Whose Olympics are they, anyway?

Organisers aren't engaged with the needs of ordinary Londoners.

The Olympics are causing quite a stir, but not in the way you might think. The number of people expressing discontent with the rules and regulations surrounding the event is increasing - from the court case around missiles placed on residents' roofs, to a protest against the closure of a much-used towpath, to a group of activists gearing up for a march on how "big business stole the Olympics".

All this raises questions about the engagement of the Olympic organisers with the needs of ordinary Londoners. In fact, you'd be forgiven for wondering whether these really are the "people's games" after all.

As historian, archaeologist and activist Neil Faulkner recently pointed out, the taxpayer is thought to have forked out £12bn for the event. But it's hard to pin down a reliable figure, and an investigation by Sky News has suggested that the once all costs are taken into consideration the real figure could actually be closer to £24bn. Corporate sponsors have contributed £700m. So why has there been so little apparent consideration for what ordinary people want?

The activist group Counter Olympics Network (CON) accuses the games of being a "showcase of class privilege, corporate power and security wonkery", and this week confirmed a march on 28 July to highlight the issue. "The organisers are only interested in defending their corporate sponsors and their rights because that's what it is - a branding exercise," explains CON's Julian Cheyne.

A good example of the imbalance of interests is the revelation that 95 per cent of the 30 miles of road in central London exclusively reserved for use during the event by the "Games family" of athletes, officials and sponsors will be off-limits to cyclists, a move that's been described by the Environmental Transport Association as "baffling as it dangerous".

To compound the issue, a busy towpath running from Homerton to Bow was closed last Tuesday, sparking a campaign from angry cyclists and residents to get it reopened. The London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG) responded to questions from locals and The Guardian by saying it wanted to deliver a "safe and secure Games." The problem, though, is that the cyclists aren't feeling either of these things.

"Our complaint is that it's going to push people onto busy roads. Personally, my alternative commute involves me going along the A11, a dual carriageway, and over the Bow roundabout where two cyclists were killed last year," says Ruth-Anna Macqueen, co-organiser of Open Our Towpath. She adds that there was no consultation and little real publicity, and that many are confused about the move because there are still plenty of open roads leading up to the site.
"There's a total lack of understanding that some of us use it as others use roads. I don't think they've considered the effect it will have on people - although we don't know because we haven't had any conversation back from LOCOG apart from that statement."

Lack of consultation has also been a problem for the residents whose homes were chosen as the site for surface-to-air missiles. Taking their protest to the High Court, they argued that the move was a  "disproportionate interference" with their human rights. While their bid for either the missile or themselves to be relocated was rejected earlier this week, the fact remains that the sight of such a strong military presence on London homes will be an incongruous one for many.

Faulkner believes that there's been absolutely no engagement with ordinary people throughout the preparations, and that this is because those in charge only represent a small percentage of the population. "It's riddled with class privilege, draped with corporate logos, they're turning the east end into a militarised zone and it's all being run by an unelected quango," he says. "Last time I checked on its website, LOCOG consisted of 19 people - 17 of whom are white men and the only woman on the board is Princess Anne. Half of those white men are business men and the other half have major business interests, so essentially it's an appointed body of white male millionaires completely unaccountable to anyone except the Government."

Meanwhile, Baroness Dee Doocey has called for LOCOG to show greater transparency. She criticises the fact that it held back 14,000 tickets for government officials and its refusal to reveal the proportion of tickets for top events such as the 100m sold to the public when questioned by the London Assembly's economy, sport and culture committee, of which she is the former chair.

She says: "On the one hand LOCOG is doing a brilliant job and I have no doubt at all that they'll produce a brilliant games - and I'm not just saying that - but on the other hand they're hiding behind this private company every time it suits them. You can't take taxpayers' money and hide behind this idea that you're a private company. This is meant to be the people's games."

When asked, LOCOG declined to comment on this story.
 

The Olympic countdown clock in Trafalgar Square at 100 days to go. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Over a Martini with my mother, I decide I'd rather not talk Brexit

A drink with her reduces me to a nine-year-old boy recounting his cricketing triumphs.

To the Royal Academy with my mother. As well as being a very competent (ex-professional, on Broadway) singer, she is a talented artist, and has a good critical eye, albeit one more tolerant of the brighter shades of the spectrum than mine. I love the RA’s summer exhibition: it offers one the chance to be effortlessly superior about three times a minute.

“Goddammit,” she says, in her finest New York accent, after standing in front of a particularly wretched daub. The tone is one of some vexation: not quite locking-yourself-out-of-the-house vexed, but remembering-you’ve-left-your-wallet-behind-a-hundred-yards-from-the-house vexed. This helps us sort out at least one of the problems she has been facing since widowhood: she is going to get cracking with the painting again, and I am going to supply the titles.

I am not sure I have the satirical chops or shamelessness to come up with anything as dreadful as Dancing With the Dead in My Dreams (artwork number 688, something that would have shown a disturbing kind of promise if executed by an eight-year-old), or The End From: One Day This Glass Will Break (number 521; not too bad, actually), but we work out that if she does reasonably OK prints and charges £500 a pop for each plus £1,000 for the original – this being at the lower end of the price scale – then she’ll be able to come out well up on the deal. (The other solution to her loneliness: get a cat, and perhaps we are nudged in this direction by an amusing video installation of a cat drinking milk from a saucer which attracts an indulgent, medium-sized crowd.)

We wonder where to go for lunch. As a sizeable quantity of the art there seems to hark back to the 1960s in general, and the style of the film Yellow Submarine in particular, I suggest Langan’s Brasserie, which neither of us has been to for years. We order our customary Martinis. Well, she does, while I go through a silly monologue that runs: “I don’t think I’ll have a Martini, I have to write my column this afternoon, oh sod it, I’ll have a Martini.”

“So,” she says as they arrive, “how has life been treating you?”

Good question. How, indeed, has life been treating me? Most oddly, I have to say. These are strange times we live in, a bit strange even for me, and if we wake up on 24 June to find ourselves no longer in Europe and with Nigel Farage’s toadlike mug gurning at us from every newspaper in the land, then I’m off to Scotland, or the US, or at least strongly thinking about it. Not even Hunter S Thompson’s mantra – “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” – will be enough to arm myself with, I fear.

The heart has been taking something of a pummelling, as close readers of this column may have gathered, but there is nothing like finding out that the person you fear you might be losing it to is probably going to vote Brexit to clear up that potential mess in a hurry. The heart may be stupid, but there are some things that will shake even that organ from its reverie. However, operating on a need-to-know basis, I feel my mother can do without this information, and I find myself talking about the cricket match I played on Sunday, the first half of which was spent standing watching our team get clouted out of the park, in rain not quite strong enough to take us off the field, but certainly strong enough to make us wet.

“Show me the way to go home,” I sang quietly to myself, “I’m tired and I want to go to bed,” etc. The second half of it, though, was spent first watching an astonishing, even by our standards, batting collapse, then going in at number seven . . . and making the top score for our team. OK, that score was 12, but still, it was the top score for our team, dammit.

The inner glow and sense of bien-être that this imparted on Sunday persists three days later as I write. And as I tell my mother the story – she has now lived long enough in this country, and absorbed enough of the game by osmosis, to know that 17 for five is a pretty piss-poor score – I realise I might as well be nine years old, and telling her of my successes on the pitch. Only, when I was nine, I had no such successes under my belt.

With age comes fearlessness: I don’t worry about the hard ball coming at me. Why should I? I’ve got a bloody bat, gloves, pads, the lot. The only things that scare me now are, as usual, dying alone, that jackanapes Farage, and bad art. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain