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Weekend essay: the Janus-faced Olympics

Posted on June 30, 2012 by

There seems to be a disconnect for many Scots between how they feel about the London Olympics and how they’ll act when the Games are on. Many will bemoan the cost, lost opportunities, lack of access or significant national legacy, but will simultaneously be cheering on the athletes in Team GB. Is it a form of Olympic schizophrenia that we should despise the Games and yet love them at the same time?

Schizophrenia isn’t, of course, really the correct term to use for this phenomenon. It’s a mental disorder characterised by a breakdown of thought processes and by poor emotional responsiveness. Despite the etymology of the term from the Greek roots, schizophrenia does not imply a “split mind” and it is not the same as Dissociative Identity Disorder – also known as “multiple personality disorder” or “split personality” – despite often being confused with it in the public’s perception.

So perhaps it’s more accurate to say that myself, and many others, suffer from a form of Olympic split personality disorder. But what is it that causes this affliction? In order to find out, we need to look at the history of London 2012.

The lengths London went to in order to secure the Games were mindboggling, with even the capital’s traffic light system being hacked by the event organisers so that visiting IOC panel members wouldn’t get a bad impression of traffic congestion in the city. When the bid succeeded back in 2005, few would have thought that the end result would be such a burden on public finances, yet to put on the sort of Olympic political showcase that the government wanted the costs were always going to go only one direction.

Needless to say it didn’t start well, with the logo causing the first controversy. It was designed by Wolff Olins, a consultancy in Camden, London that bills itself as a specialist in developing brand experiences, creatively-led business strategies, and visual identity systems. The logo cost a staggering £400,000 and was referred to by design guru Stephen Bayley as “a puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal”. To compound this, the launch of the logo in an animated advert resulted in a segment of the promotional footage triggering seizures in a small number of people, prompting it to be removed.

It didn’t get much better when the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic mascots Wenlock and Mandeville were unveiled either, supposedly fashioned from droplets of the steel used to build the Olympic stadium. Even these cuddly toys have been mired in controversy after it emerged that they were being manufactured in Chinese sweatshops, with all the possible child labour issues that accompany such operations, and employees earning just £0.18 per toy despite them selling in the UK for more than £20. The workers are hunched in rows over sewing machines, getting only £93 for 358 hours work a month in dirty, crowded factories, without a single day off. They’re forced to work for up to 11½ hours a day and can be fined a full day’s pay if they leave their workplace untidy.

This probably wasn’t what the Olympic committee had in mind when they said they wanted the Games to make people more active, but they’ve assured the public that the IOC cares deeply about ethics and that any issues will be looked into properly saying “We place a high priority on environmental, social and ethical issues.” 

When one of the stated goals of the Olympics is to get children active and healthy, it also doesn’t help that some of the main sponsors are fast food retailers, such as McDonalds and Coke. They’ve even built the world’s largest McDonalds to accommodate demand in the Olympic Village. Aware of the potential PR downside of encouraging healthy living while feeding children high fat, high salt, high sugar foods, McDonalds has included a pedometer in the shape of mascot’s Wenlock and Mandeville in its Happy Meals. It’s unlikely that any short-lived infatuation with a novelty item will counter the longer-term effects on health caused by the promotion of such diets to the country’s future athletes.

What about the Olympics’ environmental credentials? It was originally planned to provide 20% of the energy for the Olympic Park and Village from renewable technologies, but this is now more likely to be as little as 9% – proposals to meet the original target were scrapped by the Coalition government, citing safety reasons. The organisers of the event say that all waste products will be recyclable, or at the very least biodegradable, but the sheer scale of the event in numbers of visitors, air travel, local congestion and resources required to undertake the project mean that the Olympics were never going to have a positive impact on the environment.

This fact was underlined by the acceptance of sponsorship from the Dow Chemical Company (owner of Union Carbide), which seems to be at odds with both the environmental aim (given the fundamental nature of the chemical industry), and also the social aspect, after a gas leak at the company’s plant in Bhopal in 1984 killed 2259 people. The company has never fully accepted responsibility or paid adequate compensation for the deaths or the generations of terrible side effects, but it’s had no trouble getting its chequebook out for the Games.

