Upon returning to the United States after two weeks amidst London’s pre-Olympic terrain, I have some final thoughts that I hope the International Olympic Committee and the UK’s Tory Prime Minister David Cameron take to heart. I also hope that the Olympics’ lead corporate sponsors—British Petroleum, Dow Chemical and McDonald’s—take a time-out from devising the latest cutting edge trends in evil and listen as well. Your games are in trouble. Your games are in trouble because the people who actually have to live in London alongside the Olympiad are mad as hell. And it’s only May.
After two weeks of listening to everyone with an opinion about the Olympics—in other words, “everyone”—it’s clear the entire affair suffers from Annie Hall syndrome. At the start of Woody Allen’s 1977 classic, Woody talks about the two elderly women at the Catskill resort who complain that the food is terrible while also adding, “And such small portions!” Londoners are annoyed at the inconvenience brought by the Olympics, incensed by the security crackdown… and outraged that there are no tickets available. This is hardly a petty complaint. Corporate partners have gobbled up the seats, leaving the overwhelming majority of the city with their nose pressed up against the glass. In London, where the pubs dot every block and open onto the streets after work in a daily party open to all comers, this comprises a cardinal sin. As Neill, one of many bartenders I encountered, said to me, “It’s like a big to-do that no one invited us to attend!”
The security crackdown and constant paranoia are discomfiting enough. (Fears are being disseminated about the Irish. Seriously.) But what singes the locals is the idea that the Olympics are a party that will stick them with the bill: a hangover from hell without the drunken rapture that by all rights should precede it.
All Olympics produce debt like a cow produces methane. But this one happens in the context of a double-dip recession. It happens with round-the-clock UK media coverage of the “Euro-panic,” as voters in Greece are threatening to tell Angela Merkel, David Cameron and the European Union to take their austerity agenda and cram it sideways. The fears of crisis and debt surround even the cheeriest propaganda about the looming games. The BBC led every broadcast while I was there with these two separate stories. First, “Crisis in Greece” and then with a different anchor, reporters and even music, “Getting Ready for the Olympics.” Nowhere was any discussion about the fact that the 2004 Athens Olympics, came in at over ten times the proposed budget. Those games aggravated the crisis Greece is currently slogging through, with the country’s homeless now even squatting in dilapidated, unused Olympic structures. There is scant discussion that these London games could come in at ten times their proposed 2005 budget as well, causing another “debt crisis” that will be taken from the hides—not to mention the pensions—of the UK’s workers. At several events involving trade union workers and bureaucrats, the message was repeated to me over and over: when the Olympics are over, the gloves will come off.
In other words, faced with the pressures of austerity and recession, Cameron and company are cooling their jets until the Olympics are over and then they will try to do their level best to disembowel the unions and further cut taxes for the wealthy. Why wait until after the Olympics? Because Cameron needs the unions’ cooperation to make sure that the games come off on time and on schedule. They need to make sure the unions don’t take strike action or join the demonstrations planned for July 28, the first Saturday of the games. This is why they agreed to sizable bonuses for London’s subway workers. Anything to make sure that the Olympics show London, and more critically David Cameron, in the best possible light.
I have no doubt that all the top sports reporters will write fawningly about London and all its quaint customs, and the cameras will point at only those cheering the events on, waving the Union Jack. But make no mistake: the Olympic Torch is not the most noteworthy thing passed from Greece to London. It’s the looming struggle against austerity. David Cameron might want to wait until after the Olympics to “take the gloves off,” but he’s not the only one willing to go bare knuckles over the future of the United Kingdom.
Alexander Wolff, the great journalist from Sports Illustrated, is stationed in London and wrote this week, “Every time I come to England I’m struck by how the lowbrow mingles with the high.” But in London the “lowbrow” are angry and the “highbrow” are scared. They mingle only in the shared sense that a storm is coming to the British Isles. The summer will be filled with games. But an epic fall awaits.