The prospect of the failure of the Commonwealth Games in Delhi, with reports of unfinished facilities leading to athletes and even countries threatening to pull out, has led to an outpouring of racism in the British press. India was never fit to host the games, we read. It was a mistake to award such a prestigious event to a third-world country. Officials in India have also been keen to lambast their fellow citizens for their corruption and inefficiency, and a former sports minister publicly hoped the Games would collapse in disarray so India would not be tempted to bid for future events.
Such reports are now par for the course, perhaps even adding to the anticipation itself. Very similar things were written and said in relation to Athens, Portugal, Beijing and South Africa. But some of the commentary around Delhi has sought to look beyond this specific event to look at the whole genre of international sporting mega-events. In an excoriating article in the Guardian Simon Jenkins condemns the whole farrago and its real legacy of corruption and wastage. A separate report told us that holes dug all over Delhi to plant trees to beautify the city have led to an outbreak of Dengue fever. This is a telling image: attempts to makeover the urban environment to satisfy the overweaning demands of superpowerful sporting bodies such as the International Olympic Committee and FIFA are never merely cosmetic, and they always leave scars which may never heal and are increasingly difficult to hide.
Cities spend vast amounts of money to obtain the privilege of hosting such events. In so doing they find themselves trying to satisfy garguntuan appetites. The comi-tragic claim by the British Government that the 2012 Olympic Games will be more sustainable or even an ‘austerity games’ conflicts dramatically with the growing bank of reports highlighting the corruption, overspending and displacements mega-events always occasion. The Brazilian Government also affirmed that the World Cup in 2014 will be an opportunity to showcase and develop parts of the deprived Northeast of the country which do not have such a high level of international recognition. Unfortunately what such optimistic statements fail to acknowledge is that no democratic or national authority makes the decisions about what gets built and where. The terrain of the games is entirely given over to the voracious whims of an international cartel of corrupt megelomaniacs, media executives and giant corporations. The journalist Andrew Jennings has documented the extent to which the histories of the IOC and FIFA show them to be two of the most corrupt institutions on the planet, with the key players and any developers able to scramble onboard pocketing unimaginable quantities of cash, while for very many people the price paid for three weeks of sport is the loss of homes and communities.
Employment is of course one of the most commonly proclaimed benefits of such events. If the prestige were not enough justification for the cost and disruption, the boost to employment and tourism will surely compensate. Here in London over the last few weeks, however, we have seen posters appear on the tube offering opportunities for volunteers to make 2012 happen (a scheme sponsored and coordinated by none other than McDonalds). The roles on offer (staffing the turnstiles and information booths) are of the kind that one might reasonably have assumed to be remunerated. As for the purported benefits of tourism, we now know that not to be the case.
The legacy of all this is supposed to be the acquisition of world-class facilities and infrastructure to attract and dazzle future generations of high-worth visitors. Mega-events have come to play a vital role in the boosting of cities, a central element in the (failed, but nevertheless ongoing) neoliberal model of transformation of the urban environment. The aim is to construct cities of prestige and glamour for the mega-elites, while the poor are increasingly shunted away out of town, hidden behind barriers of billboards advertising the wares and the might of Nike, McDonalds and Coca Cola. But of course what cities such as Delhi, Rio, Beijing and Cape Town, cities home to millions of working and struggling poor, need is not world-class elite infrastructure. There is no urgent requirement for more luxury hotels to accommodate the kind of people who jet around the planet engaged in high-level competition, whether athletes chasing medals or the ubiquitous business traveller seeking deals. In the case of Delhi there is a desperate need for sanitation, electricity, running water, proper public transport, schools and health facilities. London needs to house generations of working class people currently crammed into poor quality and overpriced rented accommodation, rather than sporting superstars. In every city in the world people could be gainfully employed in the provision of all such basic facilities. But instead the cheerleaders of neoliberal globalisation offer the urban poor the once-in-a-lifetime chance to participate in the construction and guarding of new colosseums, built over the ruins of their former homes, while dressed in a uniform generously provided by a fast food company.
After the very public horrors of Beijing 2008 and South Africa 2010, with another of the world’s most unequal societies, Brazil, set to suffer two mega-events in two years, there is now a growing movement against the way in which sporting events are used as a tool to transform and sell off our cities for commercial gain. The left and radical activists everywhere need to engage with these campaigns, wherever attempts are made to sacrifice the urban environment to the lions of international neoliberal capital. No more colosseums!