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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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