What effect does the great sporting-corporate juggernaunt that is the contemporary Olympics have on host cities? And what are the diverse range of tactics that grassroots activists use to protest its damaging results? In this exclusive extract from his recently published Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, leading Olympic expert Jules Boykoff takes the 2012 Olympics in London as a case study of corporate greed and popular resistance against Celebration Capitalism.
In early 2012, WikiLeaks released a trove of more than five million internal emails from Stratfor Global Intelligence, a Texas-based private intelligence firm with clients like Goldman Sachs, Lockheed Martin, and the Department of Homeland Security. The “Global Intelligence Files” revealed that Coca-Cola, a Stratfor client and “Worldwide Olympic Partner,” was fretting that animal-rights activists from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals might cause havoc at the 2010 Vancouver Games. With the London 2012 Summer Olympics on the horizon, Dow Chemical requested that Stratfor track activism around the 1984 Union Carbide gas disaster in Bhopal, India. In 1999 Dow had acquired Union Carbide and vehemently insisted it wasn’t responsible for the catastrophe that had killed thousands and sickened many more. Dow, another “Worldwide Olympics Partner,” had doled out $100 million to the IOC. It also created an $11 million decorative wrap that was strapped to the Olympic Stadium. Stratfor maintained a Bhopal activism file for Dow, which included entries on protesters from the Bhopal Medical Appeal, a group piggybacking off the Olympics to draw attention to Dow. Activists from Games Monitor, a London-based anti-Olympics group, were also ensnared in the “digital enclosure” of Stratfor’s surveillance of online activist planning.
While anti-Olympics dissent in Vancouver trended toward brass-knuckle seriousness and boots-to-pavement mobilization, activists in London tended to go with the celebratory grain, relying on spoof and wit. This strategy was a response to heavy-handed police actions before the Games. Jess Worth of the UK Tar Sands Network and the Reclaim Shakespeare Company told me, “Given the police crackdown that there already has been and will continue to be in the run-up to the Olympics, I think as activists we’re having to be quite creative as to how and where and when we do our interventions ... through subvertising, culture jamming, greenwash-exposing.” Most of this activism in London took place before the Olympics, with only a few actions carried out during the Games.
The Counter Olympics Network (CON) was the activist hub, organizing de facto spokescouncil planning meetings for diverse groups, with each organization sending a representative or two to coordinate actions. Games Monitor and Our Olympics focused their energy online, transmitting information about protests and the historical underbelly of the Olympics. Occupy London and Youth Fight for Jobs held events contrasting government austerity with five-ring lavish- ness. The groups Save Leyton Marsh and No to Greenwich Olympic Equestrian Events (NOGOE) confronted Olympic organizers’ aggressive seizure of public space. The Defend the Right to Protest campaign zeroed in on civil-liberties issues, as did the Newham Monitoring Project, which started a Community Legal Observer program that trained dozens of local people in strategies and protocols for cop-watching. Kerry-anne Mendoza of Our Olympics described activism as a “rainbow coalition of discontent.” London mayor Boris Johnson responded to this “rainbow coalition” by writing: “Oh come off it, everybody—enough whimpering ... Cut out the whining. And as for you whingers, put a sock in it, fast. We are about to stage the greatest show on earth in the greatest city on earth.”
When the Olympics come to town, all that is partisan melts into air. Johnson’s Tories were joined by the Labour Party and Liberal Democrats who were more than keen to create a tri-partisan, five-ring lovefest. When the American candidate for president and former Salt Lake City Olympic executive Mitt Romney suggested that London might not be ready to stage the Games, he was savaged from all sides. Romney once wrote that he was “mystified by those who say the Games have become too commercial.” But activists in London were not afflicted with such bafflement, leveraging corporate privilege and greed into humor-laced protests.