The promotion of the Games hasn’t endeared itself to the wider UK community outside of London either, typified by the ham-fisted attempts to bolt giant Olympic rings onto Edinburgh Castle. Exactly why the city would want to use one of its main attractions as an advertising hoarding to try to tempt people to travel to the other side of the UK during the Edinburgh Festival – the Scottish capital’s peak tourist season – was never really explained.

The issue isn’t restricted to Edinburgh, with the Welsh tourist industry arguing that in the short term the Olympics actually displaces the normal tourism trade, with regular tourists turned off from visiting regions hosting the Games. From the outset, the Olympics never seemed like a project that would benefit the whole of the UK. As for London itself, not only will the influx of visitors choke the city’s transport infrastructure to within an inch of gridlock, the ever-spiralling security apparatus and the accompanying intrusion into the civil liberties of the public are likely to prove highly detrimental to the lives of ordinary citizens.

The financial aspects, too, make for sobering contemplation. An investigation into the Games by Sky News identified as much spending as they could that was associated with the Olympics:

“When London bid for the Games seven years ago the predicted cost of staging the Olympics and Paralympics was put at £2.37bn. The original public sector funding package, which is primarily cash to build the venues and provide security and policing, was increased in 2007 to about £9.3bn following a review. However Sky has counted an extra £2.4bn on top of the current £9.3bn public sector funding package for the Games. The additional cash includes spends on more anti-doping control officers, money for local councils for their Olympic torch relay programmes, cash spent on legacy schemes, paying tube workers not to strike, governmental operational costs, the cost of the Olympic Park Legacy Company, legal bills over the stadium tenancy decision and extra pounds to UK Sport. The figures also take into account the cost of buying the land for the venues at £766m.

The £12bn cost of the Olympics, calculated by Sky, does not include extra counter-terrorism funding of £1.131bn being allocated to the police despite a ministerial statement saying ‘much of this capacity will be devoted to the Olympics in 2012’. Nor does it include the £4.4bn budgets of the security and intelligence services. It also does not take into account the opportunity cost of having the majority of the UK police force working on the Games instead of fighting crime elsewhere. On peak days 12,000 officers will be policing the Games.

“In addition, Sky’s overall total misses out the £6.5bn spent on transport upgrades which have been brought forward due to the Olympics and could have been cancelled as part of Government spending cuts were it not for the event.

“If these figures had been counted, the Olympic spend would have totalled well over £24bn – more than double the current budget and 10 times the original calculation.”

In true British establishment style, the actual final cost of the Games is a closely guarded secret, and inventive accounting is used to deceive the public into believing that the true sum is lower than it really is. Such tactics include not counting the £766 million cost of purchasing the land for the event, as according to a spokesperson for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport “The cost of buying the land was excluded because the public purse would be reimbursed by selling it off after the Games”. Yet since the land was bought we’ve had a recession and the value of the land has reduced, not all plots will be able to be sold on, and the UK has a history selling public assets cheaply to “preferred bidders” that just happen to be financial backers of the government of the day, making it highly unlikely the full amount will be recouped.

The Public Accounts Committee has voiced its concerns over the legacy of the Games in both sporting-participation terms and financial ones, highlighting the uncertain future of the Olympic Stadium after a deal for West Ham United FC to take it over after the Games was scrapped. In Greece, the legacy of the Athens 2004 Games is one of of unused stadiums that are slowly rusting. Many Greeks, like Dimitris Dimitriou, a bank worker who was 28 when Athens opened the Olympics, believe that:

“They’ve let the whole place go to pot. The main stadium is a bit better off because it’s used by football teams but, if you look around, everything is rotting and rusting. The toilets are filthy, the showers stink and there’s no hot water. I don’t think anything here has been cleaned for years. And, to think, we are still paying for all this. Its part of the reason why our country is broke. And I hate the thought but he will be paying for it, too”, pointing to his son.

