The Olympic Torch in Lewisham, a set on Flickr.
So the time is nearly upon us. The Olympic Games — corporate, militarised, jingoistic — begin on Friday, and, after a plague of disasters in recent weeks, everything appears to be running relatively smoothly on the last lap. This morning I popped down the hill with my family, to Ladywell Leisure Centre, on the main road between Lewisham and Catford, to watch the Olympic torch pass by, and to watch those watching.
Despite the early hour — the torch passed by just after 8am — there were hundreds of people present for the passage of the torch itself, and of the corporate sponsors’ vehicles — in this case, those of Coca-Cola and Lloyds TSB, although sadly no one asked me about my T-shirt, which features a Union Jack and the message, “Extradite Me, I’m British.” Available here (for just £9), the shirts were created to publicise the plight of Talha Ahsan, Babar Ahmad, Gary McKinnon and Richard O’Dwyer, who face extradition to the United States under the US-UK Extradiiton Treaty of 2003, a creation of Tony Blair’s government that allows British citizens to be spirited away to the US — and its out-of-control judicial system — without the US having to provide any evidence, even if the alleged crimes took place in the UK, and even if the alleged crimes are not crimes in the UK. See here, here, here and here for further information.
Nevertheless, despite the concerted effort to focus on the supposedly positive sporting message of the Games, the stink caused by the recent scandals still lingers. It can be noted with some sense of satisfaction that G4S, the inept security firm, has done permanent damage to the cynical corporate — and governmental — mantra that “private is best” by failing to employ enough security, despite being paid £284 million to do so.
With the Ministry of Defence providing 3,500 troops to cover the shortfalls in G4S’s employment contract, for 13,500 staff in total, permanent damage has been done to the company’s fortunes — although it remains to be seen if they will be made to return the eye-watering amounts of money they are supposed to be given by the taxpayer for doing very little, very badly.
On Thursday, the House of Commons Public Accounts Committee attempted to exert pressure on G4S and on the government, publishing a report questioning what it described as an “astonishing” rise in the price of the contract to provide guards for the Olympics, for which there was “no credible explanation.”
As the Guardian noted:
G4S agreed in December to provide 10,000 guards for the venues, rather than the 2,000 originally asked for, increasing the value of the contract by almost £200m to £284m. This included £83m to cover labour, and a 12-fold increase in management costs, from £10m to £125m. G4S also secured a 22-fold increase to cover uniforms — from £3m to £65m.
Margaret Hodge, chair of the committee, said: “The chaos which has emerged over the security contract was predictable and undermines confidence in those responsible for managing the Games. No credible explanation has been given for an astonishing 12-fold hike in management costs and G4S still has not been able to deliver. Now troops are having to be drafted in. The Home Office needs to get a grip.”
She said the committee was worried that G4S will still “receive substantial sums of public money without providing the contracted number of guards. Value for taxpayer’s money demands G4S not only pays for all additional costs incurred by the government, but also incurs financial penalties for the failure to deliver.”
The committee “also urged ministers to do a proper audit of exactly how much the Olympics had cost,” noting that its £9.3bn budget “does not include the £766m paid for the Olympic Park, or the funding of elite athletes or transport improvements in London.” Hodge said, “We have faced considerable difficulty in pinning down just how much the Games is costing the taxpayer,” adding, it was a “big concern” that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport “has no intention of producing a single auditable account for the Games, drawing together both the costs within the public sector funding package of £9.3bn and those outside. Such an analysis must be produced.”
In addition, the Tories looked as cack-handed as usual over their failure to ensure that enough Border Force staff were trained and employed to deal with the additional visitors for the Games, while staff numbers were being cut as part of the government’s obsessive desire, in its idiotic age of austerity, to create as much unemployment as possible.
On Wednesday, Border Force staff, who are members of the Public and Commercial Services (PCS) union, voted for industrial action, “raising the spectre of strikes affecting passport queues at Heathrow during the busiest days of the Olympics,” as the Guardian put it, noting that members “agreed in principle to strike and other action, which could include an ongoing work-to-rule, in protest against their pay and working conditions being eroded and the privatisation of civil service jobs, and to highlight what they describe as a ‘public service falling apart at the seams.'”
In response, Culture minister Jeremy Hunt compounded the government’s incompetence by telling the Daily Telegraph that some ministers had, apparently, serious discussed sacking anyone who went on strike. With just days to go, this would have been a disaster for visitors, but never let it be said that anything comes between a good Tory and his or her desire to thrash someone to within an inch of their lives — or to sack them summarily.
