Monday 11 December 2017

A city suspends its disbelief

If G4S and LOCOG remain the story, then these games will have failed, writes Dion Fanning

Last Tuesday at noon, Nick Buckles stared blankly at a House of Commons committee which was intent on destroying him.

Buckles seemed to represent everything that the London Olympics had become. London had won the Olympics in Singapore seven years ago by claiming it would be a tournament for the people, for the children. It had appeared the Olympics was, until he ran out of room, a tournament for Buckles and the sponsors whose brands were being protected in the build-up to the Games with comic zeal.

Buckles represented more than the capture of the Olympics by the slippery corporate class. He represented their triumph. Buckles was the latest poster boy for the light touch regulation which has made the excluded sections of the population feel like a soft touch.

Buckles' company G4S had won the security contract for the 2012 Olympics but at the beginning of July they had realised they might not have the people to enforce that security.

G4S applied the "just-in-time" concept to most aspects of their business, including the recruitment of staff. The objective is to reduce costs by not employing people until the last moment but in their mass recruitment for the Olympics, too many potential employees fell by the wayside and LOCOG, the organising committee for the London games, have called in the army to provide security.

Buckles, like the bankers, was turning to the public sector to bail him out when things took a turn for the worse. Unlike the bankers, Buckles would pay the public sector to do this (G4S are covering the cost of the army and police who have replaced them), not the other way round but he was still savaged, especially when he announced that his company would take their £57m management fee for providing security at the Olympics.

As Buckles spoke, nine miles away in a part of London which would have been ignored by men like Buckles until the IOC awarded the Games to London seven years ago, the first competitors were arriving in the stunning Olympic Park in east London.

As Buckles stammered and looked for guidance at noon last Tuesday, young divers from the USA and Canada were training at the Aquatic Centre in Stratford.

As Buckles revealed one Olympics of corporate spoofery and obfuscation, the divers reminded the world of the Olympics' often lost purpose as they looked around the arena in excitement and imagined it full for their competition. Repeatedly and with stunning brilliance, they dived and twisted gracefully from the boards into the pool and radiated excellence and hope.

While Buckles buckled and the divers dived, in Birmingham Usain Bolt was arriving to continue his preparation in defence of his sprint titles. Meanwhile, in Bury St Edmunds, the pupils of the King Edward School were performing Rwandan songs and dances for the Rwandan team who were staying in the town.

"The British people have a good character," Robert Kajuga, Rwanda's 10,000m runner told the Daily Telegraph. "They have good hearts. They treat people with kindness. All the people here have made me happy. When they see us, on their face, they have happiness."

By the end of last week, London was beginning to revolt against its own misery as the vigour of the complaints caught the world's attention. The New York Times ran a piece detailing the extreme whinging Britain has been caught up in. The Daily Mail, the writer pointed out, is driven by an unofficial motto, 'What Fresh Hell Is This?'

The Olympics have become what Health and Safety regulations are to a certain type of person. A lament that quickly turns to corrosive nostalgia.

"Are the Olympic Games of today worthwhile?" one writer asked. "Has big business, nationalism, the win-at-all-costs attitude defeated the original Greek conception? The magazine London Calling asked these relevant questions but it asked them in 1948 when London last hosted the games."

In 1948, spectators weren't allowed to film at the games in order to protect the rights of Rank who were making the official film. On Friday, Seb Coe said those who had acquired tickets for the 2012 games in the chaotic lottery system would "probably" be allowed attend if they are wearing Nike trainers. They won't be allowed in, he insisted, if they wear a Pepsi T-shirt.

The protection of their sponsors has been maniacally enforced by LOCOG, working under the powers of the London Olympic Games and Parliament Act, 2006. "Good luck to everyone with everything," says the banner in the window of the Tommy Hilfiger shop on Regent Street. 'Good' and 'luck' being two words foolishly not prohibited by the act in its attempts to stop businesses profiting from the Olympics, the Hilfiger store is allowed use them.