In London 250 miles of VIP driving lanes were set up to transport IOC members, athletes, medics, and, of course, corporate sponsors. Everyday people were barred from what critics dubbed “Zil lanes” in honor of Soviet-era fast lanes exclusively for Politburo honchos. To great public outcry, corporate sponsors snapped up one of every ten slots in the Olympic torch relay, which was ostensibly meant to honor community leaders and well-known Britons, and were given nearly 10 percent of all sports-event tickets. This came to light when sponsors couldn’t even be bothered to show up, leaving conspicuous patches of empty seats, to the chagrin of every- day people who had been denied tickets to sold-out events. A smorgasbord of capitalist hobnobbing took place, leading Mayor Johnson to call the Olympics “a gigantic schmoozathon.” In a report published ahead of the Games, Moody’s investor services delineated who would benefit from Johnson’s “schmoozathon”: “Moody’s expects that corporate sponsors will benefit most from the Games.” After all, the 2012 Summer Games were “a huge marketing opportunity for corporates.”
And London political elites were keen to lend the “corporates” a hand. They united to alter British law to bring it into sync with IOC dictates. The Olympic Charter’s Rule 50 states, “The IOC Executive Board determines the principles and conditions under which any form of advertising or other publicity may be authorised.” To harmonize local law with this IOC rule, elected officials passed the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act of 2006, which defined trademark infringement stringently, listing specific words that couldn’t be used in close proximity “in relation to goods or services.” Linking together two of the words “games,” “Two Thousand and Twelve,” “2012,” or “twenty twelve” meant breaking the law. So did combining any of those four words with this seven- word list: “gold,” “silver,” “bronze,” “London,” “medals,” “sponsor,” or “summer.”
The London 2012 Olympic Delivery Authority, a public body, took seriously its brand policing on behalf of private companies. It strong-armed one café into removing from its menu a “flaming torch breakfast baguette.” It forced a flower shop to disassemble a decorative, tissue-paper window display in the shape of the Olympic rings. Even Michael Payne deemed enforcement overzealous, calling it a major “own goal” that went “too far.” Nevertheless, London Olympic head Lord Sebastian Coe explained to the BBC: “It is very important to remember that actually by protecting these brands, by protecting the companies that have actually put money into the Games, we’re also protecting the taxpayer. Because if we don’t reach these targets, then actually the taxpayer is the guaran- tor of last resort.” The idea that brand policing actually protected British taxpayers was a crystalline articulation of celebration capitalism’s core: the public will bail out private companies when the going gets rough.
Corporations forked over £1.4 billion ($2.25 billion) in sponsorship fees. Eleven “Worldwide Olympic Partners”— Acer, Atos, Coca-Cola, Dow, GE, McDonald’s, Omega, P & G, Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa—kicked in around £700 million ($1.1 billion), with each firm furnishing about £63 million ($100 million). Lower-tier corporate partners pro- vided £700 million more in cash, goods, and services, with “London 2012 Olympic Partners”—Adidas BMW, BP, British Airlines, BT, EDF, Lloyds TSB—giving £40 million ($64 million) each. “London 2012 Olympic Supporters”—Adecco, ArcelorMittal, Cadbury, Cisco, Deloitte, Thomas Cook, and UPS—each contributed another £20 million ($32 million). “London 2012 Olympic Providers and Suppliers” like Eurostar, G4S, GlaxoSmithKline, Heineken UK, Holiday Inn, Rio Tinto, and Ticketmaster provided approximately £10 million ($16 million) apiece, much of it in goods and services. This seems like a lot of money, but it covered only about 12 percent of the overall cost of the London Games, if one accepts the £11.4 billion price tag that was bruited about in the press. Taxpayers were on the hook for most of the remaining 88 percent.
When it came to corporate deference, activists weren’t inclined to go as soft as the politically conservative Lord Coe. They argued that corporate scoundrels were becoming Olympic sponsors to engage in what Dave Zirin calls “corporate sin washing”—using the Games to nuzzle up to consumers so they’ll forgive them their trespasses. Activists zeroed their attention on Olympic sponsors with dubious records. When London 2012 officials created a “sustainability partner” spon- sorship program that included BP, BMW, BT, Cisco, EDF Energy, and GE, activists from the Greenwash Gold campaign and the Reclaim Shakespeare Company went on the attack. Turns out there were no standards for becoming a “sustain- ability partner.” It was entirely a pay-to-play game.
