offer an unparalleled stage for loonies to vent their frustrations; societies that do not have the ability to control violence in a movie hall shouldn’t be sitting around worrying about violence in a global television festival.
I simply don’t have an answer to the fears about terrorism. Like most folks used to traveling regularly through airports and visiting a number of cities around the world, the subject of security is simply another one of daily difficulties to overcome.
So what’s the real bugbear?
When one removes all the logical sources of fear, as above, we are then left to confront greed as the primary motivation for the media whipping up all kinds of concerns ahead of the Olympics. Let me clarify – I don’t mean that the media are greedy, rather that they are reacting in a whiplash fashion to the perceived corporate greed surrounding the Olympics.
Last week, one media outlet published the “news” that the ordering of a English staple bar food – “chips” or what the rest of us would call French Fries – was banned at all Olympic venues except McDonald’s restaurants; the only exception being the ordering of that other English staple, fish and chips. This caused a lot of agony amongst bloggers who plain forgot that the restrictions applied to Olympic venues only; and that the menu of all the food outlets in these venues had been prescribed many months ago.
Others opined that the purveyors of fast food, generally regarded as unhealthy, should never have been allowed to sponsor the Games. That is a fair point, but it does raise two subsidiary issues: firstly the fact that foods being served are entirely legal and secondly that sponsorship money goes a long way for organizers to defray the cost of Games. If on the other hand someone wanted to stage an Olympics such as the “original” ones in Greece many millennia ago, well then the taxpayers would have to foot a pretty fancy bill.
All those rationalizations to one side, it is obvious that the media are playing to the zeitgeist particularly in Europe that has gone “off” capitalism and in particular large companies and banks. Thus it is that whatever other records are broken in London, the Games may well be remembered as the “Greed and Fear Games” for decades to come.
(Copyright 2012 Tiger Asia)