O is for Olympics: how the 2012 games became a symbol of Britain’s jettisoned unity

The fifteenth letter in the New Statesman’s A-Z of the decade.

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The world being what it is right now, doesn’t 2012 sound attractive? Scrolling through the comments left beneath a YouTube video of the London Olympics Opening Ceremony, it seems many people think so. “Does anyone else just watch this to feel happy?” one person wrote. “I just feel that the world was a better place in 2012,'' commented another. “Watching this makes me realize how much I miss 2010-2015”; “7 years later my country is now in a divided mess with an uncertain future”. 

The opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympics took place on a drizzly evening in July. As mandated by the Olympic Charter, the document that governs all Olympic events, it merged a formal ceremonial opening (the British cyclist Bradley Wiggins rung the official Olympic bell) with an artistic spectacle – a four-hour long, £81m attempt to hawk Britain’s cultural virtues on the global stage. The ceremony began with a prelapsarian idyll mounted in the Stratford Olympic stadium: cricketers, beekeepers, maypoles and thatch. Top-hatted industrialists swarmed to lift the turf and uncover Victorian girders and steel. Dancing NHS nurses spun hospital beds around the stadium. Dizzee Rascal performed in front of an illuminated house party, and Kenneth Branagh played Isambard Kingdom Brunel, gripping a cigar between his teeth. Olympic rings were forged from molten steel and suspended, dripping sparkles into the air. 

Watching the spectacle now on YouTube, it’s difficult not to feel an emotive tug at the sight of a children's’ choir singing “Flower of Scotland” or hearing the first mention of the NHSLike many versions of history, the ceremony elided real and invented traditions to create a sense of collective belonging. Few British people have ever danced around a Maypole or kept bees. Fewer still can claim to have fought in a World War. The industrial revolution was never really a bootstrapping episode of collective endeavour – most workers ended up far worse-off than factory-owners. The British Empire and colonialism were omitted. Great Ormond Street Hospital, which appeared in the ceremony, was then (and still is) battling cuts inflicted by the Conservative Party’s disastrous austerity agenda.

The Britain that has emerged today is different from the one during the Olympics. Its political map has been erased. Its economy is far weaker, and its union is in doubt (a vote on Scottish independence seems a likely outcome of Boris Johnson's premiership). To understand the scale of what has happened since 2012, remember that “Brexit” wasn't yet a word. Johnson was still London’s mayor, Ed Miliband was still Labour’s leader and the Liberal Democrats hadn’t yet suffered a crushing defeat. The Olympic ceremony is frequently invoked by politicians and commentators as evidence of Britain’s jettisoned unity. For Andrew Adonis, the Olympics were the “only redeeming feature” of the 2010s. The actor Eddie Marsan proposed the ceremony could be the party political broadcast of a new centrist party. Yvette Cooper almost cried remembering the “whole country coming together”. The short-lived Independent Group of MPs this year referred to the Olympic ceremony in their definition of progressive politics. Since 2012, the Olympics have become a centrist nostrum for a fractured political landscape, one that mistakes fleeting spectacle for meaningful politics. 

It’s possible, through half-closed eyes, to picture a clean break between 2012 and now. But beneath the ceremony’s choreographed surface, the policies that would define the latter half of the decade were already well underway. Then culture secretary Jeremy Hunt requested the NHS section of Danny Boyle’s ceremony be cut; Hunt would later go on to become health secretary, a post he would use to further privatise the health service. The total £9bn sum spent on the Olympic Games indicated that the austerity policies sold as an economic necessity by the then chancellor George Osborne were in fact a political choice (Osborne was booed when handing out medals at the London Paralympic Games). The Windrush generation of immigrants were included in the ceremony as a reflection of Britain’s tolerance and diversity, yet months before the event the former home secretary Theresa May had launched the hostile environment policy that would lead to the deportation of at least 83 Windrush migrants some six years later. After the outsourcing giant G4S failed to deliver on its security contract, the government brought in the army (G4S, which was recently stripped of a contract to run Birmingham prison after inspectors warned of “dramatic deterioration”, has since continued to win multi-million-pound contracts to deliver public services). 

The London Olympics also helped pave the way for the corporate takeover of cities that reached its zenith in the latter half of this decade. “Place-branding”, a practice beloved by property developers focussed on redeeming capital investments, became the operating logic of the 2012 Games. The government handed commercial sponsors, including McDonald’s, Coca-Cola and Dow Chemical, a euphemistically termed “clean city”, where intellectual property rights trumped spatial democracy. Advertising from companies that weren’t sponsors was banned within a one-kilometre radius of the Olympic park and spectators were prohibited from broadcasting video or sound recordings on social media. Corporate interests extended to individuals’ clothing; Olympics chairman Sebastian Coe, speaking on the Today programme prior to the Games, warned that attendees wearing Pepsi T-shirts would be turned away, claiming a responsibility to protect the commercial “rights of sponsors”. 

To guarantee a clean, safe and anodyne space readied for corporate investment, the government deployed an industrial security complex of unprecedented scale. The London Olympic Games Act of 2006 legitimised the use of force (by both government and private security officers) to proscribe Occupy-style protests. A new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, facial recognition CCTV systems and police checkpoints were developed. Some 30,000 police officers and members of the armed forces descended onto London.

Today, this logic is visible in the urban spaces that appear, on the surface, to be public; the streets and administrations whose administration were once the preserve of the state, but are now maintained by corporate investors and governed by private security forces. We can see the legacy of the London Olympics in the corporately-maintained “pseudo-public spaces” that have spread across the city, and in the audacious place-branding adverts of companies such as HSBC. The effect is to sell a city back to its public while diminishing the very idea of what counts as “public” in the first place. Within these corporate enclaves, two types of people are excluded: those without the capital to participate, such as homeless people, panhandlers and loiterers, and those with the political temerity to criticise the model. Far from bringing the country together, the London 2012 Olympics contained the seeds of an urban model that would draw its residents further apart. 

This article is part of our A-Z of the 2010s. 

Hettie O’Brien is assistant opinion editor of the Guardian and the New Statesman’s former online editor.

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