Olympics London 2012: One Year On

London 2012 - How was it Front Cover

Editor of the new book London 2012 How Was It For Us? Mark Perryman wonders how much one year on Team GB transformed Great Britain as a nation

Many believe that London’s 2005 bid to host the Olympics bid was given the edge over the favourite, Paris, by Seb Coe’s passionate promotion of London as a multicultural city, a home to the world. As the bid presentation ended in Singapore Seb introduced on stage thirty youngsters “ Each from East London, from the communities who will be touched most directly by our Games.” This was on 6 July 2005. The very next day of course London would be rocked by explosions on the London Underground and bus system, 7/7. The juxtaposition couldn’t have been more dramatic, with many, too many, blaming the atrocities on the very multiculturalism that Seb had been celebrating as London’ virtue via the thirty star-struck youngsters beside him on the Singapore stage: “ Thanks to London’s multicultural mix of 200 nations, they also represent the youth of the world. Their families have come from every continent. They practice every religion and faith.”

This was a bi-partisan Olympics. During the closely fought 2012 London Mayoral election that preceded the Games by just a couple of months the hard right populist Boris Johnson and unashamed socialist Ken Livingstone differed on just about everything. Apart from the Games. On this they competed only in telling us how great the Olympics would be for London and how proud they were to have been part of bringing them to their city. Likewise, long before the rebirth of coalition politics support for the Games and all they represented was entirely consensual between Blair and then Brown, Cameron and Clegg. Yet outside of the world of the Olympic bid the disconnect with the apparent cornerstone to the winning bid, multicultural London, was palpable. Cameron, who just like Seb has a habit of coming over all touchy feely when on stage with a bunch of black kids, could at the same time declare “ We have allowed the weakening of our collective identity. Under the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives, apart from each other and apart from the mainstream.” He might as well have added ‘it’s political correctness gone mad’ or ‘you couldn’t make it up’ for good measure. State multiculturalism? Has Cameron looked around Parliament’s green benches, or the boardrooms he frequents, the newspaper owners and editors he spends too much time listening to, or perhaps glanced round his own Cabinet table and the legion of Downing Street special advisers who carry out his every command? If he’s any evidence of how state multiculturalism has affected the ranks of the powerful, the influential and the rich then he might have been on to something. And this suggestion that somehow the state has been fomenting separatism? Rather than differences framed by faith or dress the most noteworthy indices of difference in the multicultural Olympic boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Newham and Hackney would reveal disproportionate unemployment, poverty, poor health and a variety of other social problems.

This is surely what should have shaped a Games rooted in London’s East End. It was Seb’s claim in Singapore that London 2012 could achieve something for a part of the city scarred by discrimination. and deindustrialisation. Enthusiastically backed by Ken then, and Boris ever since. Yes there were plenty of Black and Brown faces in the Olympic Park, just the same as at any modern sports venue. As writer on race and sport Dan Burdsey has memorably put it, apart from the athletes themselves; “ You will often see a significant presence of minority ethnic people in the stadium; they will be directing you to your seat or serving your refreshments. The racialised historical antecedents and continuing legacy of these roles – entertaining or serving the white folk – should not be be lost within the contemporary clamour of positivity.” While the likes of Jess and Mo on the track, Nicola in the ring, Louis on the pommel horse roused the nation, the low paid, mainly unskilled and temporary jobs London 2012 generated were disproportionately filled by the young ethnic minorities. Those with tickets in an Olympic Park at the epicentre of three of London’s most multicultural boroughs, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney were disproportionately white, entirely unrepresentative of modern East London. This was the Home Counties Games, not London’s, white flight in reverse. Multicultural Britain on the track, maybe, in the stands and the park the social divisions of modern Britain as apparent as ever. Rushanara Ali, MP for the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency on the edge of the Olympic Park described the post-Olympic mood amongst her constituents as ‘betrayal’. In place of employment and career opportunities created by the Olympics they were forced to endure amongst the highest jobless rates in the entire country, long-term adult unemployment rising by 26% in the year of London 2012, long-term youth unemployment rose by a staggering 55%. Rushanara quotes the Olympic mission “ London 2012 made us believe there is no limit to what we can achieve.” Of course this is the magical appeal of the Games, its compelling narrative of those who succeed on the track, in the ring, pool and elsewhere. But too many from across the political spectrum and throughout the sporting and media establishment help perpetuate the cruel deception that either Team GB or London 2012’s success will have any kind of impact on the career and life chances for others. And if the Olympic Park isn’t benefiting those on its doorstep, what chance the rest of the country?

For one joyful summer we wrapped ourselves in Team GB’s Union Jack, stylishly redesigned by Stella McCartney . Of course it is a beacon of hope when that flag is worn to celebrate athletes whatever their colour, faith or gender, Olympian or Paralympian. Team GB was more a symbol of modern Britain than those who sit on the benches of Parliament, the seats of company boardrooms or at the desks writing the editorials in the nation’s newspapers. That is something we can all recognise, and most feel at ease with, some seeing it as symbolic of the Britain we want to become. But for others its just a temporary respite from the effort to reverse this process: Multiculturalism OK if it adds some finishing speed, fighting muscle and flair on the ball to Team GB but not if it means more immigration, from Romania and Bulgaria this time, who knows where next? A Polish food counter in our supermarkets. A Mosque down the High Street. The racialisation of Britishness is a complex matter, and the observation that Britishness remains racialised is entirely different from claiming it is racist. Sport can help unpick that complexity, offering moment of great hope and profound change yet it cannot effect that change on its own. A year on from London 2012 UKiP are riding high in the polls, scoring 17% in opinion polls and even higher ratings in the May local government and string of by-elections. Not the same as the tinpot nazis of the BNP nevertheless this is a party of the populist right, draped in that self-same Team GB Union Jack . UKiP is as against immigration every bit as it is against Europe, in fact it carefully intertwines the two issues, it rejects multiculturalism and does more than most parties to demonise Islam.

Will Self describes UKiP as appealing to “a sector of our society that still believes parliamentary democracy to be a sham; still thinks that black and brown people are inferior (while Jews are worrisomely and magically superior); remains powerfully xenophobic and looks to a nationalist renaissance; and of course, still reads the Daily Mail.” He was writing about England, Scotland and Wales have a more civic brand of nationalism, while Northern Ireland is a different case again. Team GB and London 2012 offered the possibility of a different version of Britishness, but that was all, a possibility not the actuality. Sport may like to pretend it can effect great change, and it makes those claims often enough, especially in the guise of Olympism, but one year on from that unforgettable summer it is as obvious as it always should have been. It can’t, not on its own.

Mark Perryman is the editor of London 2012 How Was It For Us published by Lawrence & Wishart . Contributors include Mark Steel, Zoe Williams, Billy Bragg, Suzanne Moore, Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and others. Available as a pre-publication, exclusive Mark Steel signed edition, £2 off, just £12.99, and post-free from here

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