The Greenwash Gold campaign linked three activist groups —Bhopal Medical Appeal, London Mining Network, and UK Tar Sands Network—to focus on fake green sponsors. Activists produced snappy micro cartoon films on BP, Dow, and Rio Tinto, and requested people to vote on who deserved the gold medal for greenwashing. With the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster in the Gulf Coast fresh in mind, activists made BP a prime target. Campaigners focused on Rio Tinto, the mining company supplying the metals for the Olympic medals, for polluting communities from Quebec to West Papua. On April 16, 2012, activists staged an event at Amnesty International where they screened the three videos, following them with testimonial panels of people from around the world—from Bhopal to Utah, from Mongolia to Mississippi—who were affected by these firms’ environmental malfeasances.
A week before the Games’ opening ceremony, Greenwash Gold activists hit Trafalgar Square to award the gold, silver, and bronze for corporate greenwashing, as determined by online voting. Once faux representatives from Rio Tinto, BP, and Dow climbed the makeshift medal stand, they were doused with lime-green custard. Police swooped in and arrested seven participants on suspicion of criminal damage for littering the public square. The “Custard 7” was born. No one from the group was ever charged with a crime, but their bail conditions restricted their movement, preventing them from entering places like Trafalgar Square, Wimbledon, Wembley Football Stadium, Horseguards Parade, Hyde Park, and Lord’s Cricket Ground because “it is feared that” the individual “will attend these sites to commit further offences due to the fact that they are being used for Olympic venues.” In September, after the Olympics and Paralympics concluded, British officials dropped the case, but the bail conditions had succeeded in keeping them away from Olympic-related venues. Arresting activists on questionable grounds without leveling formal charges was a common police tactic to temporarily demobilize dissent.
As a sponsor of the Royal Shakespeare Company, which ran programming as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad, BP attracted additional activist attention. The Reclaim Shakespeare Company (RSC) described itself as “anarcho-thespians” who were “brought together by a shared love of the Bard and a loathing of badly behaved oil companies,” as RSC participant Danny Chivers wrote in London Late, the alternative newspaper published during the Games.143 The RSC blended comedy, creativity, and pluck in a series of direct actions designed to strip BP of its credibility in theater circles. Each guerrilla performance was tailored to the play that followed, as activists crafted their interventions with a dash of Shakespearean panache.
The first intervention came on William Shakespeare’s 448th birthday in April 2012 at the Royal Shakespeare Theater in Stratford-Upon-Avon, where guerrilla actors stormed the stage before the show. Dressed in Shakespearean garb, Richard Howlett delivered a soliloquy that tweaked the Bard’s verbiage for activist purposes: “What country, friends, is this? / Where the words of our most prized poet / Can be bought to beautify a patron / So unnatural as British Petroleum?” Howlett punctuated his monologue with a plea: “Let us break their staff that would bewitch us! Out damned logo!” He then ripped the BP logo from the back of the program, encouraging others to join him. The Reclaim Shakespeare Company’s debut performance was met with both bemuse- ment and applause, with many in the crowd tearing out their BP logos. Reclaim Shakespeare went with the celebratory flow, punching the target at an angle, implicitly following the words of poet Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the Truth but tell it slant.” Chivers told me: “It’s important that we don’t set our- selves up as the anti-fun opposition. And it helps for engaging activists—people have joined us because they think it looks like fun.” Howlett added, “Getting the audience to laugh at BP is a great thing.”
Comedy was vital to another activist group at work during the Olympic moment: the Space Hijackers. The London-based activists are self-proclaimed “anarchitects” who since 1999 have been engaging in humor-based subversion. Composed of numerous “agents,” they orchestrate rollicking frolics designed to put the “fun” in “fundamentally opposed to capitalism” while blurring the lines between politics, art, and activism. Agent Maxwell explained: “For us, it’s about how public space is increasingly heavily securitized and a lot of that has to do with the privatization of public space ... It’s about trying to reclaim space that has been taken over by powerful interests for the benefit of a wealthy minority, and we try to challenge who that space is being taken from and given to. We’re trying to re-imagine what you can do in the space.” When I sat down with a group of Space Hijackers one hot summer afternoon to discuss their strategies and tactics, Agent Monstris said: “We’re all frustrated cosmonauts or astronauts” interested in “physical space, virtual space, mental space, political space, sexual space. The idea is to turn it on its head and to look at things in a very different way that will engage people. Because when you start talking about ‘the politics of public and private space,’ most people will turn off and start falling asleep.”
