From London to Rio the band plays on: Some reflections on the Olympic dream machine

“As a microcosm of what we hope to achieve, look at the Olympics and their Legacy…We have set ourselves the goal of ‘convergence’. The idea is that kids growing up in East London should have the same life chances as anywhere else. There is no reason why the kids of East London should not benefit from, say, rugby, as much as the kids from Richmond. After two hours of hard physical exercise such as scrumming and tackling around the ankles, a 16 year old is less likely to want to get into a gang fight.” 

Boris Johnson – ‘2020 Vision. The Greatest City on Earth: Ambitions for London’ 

The Olympic Games are unique amongst mega sporting events, not just because of the scale of infrastructure investment and impact on host cities. Not even because of the scope of media attention, which provides an unparalleled platform for the promotion of carnival capitalism under the banner of national and civic ambition. Rather, the Games are invested with a peculiar prospect of hope for a world in which the idealism of youth, as captured by sport, prevails over geo-political conflict and a prolonged retrospect in which their legacy – the material and social benefits supposedly accruing to their host communities - is subject to a combination of intensive monitoring and collective amnesia. 

It has been no surprise that the media coverage in the run up to Rio has served as a prompt for nostalgic reminiscence and smug self congratulation about London 2012 on the part of those responsible for its delivery. How much better we managed things than the Brazilians! Yet it’s worth pausing for a moment to consider how the so called ‘Legacy Games’ set about constructing their own posterity. Ackroyd and Harvey’s ‘History Trees’ consists of a series of large installations planted to mark the entrances to the Olympic Park. Each tree has a brass ‘memory ring’ weighing half a ton placed in its crown, engraved on its interior face with words and phrases reflecting the area’s history. The official handout tells us that ‘over time, the tree branches and ring will slowly fuse together, becoming a living memory of the Olympic Park’. The words on the rings are, of course, deliberately unreadable, except by someone bold enough to actually climb the tree. Anyone who does so will discover a series of enigmatic and evocative phrases with a variety of local resonances: It’s all about water – Cockles from Leigh – A cormorant, symbol of marsh, etc. Otherwise the story they have to tell is strictly for the birds. Eventually the rings will also be invisible, at least in summer, as they form each tree’s ‘hollow crown’.

An artwork that is designed to celebrate the living legacy of the Olympics - inscribed with signifiers of a landscape which the construction of the Olympic site has largely effaced - will thus serve as an elaborate metaphor of occlusion and forgetfulness, in which cultural memory and local history are overgrown by the hand of nature and the march of time. Plato would have loved the idea of the arbitrary coincidence of two shadows, one permanently inscribed, the other ephemeral. Socrates would have grumbled about the expense to the public purse, not to mention the inconvenience of having to hang around in the cold while Clio, in alliance with Mother Nature, gets her act together. Philosophically, the project is a no-brainer and its aesthetic rationale – a kind of anti-ruinology – is at best a rather glib double take on Anselm Kiefer’s explorations of traumatic memoryscape: representing the unrepresentable by rendering it into an undecipherable code. Is this what it means to live the Olympic Dream, to remain permanently poised between a utopian project, demanding the impossible and the repression of hopes and desires for the better world that it evokes? 

The installation can thus be read as a meta-statement about the central legacy issue. How is it possible to create a ‘Post Olympics’, which is neither a simple material trace of a historical event (the 2012 Games), a sentimental retrieve of a liminal moment of national triumphalism (as celebrated in the Ceremonies and Team UK’s crock of golds), nor a re-iteration of an original compact with the host city struck in the heat of the bid, but which has long since lost any rhetorical purchase it once had on its citizens? It is a characteristic of any Post Olympic city that it remains haunted by extravagant promises of regeneration, and by the disappointment that inevitably comes with the discovery that it is indeed impossible to live the dream. The form of this haunting is unique to each Olympiad, and bears on the specifics of the deal struck with local communities and their political representatives. In the case of 2012 the legacy promised to the people of East London has come to be known as the ‘convergence agenda’: the life chances of working class children growing up in Newham and other host Boroughs was to be the same as their middle class peers in more traditionally affluent parts of town. Or as Boris Johnson, the then Mayor of London put it, in his inimitable style, the natural tendency of kids in East London to riot will be curbed by the fact that they will derive as much benefit from hard rugby practice as their peers attending private schools in Richmond. Lol.