With regard to the participatory legacy, meanwhile, the PAC said:

We were promised a strong Olympic legacy but the government has chosen not to adopt the target of one million more people participating in sport by 2013 and plans for the stadium have fallen through. It must not become a white elephant… The government is dispersing responsibility for delivering the legacy and we need clarity about who is accountable… It is unclear what the sporting participation legacy of the Games is intended to be”

The previous Labour government diverted an extra £425m from the Big Lottery Fund to finance the Games back in 2007. This was in addition to the original £213m already taken from the Fund, and came out of money intended to provide sporting and social facilities to some of the poorest communities in the UK. At the time assurances were made that the money would be refunded from sales of Olympic assets, but campaigners for the voluntary sector are still waiting five years on to hear if the coalition government will honour that commitment.

This lack of support to communities in need is even more galling when you consider the large sums of money that has been spent on facilities and items that are not in fact associated with the Games physically. The £335,000 Olympic sculpture by Richard Harris called Jurassic Stones, for example, is designed to welcome motorists entering the sailing events in Weymouth, Dorset. People might legitimately wonder whether it was necessary to the successful functioning of the Games that spectators specifically attending by car should be greeted in such an expensive fashion.

The greatest of these art distractions, though, is the Arcelor Mittal Orbit observation tower. At £22.7 million to build it’s one of the most expensive sculptures in the UK’s history, and situated only a stone’s throw from the Olympic Stadium. This investment, however, does not secure access for the taxpayer. Entry fees to the sculpture will be £15 for adults and £7 for children and pensioners – a family of four will have to add £44 to the cost of their day out if they want to ascend the tower, which offers panoramic views over the Park and the London skyline.

Even then, entry will be restricted during the Games to those with tickets to watch sporting events – which cost as much as £2,012 for the most expensive seat at the opening ceremony. (This is on top of the decision to charge for events that were originally meant to be free.) Olympic officials said the general public would not be able to visit the tower until Easter 2014, after a further £490 million, two-year redevelopment project to make the area “more urban”. This sum is another one not included in the figures for the cost of the Games.

But even the Mittal tower is dwarfed in scope by the Westfield shopping mall. Now, readers might well ask what a shopping mall has to do with the Olympics. The answer is that the vast commercial development is the “gateway to the Games”, through which spectators will be forcibly channelled on their way to the sporting venues. £200 million was removed from Olympic funding to pay for the roads and utilities to the centre.

The Olympics are categorised as a “UK spend” project, which means that no Barnett consequentials accrue to the other home nations. Essentially, it means that Scotland’s £114 million contribution of lottery money, which was previously earmarked for sports and social projects in Scotland, was entirely swallowed up paying for roads and utilities of a privately-owned shopping mall in London. Margo MacDonald said:

“We lost millions that would have gone into the development of community sport which is about training coaches, improving grounds, paying for clubs and for kids to go for athletic meets or swimming matches and so on. For the same kids who may well have lost out on improvements to the premises of their club hall where they do their own sport, it is unlikely they will be going to Games with their parents, as it is exorbitantly expensive.”

Given all the above, it should come as no shock that many like me find the whole Olympic project an increasingly off-putting one. Yet curiously, we’re still excited by the Games themselves. Is this, as discussed earlier, a form of split personality?

I’m more inspired by the reaction of our younger generation to the Games than the actions of the event organisers. The local education establishment in Linlithgow, for example, decided to get children involved in supporting the Olympics through a project they called the Lin’Olympics. The project saw youngsters immerse themselves in the cultures of their adopted countries, and take part in athletic games events to celebrate sport.

What was surprising however, was the reaction of the London 2012 organisers. When the news that hundreds of Linlithgow children planned to hold their own Olympic event reached LOCOG, they responded to this positive encouragement of sporting achievement by saying that organisers had to drop the Lin’Olympics title because of fears it would undermine the official “brand”.

The games were granted the London 2012 Inspire Mark, which allowed organisers to link it to this summer’s Games, but on agreeing this the schools had to alter the title of the event to “The Linlithgow Games” to conform to the Inspire programme’s branding guidelines or be in breach of terms. It seems like LOCOG place “inspiring children to participate in sport” somewhat lower down its list of priorities than protecting its brand and revenues.

