Magazine article The American Prospect

The London Games

Magazine article The American Prospect

The London Games

Article excerpt

GHOST MILK: RECENT ADVENTURES AMONG THE FUTURE RUINS OF LONDON ON THE EVE OF THE OLYMPICS BY IAIN SINCLAIR, Faber and Faber, 405 pages, $30.00

July 2012 marks the third time London has hosted the modern Olympics. In 1908, Britain was a rich and imperious nation, and British athletes topped the medals table. For the 1948 "Austerity Games," London was scarred by bomb damage and suffering under a postwar regime of rationing. There was no money for new buildings, so athletes were housed in Royal Air Force barracks; the USA won the medal count, while Britain slipped to 12th place. This year, Britain is once again mired in economic gloom. Yet the 2012 contest was awarded in the heady, affluent days before the financial crash. On July 6, 2005, when news broke of the successful Olympic bid, scenes of genuine, unstaged jubilation took place in Trafalgar Square. The official talk was of inspiring a generation, transforming British sports, and regenerating East London--particularly a tract of derelict land in the eastern borough of Stratford, a multi-ethnic area of hemmed-in terrace rows, industrial estates, commuter stations, and sketchy urban parks.

"We have got a great chance now to ... leave a legacy for the future," said then-Prime Minister Tony Blair. The next day, July 7, suicide bombers attacked London's transport system; 52 people were killed, and more than 700 were injured. Blair spoke defiantly of holding "true to the British way of life"; London's mayor at the time, Ken Livingstone, quoting Pericles of Athens ("All great things flow toward the city"), set Olympic dreams against global terrorism.

Construction of the Olympic Park in Stratford became a high-security venture, the perimeter clad in surveillance devices. Behind the fence, the park emerged: an 80,000-capacity steel stadium decked in striking pyramidal lighting structures, an aquatics center, a velodrome, and an athletes' village. Meanwhile, Britain passed from illusory prosperity into deep recession, and an ungainly Tory-Liberal coalition replaced a Labour Party irreparably damaged by infighting and the "weapons of mass destruction" imbroglio. Following the banking crisis, the hacking scandal at the Rupert Murdoch-owned newspaper News of the World revealed widespread corruption within the economic and political elite. In August 2011, police shot a 29-year-old black man named Mark Duggan in Tottenham, and London erupted in riots. The violence spread across the city, then further afield to Birmingham, Manchester, and Liverpool.

In the midst of such turmoil, the Olympics might be expected to supply a stirring, patriotic focus, as did the Games of 1948. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times in May, Sebastian Coe, an Olympic gold medalist in the 1980s and now a prominent member of the London Olympic Organizing Committee, struck this sort of positive note: "I just want people to leave London seeing the city that I'm very proud of. Extraordinarily diverse. Multicultural. ... I want London to be shown from all its traditional and historic values in a modern setting. That's what I'd like people to see. A city at ease with itself."

Yet Britain's Ministry of Defence has announced plans to fit "high-velocity rockets" with a range of between three and ten miles to several apartment buildings close to the Olympic Park. Recently, too, there have been vehement protests against the sponsorship of the Olympic stadium (officially billed as the "most sustainable ever built") by Dow Chemical, which owns the company responsible for the 1984 Bhopal gas leak in India, one of the worst industrial disasters in history. Still, there remain plenty of enthusiasts in Britain to castigate the "doubters." It seems likely that, despite all the pre-event caviling, the Olympics will generate the short-lived patriotism that usually accompanies sporting contests, royal weddings, and jubilees in Britain. Afterward, everyone will go back to workaday default tribalism. …

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