In spring 2012 the group declared itself “the Official Protesters of the London 2012 Olympic Games” by starting a web page and changing its Twitter avatar. After Olympic organizers complained, Twitter swiftly responded, writing, “We have received reports from the trademark holder, London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Ltd [LOCOG], that your account, @spacehijackers, is using a trademark in a way that could be confusing or misleading with regard to a brand affiliation. Your account has been temporarily suspended due to violation of our trademark policy.”147 The crackdown sparked an online firestorm that eventually led to the reinstatement of their account. Tongue in cheek, the Space Hijackers released a statement: “Eventually after tense negotiations Twitter allowed us access back to our account, along with the hundreds of new followers that we had gained. We would like to thank Locog and the IOC for this Official Recognition and look forward to working with them to facilitate further protest in the future.” Meanwhile they hatched plans to catapult chips into Olympic venues to undermine McDonald’s brand-protected french-fry lockdown.
Space Hijackers also received communications from the Metropolitan Police asking them to reveal their protest plans so that the Met could facilitate the demonstrations. The group ignored the requests. Two weeks before the Games, they headed to the site of the Olympic stadium and Westfield shopping mall where they measured the range of their megaphone, simulated evasion of security officials, and assessed would- be materials for barricade-building and projectile-hurling. On their web site they reported, “As Official Protesters we wanted to ensure that provisions had been made not only to facilitate our protests, but also that any non-brand-compliant protesters would be safely removed from the area.” They were harassed by mall police, but used humor to deflect their inquiries.
Other activists went online to challenge the fact that the Olympics turned parts of London into a de facto tax haven where Games sponsors won temporary exemptions from the UK Corporation Tax and UK Income Tax. Foreign nationals who “carry out an official function or work for a London 2012 Partner”—including sponsors, athletes, journalists, and IOC officials—were not charged income tax, which translated to more than £600 million in foregone tax revenues. This led to perhaps the most successful activist challenge at London 2012: the UK-based group 38 Degrees organized an online campaign designed to compel companies to forgo their tax breaks, and after thousands of netizens signed an online petition, fourteen prominent Olympic sponsors agreed to waive their tax-free status: Acer, Adidas, Atos, BMW, Coca- Cola, Dow, EDF Energy, GE, McDonald’s, Omega, P & G, Panasonic, Samsung, and Visa.
Some athletes also challenged Olympic norms. Rule 40 in the Olympic Charter prevents athletes from advertising their personal corporate sponsors if they are not also official Olympic partners. The rule reads: “Except as permitted by the IOC Executive Board, no competitor, coach, trainer or official who participates in the Olympic Games may allow his person, name, picture or sports performances to be used for advertising purposes during the Olympic Games.” This was done to prevent ambush marketing. The rule, which was in effect for about a month during the Olympic period, drew the wrath of the American track superstar Sanya Richards-Ross, who said: “People see the Olympic Games, when athletes are at their best but they don’t see the three or four years before when many of my peers are struggling to stay in the sport. The majority of track and field athletes don’t have sponsors. In the sport, a lot of my peers have second and third jobs to be able to do this. We understand that the IOC is protecting its sponsors but we want to have a voice as well.” On Twitter, Olympic track athletes like Dawn Harper, Nick Symmonds, and Jamie Nieto used the hashtag #wedemandchange or #rule40. To be sure, this was no John Carlos/Tommie Smith moment, but it highlighted the fact that athletes are workers and that not all athletic careers are created equal: monetarily there’s a big difference between the basketball player LeBron James and the middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds.