In ancient Roman religion and mythology, Janus was the two faced god of beginnings and transitions, looking to the future and the past, leading to use of the term ‘Janus faced’, which has the following dictionary definition: “marked by deliberate deceptiveness especially by pretending one set of feelings and acting under the influence of another”. If the Olympics are to have a mythological icon, Janus is a far more apt one that any of the Greek gods more commonly associated with the Games.

On one hand we have the Games themselves; good, honest (drug tests permitting) open competition, in which we will cheer on athletes from any country as we watch them achieve incredible feats of speed, strength and endurance. In stark contrast, we have the political and corporate moneymaking machine described above, a machine that offers politicians the chance to enhance their egos at the expense of the public purse and for vested interests to cream off billions in public funds.

I invite you all to join me in being pro- AND anti-Olympics. Know that you are not alone in supporting and hating the Games simultaneously – it’s not you that’s in the wrong, and it’s not Olympic schizophrenia but rather the Janus face of the Olympics that is to blame. Enjoy the games for the achievements, and chastise the politicians and corporations for reducing those achievements by their actions. It’s the only way to make it through the summer.

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19 to “Weekend essay: the Janus-faced Olympics”

  1. Derick fae Yell

    Sorry Scott – I just detest the Olympics totally and utterly and a Big Lot.

  2. redcliffe62

    Lotsa money and not much to show for it.

  3. Ron

    I’m like you, Scott, bitterly resentful at the gross overspend, the calculating deceit and the looming legacy of profligacy and waste, while at the same time able to respect, admire and applaud the individual effort and dedication of the participants. I see there are three episodes of ‘2012’ still to come; so far it’s been great to see the vaccilation and ineptitude displayed by the ‘Deliverance ‘ team, which is probably a lot nearer the truth than some would like!

  4. Morag

    The quality of that article makes me wonder why it isn’t in a major Sunday newspaper.
    Why has nobody been pointing out the role the Olympics played in Greece’s present financial difficulties?  It’s obvious, when you actually spot it.  I was in Athens a few years ago and took a bus tour of the city.  One of the places we stopped was an athletic stadium which was deserted and looked a bit unkempt.  We were supposed to marvel at this Olympic venue, but I couldn’t see why we’d stopped.  It was an obvious white elephant.

  5. Tris

    I deeply resent the money that has been taken from taxes to build this big business opportunity. 

    I resent the way it has been stuffed down our throats as some sort of benefit to  all of us.  I see no benefit whatsoever.

    With no consequential, I see that my taxes have been used to revitalise (or not) a part of London, and yet the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow will receive no funding from the UK government… strange that the Olympics is of benefit to all of the UK, but the Commonwealth Games won’t benefit England at all. 

    If I were a Londoner I would be incandescent about the laws that have been brought in specially for the Olympics: Fines for driving in VIP lanes, not for the likes of you and me; transport which is already stretched to the limit, stretched even further, so that Londoners can’t use it; prices of everything notched up to ridiculous levels…

    No, sorry, there isn’t a spark of interest here, although like many I applaud the athletes of the paralympics. It is a shame that they are being sponsored by ATOS.

    I would have been interested in our own games were it not for the fact that they too seem to have ATOS as a sponsor.

  6. Shirley

    An excellent, comprehensive look at the Olympics. There’s a short article here about the marketing issues, which you mention in your paragraph about the Linlithgow children:
    I agree with Tris about the disruption caused to people living in London. I’m surprised there haven’t been protests. Perhaps there will be – that would liven things up.
    Like you, I will probably watch the actual athletes when the time comes, while simultaneously cursing all other aspects of the event. 

  7. bigbuachaille

    Citius, altius, fortius ET CARISSIMI ET PECUNIA VASTATA

  8. Scott Minto (Aka Sneekyboy)

    To be clear; I detest the corporate shenanigans of the games but respect the athletes.

    I would have preferred if the games were more about the sport and less about ripping off the rest of the country! 

  9. Juteman

    Well written piece, Scott.
    I too detest the commercial side of the Olympics. As an ex runner though, i’m looking forward to the actual events.
    Wouldn’t it be nice if a nationalist Scottish athlete turned up with a Scottish vest?

