10 August 2012

Unkie Dave's Awfully Olympic Adventure

I wonder what's on in London this week?
St Pancras International Station, London, Sunday August 5th
I have, as you may have noticed before, a somewhat cynical attitude towards the Olympics. In the past this has manifested in the full Kübler-Ross stages of grief from Denial ("What Olympics?"), Anger ("It's all a sinister capitalist plot to hypnotise the masses and keep them out of the angry streets") and Bargaining ("I'm only watching the Irish competing, that's supporting our country, not the Games) all the way through to Sleepy, Grumpy and Doc. My sister has noticed this attitude with some alarm, for as a naturalised Londoner she has embraced the Games wholeheartedly, and genuinely felt that for once my ire and wrath were misplaced (technically not "for once", for she and I fail to see eye-to-eye on a number of issues, like the exhaust-port vulnerability of nuclear power plants to swarms of angry Rebel jellyfish). Seeking to remedy my Olympic malaise, she contacted me last week with an intriguing offer. "Come to London," she said, "and I will take you to the Games. Then at the end of it all, see what you genuinely make of it", and who could refuse an offer like that? Thus on Friday afternoon I boarded the ferry to Great Britain, like so many generations of Irish men and women before me (though I traveled by boat and rail out of ecological choice, not economic necessity, and unlike most of them I had a return ticket, conveniently for Monday), and set off on My Awfully Olympic Adventure!

Arriving in to London it is impossible to miss the fact that the Games are on. As you walk through Arrivals at any airport you are greeted by hoards of enthusiastic purple-clad volunteers, all smiling and waving "Welcome to London" signs. Arrival by train is less salubrious, no cheering teens for me but McDonald's more than made up for it by plastering every available inch of Euston Station announcing their proud association with the biggest display of human fitness and endeavour the world has ever seen (and incidentally why don't you celebrate this at home by eating 576 calories, 292 of which are fat, of Amazon-cleared beef and sugar-filled bread, washed down by enough Coke to strip the rust off a three-inch nail). The irony of this quadrennial temple to human health containing within its grounds the world's largest McDonald's is just one of the issues that raised my hackles of cynicism in the run-up to the Games, indeed the list of sponsors and partners reads like a who's-who of corporate greed and irresponsibility, an anti-shopping list that handily outlines for the ethical consumer exactly who to avoid like the plague.

Sure, Usain Bolt is fast, but can he hit a small ball across a tiny table?
ExCeL Arena, London, Saturday August 4th
The run-up to the Games produced one blood-boiling story after another, from missile batteries being installed on top of people's roofs against their wishes through to the army being called in to cover the shortfalls in the multi-million pound private security contract, from the trial-by-video-camera "swift justice" system introduced after last year's riots and now looking set to become permanent feature of the UK justice system through to brand police that were hunting down perpetrators that dared to use the words "Olympic", "Games" or even "London" and "2012" in a sentence without permission, or if saying something negative about the Games.

The fascistic elements of the Games themselves are impossible to overlook, with the glorification of militarism inherent in the march of uniformed athletes whose sartorial choices run the gamut from unfortunate airline cabin staff to Ralph Lauren Hitler Youth (hand-stitched by the finest prison labour China has to offer), an international Torch relay first introduced to pay tribute to the glories of National Socialism in Berlin in 1936 and the raising of flags with accompanying mandatory adoration of martial anthems, right through to the beating heart of the Games where the glorification of an idolised form of physical human perfection, with bodies twisted in grotesqueries like the Carerra marbles of the Stadio dei Marmi come to life, fuses with rampant nationalism pitting the finest warriors of each country against each other to produce an international pecking order based on a Gold standard made manifest, with champions owned by corporations and used by politicians to bask in reflected glories and mask the woes of their crumbling systems.

There is much to loathe about the Olympics.

The epic North Korea Vs South Korea clash. As the immortal Chandler Bing said, "Could there be more Kims?"
ExCeL Arena, London, Saturday August 4th
So much of that vanished the moment I stepped off the tube on my way to my maiden Olympic venue and met the first of the 70,000 volunteers cheering, smiling and waving us on to our destination at twenty meter intervals all the way along the route from the station to the Arena. I have been greeted with such genuine happiness before by strangers only once, as we arrived at DC's National Mall on the day of Obama's inauguration, but that was just one day, a singular event in history (still true, despite the subsequent four years of bitter disappointment), but this was day nine for many of the volunteers, and their smiles and enthusiasm were no less real than they could have been on day one, and stood in stark contrast to the sullen, downcast gum-chewing G4S paid security staff who sulked in the occasional corner and glared at passers-by. Even the military, called in to do the jobs the private sector were paid millions to do but unable to carry out, were in good form, smiling and posing for photos with tourists despite being forced to bunk down on floors and plastic seating between shifts. While this does not mitigate for one moment the sinister implications of an armed military policing the city streets, the difference in attitude between the paid private sector employees and public sector workers serving with a sense of pride and duty couldn't be greater.

The travel to each venue was effortless, yes the tubes were packed at times, but I never failed to get on a train and I never encountered a single moment of ill-humour or bad temper from the occupants. The apocalyptic warnings of mass transit chaos never materialised, maybe life for those used to a guaranteed seat at two minute intervals was slightly inconvenienced, but for those of us used to the finest service Dublin Bus can provide it was a storybook tale of comfort and efficiency. Each ticket to an event came supplied with a free all-day travel card for all London public transport, and with ticket prices starting at around £45 for most events a day out at the Olympics was genuinely affordable.

