The 30th Olympic games will begin in July in London as Britain's Conservative-Liberal Democratic government imposes savage austerity measures on the public. The excitement of watching the world's sporting best compete is mixed with fears of social and economic upheaval.
The British government is projected to spend US$14.5 billion on the games, $9.6 billion over budget. Prime Minister David Cameron announced last November that the budget for the opening and closing ceremonies would be doubled to $125 million.
This is despite the previous government's Olympics minister Tessa Jowell admitting that had they foreseen the economic crisis, they would not have made a bid for the Olympics.
Never one to let facts get in a way of an appealing argument, Sebastian Coe, chair of the London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games, said in 2008 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,” he said, “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."
This “extraordinary impact” has yet to show itself. Since the economic crisis the British economy has shrunk by 0.8%. Unemployment has risen from 1.94 million to 2.67 million.
Public spending could well exceed the projected $14.5 billion, which is already 200% over budget, raising public debt even further.
The New York Times said “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.”
In a time of austerity, spiralling debts due to the Olympics have made many think the cost is too high. A BBC poll on April 18 found “64% of 2,007 people thought taxpayers had paid too much to cover the Games”.
This sentiment makes sense, because at the same time the government is pumping money into the Olympics, $30 billion is being ripped out of the health budget.
However, it isn't just the financial aspect of the games that has led to bubbling discontent. Perhaps the biggest controversy has been the sponsorship of the Games by Dow Chemical.
The company bought out Union Carbide, which was responsible for the horrific gas leak in the Indian city of Bhopal in 1984. About 25,000 people have died of gas-related diseases since the accident.
The International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal said: “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'.”
Bhopal Group for Information and Action said: “The International Medical Commission on Bhopal, composed of 15 professionals from 11 countries and 12 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 said on December 18: “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.”
India's government unsuccessfully tried to convince Britain to drop the partnership with Dow. Activists are now calling on India to boycott the games.
But Cameron said that even a boycott by a nation of more than 1 billion people will not lead to the British government dropping Dow. He said Dow was a “reputable company”, and if the boycott happened, he would be “desperately sad. But I cannot tell people to come. I have fulfilled all my responsibilities.”
Meredith Alexander, a member of the Commission for a Sustainable London 2012, responsible for the games ethical practices, resigned when the commission claimed Dow bears no responsibility for Bhopal.
Dow is not alone in being a controversial sponsor. Rio Tinto and BP are also sponsors. Rio Tinto is linked to thousands of deaths in Papua New Guinea and BP was responsible for disastrous oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.
This from a Games claiming to be the most sustainable games of all time.
However, the sinister influence of corporations over the Olympics will be on display every time an athlete performs. The Independent 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”.
“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 in Britain about the Games, raising possibilities that the Olympics itself will see political and industrial action.
Len McCluskey, general secretary of Britain's biggest union, UNITE, said: "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 ...
"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."
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 that is left to pay off the debts incurred by the games. It is not Ed Miliband's hometown that 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 have 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 support them.
[Tim Dobson maintains the Press Box Red blog on sport and politics.]