The Militarisation of the Olympic Games

The following article by Mark Perryman first appeared in the 19th July edition of the Morning Star newspaper.

Munich 1972 will always remain one of the most iconic of all Olympic Games. Not so much for Olga Korbut’s impish performance in the gymnastics or the gold medal haul of Mark Spitz in the pool, but for the lethal carnage resulting from the Israeli athletes being taken hostage by the Palestinian Black September group.

Readers of the Morning Star will need little or no convincing that in Gaza and the West Bank immense problems remain, the murderous consequences of Israel’s war on the Palestinians only too obvious.

Yet in all the commentary on the security threat to the London Games scarcely anyone has observed that in 2012 Palestine competes as a nation-state in the Olympics, under its own national flag. This would have been almost impossible to imagine 40 years ago, while it remains true that the threat of terror can never be defeated by military means as the root causes can only ever be solved via a political solution.

Of course the Games organisers cannot afford to wait for a political settlement to the cause that frames the terror threat they identify facing London 2012, the fallout from the Iraq war and the continuing occupation of Afghanistan.

But recognising there is a reason behind these acts of violence should at least be the starting point for understanding the securitisation of the Olympics. A point almost entirely absent from all the breathless reporting on London 2012 security and why all these tens of thousands of security staff were required in the first place.

It would be reckless to dismiss the bloody horrors that would be the result of any kind of attack on the Games. But security is also about where you choose to draw the line between crowd safety and human liberty.

Three examples show how badly London has got it wrong.

First, the Lea Valley Towpath which runs along the edge of the Olympic Park. Already the park is enclosed by a sky high fence, topped by razor wires and electronic sensors, with CCTV every few metres and security patrols inside the fence, all to protect the park from intruders.

But in addition the towpath was closed to public access 23 days before the Olympics begin. All across London on the edge of Olympic venues there have been similar restrictions imposed.

Second, on the list of banned objects which cannot be taken into the Olympic Park is “the flag of any country not competing in the Olympic Games.”

This is aimed specifically at Free Tibet demonstrators, a country not represented at 2012, but what possible harm is there if anyone wanted to wave such a flag? Isn’t this what’s called free speech? Again, this is just one example of numerous instances of crossing the line between safety concerns and policing the right to protest.

Third, the experience of previous events. I have been lucky enough to have been to the last four World Cups. None of this very public mobilisation of the host nation’s armed forces took place, no obvious presence of missiles, warships, aircraft on standby, troops on the streets.

There is something about the martial and imperial traditions that seems to insist that in Britain we must parade our military hardware for all to see and believe that this will somehow act as reassurance rather than leave people asking, why.

The security risk cannot be entirely discounted. But the overwhelming effort of all those involved to guard the Games has nothing to do with terrorism. They are there to prevent any sort of protest and to defend the interests of the sponsors.

Another item on the banned list of products to take into any Olympic venue is an “excessive amount of food.” If fans are peckish, it’s not an extra round of cheese and pickle sandwiches the organisers want them tucking into but a Big Mac and all the other officially approved products.

“Help For Heroes” has become “Cheap Labour From Heroes” in order to protect not you and me but McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Heineken and the rest. So perhaps we will have a secure Games, but who is being protected?

• Mark Perryman is the author of ‘Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us And How They Can Be’ (£8 Book/£6 Kindle) available from www.orbooks.com