Damien Hooper, a 20-year-old Aboriginal boxer from Australia, came closer to the Carlos/Smith spirit when he entered the ring for his match against the American boxer Marcus Browne wearing a T-shirt bearing the Aboriginal flag. Technically this violated Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter: “No kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas.” The Australian Olympic Committee publicly scolded Hooper, but the IOC chose not to impose a penalty. Hooper defended himself: “I’m Aboriginal, representing my culture, not only my country but my people as well. I’m very proud and that’s what I wanted to do and I’m happy I did it. I was just thinking about my family and what mattered to me. It made my whole performance a lot better.” He also agreed to not wear the shirt in subsequent bouts.
As with previous Games, security officials used the Olympics to employ new capabilities. In 2007 the Telegraph revealed a leaked memo titled “No. 10 Policy Working Group on Security, Crime and Justice, Technological Advances,” that stated, “Increasing [public] support could be possible through the piloting of certain approaches in high-profile ways such as the London Olympics.”
The Olympics militarized London’s public sphere. The Ministry of Defence placed Starstreak and Rapier surface-to-air missiles in the city, even ratcheting them to the roofs of residential apartment buildings. London’s airspace was patrolled by Typhoon fighter jets and Puma helicopters, replete with trained snipers who had the green light to use lethal force. The Royal Navy docked the amphibious assault ship HMS Ocean on the River Thames. The Metropolitan Police acquired more than 10,000 plastic bullets and set up mobile stations to facilitate swift deployments and bookings. The BBC reported that Olympic security had acquired a Long Range Acoustic Device (LRAD), big brother to the MRAD purchased for Vancouver 2010. As mentioned above, after G4S belly flopped on its responsibilities, more than 18,000 military personnel policed venues, affording the Games a strikingly military flavor. Another 17,000 police were also on hand. Three months before the Olympics began Scotland Yard organized “dispersal zones” where police could bar those they deemed to be engaging in anti-social behavior.162 These zones remained in place for three full months after the Games ended. Estelle du Boulay of the Newham Monitoring Project civil liberties group told me that in the state of exception created by the Olympics, local police were “rolling out more draco- nian measures and more attempts to increase the power of the police.” She noted that in the year before the Olympics “we’ve seen a different kind of policing, a harder form of policing against our communities, and just a far greater police presence on the ground. It’s been quite an intimidating presence.”
And all this was expensive. London’s bid claimed the Games would cost around £2.37 billion ($3.8 billion), but costs spiked to at least £11.4 billion (or $18 billion). Critics like Julian Cheyne of Games Monitor calculated costs at £13 billion ($21 billion), and a Sky Sports investigation that included public transport upgrade costs skyrocketed the price tag to £24 billion ($38 billion). This should not have come as a surprise. Only a year and a half after securing the 2012 Games, the House of Commons Media, Culture, and Sport Committee reported that “it was always likely that these would escalate over time.”
It didn’t help matters that once again the Olympic Village developers needed a taxpayer bailout. Originally envisioned as a £1 billion showpiece of London 2012’s urban regeneration plan, the Olympic Village project was entrusted to Australian developer Lend Lease. The deal reeked of cronyism, with David Higgins, the chief executive of the Olympic Delivery Authority until February 2011, previously Lend Lease’s managing director and group chief executive. The 2008 eco- nomic collapse and related credit crunch led Lend Lease to abandon the project, leaving the British government holding the bag. In Spring 2009, Olympic organizers openly admitted that the Village would be “fully nationalized.”166 In August 2011 the Village was sold at a taxpayer loss of £275 million to the Qatari ruling family’s property firm. Bizarrely, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt championed the transaction as a “fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games.”
The London Games, however, were hardly a moneymaking proposition, as government officials had long known. After a clear-eyed analysis of Olympic economics, a 2002 report from the UK government’s Department for Media, Culture and Sport stated, “The quantifiable evidence to support each of the perceived benefits for mega-events is weak.” The report went on to conclude, “The message is not: ‘don’t invest in mega events’; it is rather: ‘be clear that they appear to be more about celebration than economic returns’.”
Jules Boykoff's new book Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics is now available to purchase via the Verso website with 30% discount, free worldwide postage and free bundled ebook.