If you believe in Tom Stoppard's words that "England has lost its nerve" then LOCOG is the England for you, the England where enforcing regulation is what England does best. LOCOG represents the England in which the failure of the imagination has been codified and given sweeping powers. The dead hand married to authoritarian force and given the run of the place -- the triumph of bureaucracy.

The result has been a country wondering how they are allowed celebrate the Games without being in contravention of the law. London is a city which, aside from the flags of every nation on Regent Street and the Olympic Lanes on the roads reserved for the Olympic family (another source of annoyance), only acknowledges through the official Olympic pennants on certain streets what is to come.

When the failure of G4S became known, Londoners had another reason to question the Olympics.

Companies like G4S realised that the fetishisation of terror allowed them to make money from policing the fetish, if not the terror. While a journalist babbled on the BBC last week about the "truly terrifying" sight of X-ray machines at the Olympics, Ken Livingstone pointed out that neither G4S's just-in-time private army nor the soldiers who have replaced them at the Olympic Park would actually do much good in stopping a terrorist attack. .

Yet the Olympics may also remind England of London's magnificence as a city. London is a city much greater and more diverse than the relentless complaining on one side and the triumph of the bureaucratic corporate class on the other suggest. It is the capital of the world, claimed the magazine Intelligent Life, and while many would dispute that, its vibrancy should ensure a spectacular Games. Coe spoke on Friday of the logistical challenge of hosting 26 World Championships in 19 days in one city.

This sounds daunting but the Olympics is a lot more than a series (more than 26, actually) of World Championships. The Olympics is about stories. Maybe sport is always about stories but when there isn't a pressing urgency to discover who wins gold in, say, the women's foil in the fencing then the stories become more important. The story of, say, the fencing silver medallist in the women's foil in Berlin in 1936 becomes more important.

Under pressure from the Olympic Committee who needed a token gesture, Germany allowed one Jewish athlete to compete at the Games. Helene Mayer was that athlete. Mayer won gold in Amsterdam at the age of 17. Four years later, she finished fifth but she had learned just before the competition that her boyfriend had been drowned when the German ship The Niobe was accidentally sunk in a military accident.

Mayer didn't consider herself a Jew as it was her father who was Jewish and she had been brought up in a non-religious home, but the Nazis were sticklers for things like that. They had revoked her membership of her German fencing club three years before the Berlin games while she was studying in America. On the podium in Berlin, she gave the Nazi salute, something she regretted the rest of her life and which was seen as an act of treachery by fellow Jews.

Mayer may have been concerned about her family who were still in Germany but she also hoped this act would allow her to reclaim her citizenship. It didn't. A year later, she became world champion and Germany didn't report her triumph. In 1940, she became an American citizen and helped teach German to US soldiers on their way to war. She returned to Germany in 1952 and died a year later of cancer at the age of 41.

New stories will be told over the next three weeks. The press who have grumbled about buses and traffic might have to ask tough questions of the British athletes of whom so much is expected. The way many have led the cheering during Bradley Wiggins' Tour de France victory is not encouraging.

Because the stories of the games, like the stories of London, will not all be good ones.

The divers who practised while Buckles waffled will have known the story of Greg Louganis, four-time gold medal winner who claimed two golds in Seoul while waking in the middle of the night to take his antiretroviral drug which he took every four hours. "Nobody will ever know what we've been through," his coach said to him after he claimed his second goal in Seoul.

For every triumph over adversity there are several more examples of adversity triumphing over triumph.

Sport is supposed to be the antidote to men like Nick Buckles. Sport is usually a place where truth is revealed even if that belief is challenged at the Olympics when so much time is spent wondering if what you have seen is real or even possible. The Olympics, like a Don Simpson movie, often requires the suspension of disbelief.

London prepares for the story of its third Olympics. Next Friday when the Games begin with Danny Boyle's Opening Ceremony, men like Nick Buckles should begin to seem like an irrelevance. If Buckles and LOCOG remain the story then London will have failed. There's a lot riding on this.

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