The idea that in a society where structural inequalities are intensifying, partly as a direct result of government policies, the Olympic legacy could create a bubble of prosperity in which this trend is locally reversed is pure magical thinking, but it takes our leading Brexiteer to give it a properly farcical twist as an old Etonian injunction to the lower orders to ‘play up, play up and play the Game’. In the context of the EU referendum debate, we have indeed seen the London 2012 dream re-stated by the Leave campaign who used it to argue that Britain could put on a successful show as a stand alone nation, open to the world, and united in the spirit of enterprise that had once upon a time (i.e. before our accession to the EU) made us great. Post-Imperial nostalgia, only invoked ironically and in passing during the actual 2012 ceremonies, thus made a comeback bid in a retrospective claim that the Games prefigured a collective desire to re-invent the island story. But what if the economic outcome of Britain’s leaving the EU were to finally dash the hopes of those who believed that the legacy of the Games would bring about an economic transformation of East London for the immediate benefit of its existing communities?  

Jules Boykoff, one of the most sophisticated opponents of Olympic-led urban regeneration, recently compared Rio 2016 with London 2012, in terms of its displacement effect on working-class housing and jobs and accelerated gentrification. Certainly since 2012 land values and house prices around Stratford have gone through the roof. The London Legacy Development Corporation has produced a local plan without teeth and is seemingly powerless to prevent market forces turning Hackney Wick from a boho refuge for generation rent into a des res for affluent creatives. In terms of sustainable local jobs, these are mostly concentrated in the low wage retail sector in Westfield, which would have been built anyway while gold-plated developments like the International Business Quarter and ‘Olympicopolis’ (the new international cultural hub in Olympic Park) will draw professional workers and residents from the global labour market. 

So there is plenty of evidence to back up the position of the Olympophobes - those for whom the Games always and already can do no right. However these critiques fail to take fully into account the singular fact that the greatest support for sport, and indeed for the Sporting Spectacle generated by mega-events, is often found amongst the most deprived and marginalised sections of the host communities precisely because it represents a principle of hope not otherwise available in their everyday lives. It may, of course, turn out to be a false hope and it is for that very reason that urban social movements which focus on the negative regeneration impacts can take root wherever and whenever popular frustration, disillusion and disappointment with the Olympic project wells up. 

Here the big difference in the response of the people of East London to the Olympics - compared to that of the favelas of Rio - comes from the fact that the scale of immediate displacement was far less; and that however cynical local people may have been about the legacy promises, the now manifest failure to deliver on them has not had such a widespread or catastrophic effect across the city. In London, protest in the run up to the Games was confined to a relatively small number of those whose lives and livelihoods were directly impacted. These included, for example, owners of small enterprises demolished to make way for the site, taxi drivers excluded from the Olympics lanes, the displaced residents from the Clays Lane housing estate, and residents from the threatened Carpenters housing estate. In addition, there was a dissenting intelligentsia of artists, writers and environmentalists, concentrated in nearby Hackney Wick, on the edges of the Olympic Park. 

In Rio, in contrast, the regeneration programme directly affects the whole favela population of the city, a massive body of second class citizens, at a time when popular distrust of the country’s corrupt political elite has led to mass demonstrations and the deposition of the President. The report of the Popular Committee of Rio, an alliance of local academics and activists, does not fall into the Olympophobic trap. Its opposition is not to the inspirational principles of the Games and its Legacy Ideal, but to its dystopian practical outcome, the comprehensive failure of Brazil’s political class, and the Rio authorities in particular, to live up to egalitarian and internationalist principles and to carry them over from the sporting arena to the city itself. As well as providing a devastating critique of the delivery  authorities and   documenting in detail  the disastrous consequences of their policies for Rio’s urban poor, the dossier also outlines a manifesto which seeks to use the Olympics as a platform for alternative planning initiatives based on democratic deliberation, transparency and the people’s needs. 

Unlike London 2012, the governance and delivery of the Rio Games have been mired from the outset in overt concealment and corruption. Rio’s bid was used by the government, then led by President Lula, as a political instrument to implement an economic policy which aimed to combine payoffs to the business elite with dividends for the poor. In delivering this aim, the Worker’s Party quickly became enmeshed in the culture of bribery and kickbacks which is endemic to the way politics as well as business is done in Brazil. While his party remained in hock to the big corporations and construction companies, for whom the advent of the mega events was an unexpected windfall, Lula and the Mayor of Rio launched a ‘war against poverty’ that quickly turned into a war against the poor. 

Urban violence has been a serious problem in Brazil for the last half-century, and Rio de Janeiro has been no exception. Homicides are the number one cause of death for 15-44-year-olds and Rio has the highest homicide rate in Brazil. Research carried out in the favelas by the London School of Economics and UNESCO concluded that security is a key issue and plays a major role in the way people who live in the favelas are socialised. There exist complex relationships between the residents of the favelas, the police and the drug traffickers. The researchers found that the drug trade has been provider, legislator and organizer of everyday life in favelas over decades, offering a parallel system of governance, and rules for conduct as well as a possible career choice for many. In contrast the police, as the main representative of the State in the favelas, are often seen by those living there as persecutory and aggressive, making no differentiation between the everyday inhabitants of the favelas and the drug dealers and other criminals.