  10. Craig P

    The Olympics is the world’s greatest money making and commercial event. There are also some sports attached to the event. 

  11. Dál Riata

    Good article Scott!

    @Morag “The quality of that article makes me wonder why it isn’t in a major Sunday newspaper.”

    Yes, I agree wholeheartedly, although I very much doubt if any of them will. The London-based media, with its pretense of balance and fairness, has too many vested interests in pushing ‘the positives’ of the Olympics rather than the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth … so help them!    

  12. Mike Landers

    Nicely put – I love the actual sporting aspect of the Games, and I’ll be glued to my TV during them, but it is difficult to separate it all from the sheer corporate-ness of the whole exercise, which leaves us with a huge cost and – I’m willing to bet – bugger all legacy from it.

    Oh, before I forget:

    The logo cost a staggering £400,000 and was referred to by design guru Stephen Bayley as “a puerile mess, an artistic flop and a commercial scandal”. 

    I prefer the much snappier “Lisa Simpson giving a blowjob”.

  13. Appleby

    Cognitive dissonance?

  14. Appleby

    £22.7 million or £335,000 for a sculpture out of the public purse when people are dying for lack of medicine or relying on charity to get them medical treatment and other cut backs continue? It sickens me to the point I just wish someone would invade for some regime change or drop a canister on us and start over again.
    I despise it all. If a black hole opened up beneath it and swallowed it all into the Earth I would not mind one jot. Everything from the tacky branding to the atheletes whoring themselves out, the disturbing laws, tools and practices being implemented in its name, the vast sums of money wasted, the deprivation so that pointless events can continue, the executives lining their pockets, the cronies, endless wasted man-hours and selfish politicians out looking to coin it in or make their name all have nothing but my contempt. All so someone can do what they could have done at the local venues or park anyway. Selfish (putter shunts – ed) the lot of them. Even the athletes that aren’t big enough for personal sponsorship in the ads are still happy to see the massive money shot that is the games so they can get their fifteen minutes at everyone else’s cost and so promote it. (Farce coals – ed). Anyone who turns up to it from the UK is the kind of person who would gleefully close down a children’s hospital or tip over one of their beds and smash it up so they could be on telly running in a circle for ten minutes instead.

  15. Appleby

    And the same with bells on it for those taking part in the event, spending or planning for the torch events.

  16. redcliffe62

    I think the SNP should demand a parliamentary committee in Edinburgh so that it can be agreed the Commonwealth Games is for all of the UK like the Olympics and that the UK government will fund it.
    It would be interesting to see where the unionist parties stood. If they did not support it then I can see another tv advert on the way. 
    If the UK government had any sense they would say they would support it fully and throw money at it to emphasise that (at least in 2014) Scotland will get equal support.
    I suspect however that logic is beyond them.
    If the Union NO idea parties started to have ideas they would be dangerous.

  17. Rev. Stuart Campbell

    Christ, Appleby, stop sitting on the fence and tell us what you think.


  18. Mike Landers

    £22.7 million or £335,000 for a sculpture out of the public purse when people are dying for lack of medicine or relying on charity to get them medical treatment and other cut backs continue?

    Can we drop the idea that this is an either/or proposition?  First off, the Orbit thing nominally cost £22.5m, but £16m of that was steel donated by Arcelor in return for the name and presumably a gong for Lakshi Mittal.

    Second, the idea that if that money wasn’t spent, it would be going to a hospital or some such is wrong.  Savings from X do not get put towards Y. Like the laughable “No to AV” compaign which ran on the idea that AV was taking money away from sick babies and injured soldiers, it is a lie from start to finish.
    And one bound to be repeated as the independence referendum gets closer. 

  19. Appleby

    Rubbish, Mike.
    Unless you’ve got a magical pot where resources, man hours and money comes from free and endlessly then it IS an either or. That simple basic fact is what you need to grasp before you come to the big boy’s table. There are limited resources, limited taxes and the choices of where they are spent is vital. Spend a billion bombing a sandbox, lose a billion for schools or housing or research or medicine. It’s that simple.

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