The numbers attending the events are staggering, reminiscent of the start of Metropolis
ExCeL Arena, London, Saturday August 4th
Entry to each venue was far less tortuous than airline security, which shows just how normalised such security checks have become to our 21st century society, the queues moved quickly and once through the checks the security presence inside was invisible, as, quite surprisingly, was the corporate sponsorship. While the streets and screens of London are plastered with the Olympic shills of the McSamsung-Cola hegemony, inside the venues are sponsor-free, with only the subtle presence of a cola vending machine or Credit Card-only ATM to break the illusion of a Games that is about athletes and not Capitalism.

I attended two events, Table Tennis (the team event) in the same Arena that hosted Badminton, Weight Lifting, Wrestling and Boxing (so if you are Irish you are no doubt well familiar with the sight of this venue on your screens by now), and later that night Beach Volleyball at the Horse Guards Parade in a stadium constructed on grounds normally used for the Trooping of the Colour, from the top of which you could peer down into the garden of Number 10. Both events were electrifying, but for very different reasons, the Table Tennis for the sills of the players involved and in particular the match between North and South Korea the political overtones of which were impossible to escape, the Beach Volleyball for the atmosphere of the crowd, who treated the whole evening as a giant party with conga-lines, fancy dress costumes and plenty of drunken signing and dancing - indeed the matches themselves seemed almost incidental at times.

In both events the seating areas allocated to the general public were completely full, and with no Britons involved the crowds were completely impartial, cheering on good play wherever they saw it and rooting strongly for whoever was the underdog at the time. The seats allocated to the sponsors and the "Olympic family", the bureaucrats of the IOC, stood largely empty in contrast, and being the best seats in the house these are the ones most often witnessed by the cameras as a sign of a lukewarm reception to the Games, but again the apathy stems from the corporate sector, not the general public.

Beach Volleyball. It's a sport. No seriously, it is. Seriously.
Horseguards' Parade, London, Saturday August 4th
On Sunday evening after a day watching the Men's Tennis final broadcast on giant screens at a free event in Hyde Park, we dropped by the Irish Olympic House, and experienced the lowest point of our weekend. The Olympic Houses are organised by participating nations as cultural embassies during the Games, and as a base camp for their national teams outside of the Athletes' Village. They are an opportunity to showcase a nation and celebrate the best that country has to offer, with venues as diverse as Tall Ships, opera houses, regenerated dockland mills and factories, academies and galleries. The Irish Olympic House was hosted by a grotty Oirish theme bar in King's Cross, charging £10 for entry to watch our boxers while drinking watery Guinness and singing The Fields of Athenry.

I, like our entire nation, celebrated Katie Taylor's Gold medal performance, as a symbol of personal perseverance, dedication and commitment. I just wish that it all wasn't such a disappointing cultural stereotype, that once again what marks the Irish out on the international stage is fighting, and drinking (along with the occasional spot of running down the peasants on horseback). That is what sickened me so much about our Olympic House, that we play so much to this image of the drunken Irish fool, with a quick wit and a quicker song, an 19th century caricatured red-nosed buffoon forever tugging our forelock at our monied betters.

That was the ultimate irony of the Olympics for me, that I went over with a healthy cynicism expecting to condemn the Games and their organisers and the only part in the whole experience that angered and sickened me was that showcasing my own country, a tawdry mirror reflecting back all the toxic miasmas in our lives.

The Olympics are what they are, and all the criticisms are still valid. There are problems with both the Idea of the Games and the Reality, but there are also great positives about both which, in all honesty, I was blind to before attending in person. The militarism, the fascism and the Romanesque spectacle of the whole thing are still there, once seen I cannot unsee them, but for the many thousands of participants, volunteers and attendees, not to mention the millions who watch at home, the Games do bring moments of genuine joy and happiness, and if they inspire people to try and better themselves is that not a good thing?

I really don't know, for my trip has left me genuinely conflicted, trying to balance the political critiques of the event whose validity I still accept with the simple fact that I really, really enjoyed the whole thing and had a great time.

The final word on all this goes to a young child, playing on the ferry on the trip back in front of a TV showing Olympic gymnastics. As a man on the screen competed on the parallel bars, the girl turned to her father and said, "look Daddy, a circus!".

A circus. Yes. Yes it is.

Since I'm not allowed to link to the official Olympic website because I say some less than flattering things about the Games (see the Index on Censorship's post here), I will instead direct you to Verso's Olympic posts that include an alternative reading list for the Games, reminding us all why authoritarian and totalitarian regimes love mass spectacles and exploring the challenges that international sporting extravaganzas present for the Left.



At 5:25 pm, Anonymous Felix said...

Really enjoyed all your references here to the politics of the Olympics which are troubling - especially the references to Hitler's Youth Movement, and the idea of the physical ideal - but I also agree with you that attending in person gives another perspective, as I personally found myself entirely inspired by the whole atmosphere of the event, and especially by the sunny disposition of all the wonderful volunteers.

That still does not change the fact that I think the corporate lock-down on ALL THINGS OLYMPICS was sort of disgusting and heavy-handed - but I think that in reality and on the ground, everyone in the UK has found some canny way around even this. For instance, I enjoyed seeing some 1st place medal biscuits in Dorset, and other oblique references to the Games which allowed people to vicariously participate whilst also observing the Draconian and frankly paranoid protectionism around the banned terms...


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