Another disaster — the tax avoidance scam perpetrated by the Games’ corporate sponsors, who are supposedly exempt from taxes during the course of the Games, and who, as a result, could avoid paying at least £600 million in tax — seems to have been nipped in the bud by the campaigning group 38 Degrees, which launched a petition that so far has over 220,000 signatures. As a result, the group has so far secured promises from nine sponsors — Coca-Cola, McDonalds, EDF, Visa, GE, Omega, P&G, BMW and now Adidas — that they won’t be Olympic tax dodgers — although I will only believe this when proof is provided that tax has indeed been paid on revenue made during the Games.
Other problems remain — the exploitation of cleaners at the Olympics, and the largely unseen and unthought of exploitation of the workers making Olympic products (see this campaign against exploitation by Adidas, for example).
In addition, the brand police travelling up and down the country making sure no one uses the Olympic name or logo, and the ludicrous arrest last week of graffiti artists including Darren Cullen, a professional graffiti artist who worked on a campaign for Adidas last year, and who “says he has never painted illegally on a wall or train” — and the decision to bar those arrested from coming within a mile of any Olympic venue — will provide a permanently sour after-taste to the whole spectacle, and one which could be addressed by scaling back the unforgivable expense of the Games to have more freedom from the demands of the corporate sponsors — although that, it seems, is a heretical point of view.
As we count down to the opening ceremony, what will remain in my mind — more than the fleeting glimpse of a torchbearer this morning — will be Sebastian Coe tying himself in knots by claiming, erroneously, that, as the Independent put it, “ticket holders would not be able to gain entry wearing a Pepsi T-shirt because Coca-Cola was one of the main Olympic sponsors.” Coe told the BBC’s Today programme, “We have to protect the rights of the sponsor because in large part they pay for the Games. You probably wouldn’t be able to [walk in] with a Pepsi T-shirt because Coca-Cola are our sponsors and they’ve put millions of pounds into this project but also millions of pounds into grassroots sport. It is important to protect those sponsors.”
Later, a representative of LOCOG (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games, of which Coe is the head), “appeared to contradict its chairman and suggested there would be no controls over what spectators wore to the Games.” A spokesperson said that “as an individual you are free to wear clothing of your choice” and “confirmed this would also include a T-shirt emblazoned with a non-sponsors logo.” The spokesperson said that Coe “could have got muddled because of differing rules for spectators and those working and volunteering at venues.” However, as the Independent noted, LOCOG’s advice for those with tickets for the Games states that there are restrictions of “any objects or clothing bearing political statements or overt commercial identification intended for ‘ambush marketing.'”
So you’d probably better leave your “Extradite Me, I’m British” shirt at home then …
Note: If you’re in the north of England, you’ll find an article I wrote about the Olympics, entitled, “The Olympics: A Sporting Triumph, or a Huge Waste of Money?” in the latest issue of The Big Issue in the North.
Andy Worthington is the author of The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK) and of two other books: Stonehenge: Celebration and Subversion and The Battle of the Beanfield. To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed — and I can also be found on Facebook, Twitter, Digg, Flickr (my photos) and YouTube. Also see my definitive Guantánamo prisoner list, updated in April 2012, “The Complete Guantánamo Files,” a 70-part, million-word series drawing on files released by WikiLeaks in April 2011, and details about the documentary film, “Outside the Law: Stories from Guantánamo” (co-directed by Polly Nash and Andy Worthington, and available on DVD here — or here for the US). Also see my definitive Guantánamo habeas list and the chronological list of all my articles, and please also consider joining the new “Close Guantánamo campaign,” and, if you appreciate my work, feel free to make a donation.
On Facebook, Geoffrey Brewis wrote:
I’d be interested to know just how much Seb Coe is making out of all of this (as well as LOCOG).
Good point, Geoffrey. His salary as the Chair of LOCOG was £365,507 last year, and he makes more on top of that in various ways – as an “inspirational” after-dinner speaker, for example. Article here: http://www.thisismoney.co.uk/money/article-2005756/Lord-Sebastian-Coe-How-does-earn.html
Geoffrey Brewis wrote:
There was a story some years ago that Coe turned up to watch a Test Match at the Oval (precise details are a bit hazy, but you’ll get the gist). Anyway, Coe presents his ticket to the man on the gate:
“Sorry sir, this is the wrong gate for this ticket”.
“Do you know who I am?”
“Yes sir, you’re Sebastian Coe, you won two Olympic Gold Medals in the 1,500 metres”.
“Well in that case, sir, you won’t mind running round to the right gate”.
Ha! Excellent, Geoffrey.
I tried to send off for one of the tee shirts and the payment failed to conclude. I’ll try again later.
Good luck with that, Peace Activist. Sorry to hear that there were problems with ordering the “Extradite Me, I’m British” shirt. It’s very good!
Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo, co-director, We Stand With Shaker. Also, singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers) and photographer.
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