In 2009 the Brazilian government made a public announcement on television and radio, prompted by the award of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Games, that they would be instigating a new kind of police force, adopting new methods to combat social problems and occupy territories dominated by criminal organisations i.e. the favelas. They set up Police Pacification Units, whose purpose is: i) to take back state control over communities currently under strong influence of ostensibly armed criminals; ii) give back to the local population peace and public safety, conditions necessary for the integral exercise and development of citizenship; iii) contribute to breaking with the logic of “war” that currently exists in Rio de Janeiro. There are currently 37 Police Pacification Units operating in Rio, with 9,073 Military Police in 252 favelas. In the pacification process the local government has tried to contribute to the consolidation of the peace process and the promotion of local citizenship in pacified territories through the promotion of urban, social and economic development and by attempting to integrate these areas into the city as a whole. That is the rhetoric of ‘regeneration’. The reality is that every single one of the favelas that have come under ‘pacification’ is on or around one of the four venue zones for the Rio 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games, which raises the question of who the pacification process is really meant to benefit – those who live in the favelas or the people living in areas of the venue zones outside the favelas? Namely: the affluent middle and upper classes. This is gentrification not by stealth, or by the simple application of market forces, but as a direct action of class war and social cleansing rationalised as instrument of ‘slash and burn’ urban planning.

Rio was a good choice for the Olympics. It is one of the first places where carnival capitalism took off, turning a festival based on a popular culture of resistance to European colonialism into a multi-million dollar tourist industry. The Rio Opening ceremony celebrated the ‘Green Games’, brilliantly kitschifying its ecological message while reneging on the bid promise to end the pollution of Guanabara Bay by building a new sewage system. Shit continues to fly in formation. So forget about re-arranging the deckchairs on Botafogo beach, the titanic message of this Olympics is to carry on dancing while the ship of state goes down, and never mind the rest of the planet. 

The Olympics offer us the tragic-comic spectacle of a huge human enterprise which destroys itself as it becomes mired in sordid political machinations and bureaucratic mechanisms of public unaccountability, not to mention doping scandals. It is a dream machine that becomes a nightmare for those populations in whose name, and for whose benefit the whole exercise is conducted. Increasingly the citizens of potential host cities are saying no to bidding – the Games are not worth the candle they light for carnival capitalism. 

The situation is exacerbated by the  generic disjuncture between pre and post Olympic time, the first flooded with high anxiety and anticipation, the second by an interminable fading of horizons of possibility – will the London 2012 Games be finally over in 2020, or 2050, or whenever some legacy body decides to call a halt to the evaluation of its ‘catalytic effects’? If Olympic Cities are imagined looking forwards to a more-or-less Utopian future in which the hopeful vision of the bid will have materialized on the ground, they are remembered looking back in regret at what was a once-upon-a-time ideal. This split temporality also has its spatial correlate in the corporate imagineering that conjures up an area of urban dereliction in desperate need of large-scale regeneration in order to project onto it a futuristic scenario of magical transformation . 

But let’s end on a more optimistic, indeed Utopian note. Let’s play the Olympic Game and imagine an altogether different kind of world event. The IOC would be disbanded and the administration of the Games taken over by UNESCO, giving that organisation a much needed direction and financial boost. A permanent venue would be built in Greece on the ruined remains of the 2004 venues, while smaller demountable venues would be constructed in geo-political hotspots: the West Bank, Aleppo, Sudan, etc., so that the notion of truce central to Olympic mythography could at last be substantiated. A separate event in which all athletes are not only allowed but required to take performance enhancing drugs would be arranged under the sponsorship of Macdonald’s and Coca Cola. Meanwhile the Para-Olympics would have their own separate organization – the true successor to the IOC. Now that’s a dream machine we might all climb aboard…

Further reading

Jules Boykoff, The Power Games: A political history of the Olympics. Verso, 2016.
Phil Cohen, On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics. Lawrence & Wishart, 2013.
Phil Cohen and Paul Watt (eds.), London 2012 and the Post Olympic City: a hollow legacy? Palgrave Macmillan, 2016 (in press). 
Hilary Powell and Isaac Marrero-Guillamón, The Art of Dissent: adventures in London’s Olympic State. 2012.
Gavin Poynter and Valerie Viehoff (eds.), The London Olympics and Urban Development. Routledge, 2016.


Phil Cohen is research director of LivingMaps Network and editor-in-chief of LivingMaps Review. His most recent book is Graphologies (Mica Press 2015). Material Dreams: maps and territories in the un/making of modernity is forthcoming from Palgrave.

Olympic legacy: books bundle

Special discounts available on Phil Cohen’s On the Wrong Side of the Track? East London and the Post Olympics and Mark Perryman’s London 2012: How was it for us?, both available on the Lawrence & Wishart website. Find out more here