The Olympic Games are viewed by most people as a symbol of unity and peace — a time when countries put aside their conflicts and differences to compete in obscure contests like the javelin throw and modern pentathlon. In other circles, however, the Olympics are viewed as “an £11-billion, taxpayer-funded ad campaign,” a “10-day corporate jamboree” and “vanity parades for the political class.”
These are the sentiments of Kerry-Anne Mendoza, a 30-year-old University of London student and spokesperson for Our Olympics, an umbrella movement of interest groups and campaigners opposed to the London Games starting next month. Seeking to build on the spirit of the Occupy London protest camp that lasted for four months outside St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Our Olympics organizers are mobilizing what they claim are thousands of supporters and making plans to try to disrupt the upcoming games in any way they can. “We support and encourage all and any acts of non-violent civil disobedience up to and during the Games. These Olympics really do represent all that is wrong with Britain today,” Mendoza says.
Public protests around the Olympics are nothing new — prior to the 1968 games in Mexico City, more than 20 people were killed in student riots against the government. But the London Games come at a time of universal anger over financial greed and corruption and the austerity measures that have caused economies to falter and unemployment to soar all over Europe. Mendoza says many Britons are furious over the costs of hosting the Olympics when the country is in the midst of a double-dip recession, particularly as the price tag rose to £11 billion earlier this year, more than double the initial estimate. Last month, Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who chairs Parliament’s public accounts committee, told the BBC: “It is staggering that the original estimates were so wrong … There is a big question mark over whether it [the Olympic organizing committee] secured a good deal for the taxpayer.”
There are other grievances, as well. Environmental groups such as Drop Dow Now are opposed to Dow Chemical‘s sponsorship of the games because of its link with the Bhopal gas leak that killed thousands in India in 1984 — a decade ago, the company purchased Union Carbide Corporation, which was accused of negligence in the tragedy. Others are protesting another sponsor, Atos, the largest IT services firm in Europe, because of its link with government disability benefit cuts. Occupy London members have also joined residents in east London protesting the construction of a temporary Olympic basketball court in Leyton Marsh, an area of open land that many residents don’t want to be developed.
Although the groups are loosely organized and action plans are still being formulated, organizers say the numbers of activists joining their ranks are growing every day. Last month, members of a group called the Counter-Olympics Network (CON) comprised of students, young professionals, seasoned activists and concerned residents gathered in a basement room at the University of London to plot their demonstrations during the games. The group, which is loosely affiliated with Our Olympics, is planning to march alongside the Olympic V.I.P. lanes on July 28, the opening day of the Olympics, in order to try to block the routes for athletes and dignitaries going to the stadium. There have also been discussions about disrupting the Olympic torch relay across the U.K. and individual sporting events, as well as further attempts to block the construction of Olympic venues.
This has the British authorities on edge, but they insist they’re ready for whatever the protesters throw at them. The government has spent over £1 billion on policing and venue security for the games, with some 24,000 private security guards, 12,500 police officers and 13,500 military personnel expected to be on duty. Granted, the main priority will be preventing a terrorist attack similar to the one that occurred the day after London was awarded the Olympics in 2005 when suicide bombs exploded on three subway lines and a bus, killing 39 people. But the police will be closely watching non-violent protesters, as well.
“We haven’t personally been in touch with them [the protesters], but we’re urging anybody who is intending to protest to come and speak to us because obviously they know where we are, we don’t know who these people are,” Assistant Commissioner Chris Allison, the policeman in charge of security at the Olympics, tells TIME. He is adamant that trespassing and disruptions of any kind will not be tolerated: “Your right to protest does not give you the right to stop the Olympics happening, or to stop the torch or torchbearer going round the country.
Indeed, the government has already served notice that it’s serious by issuing the first court order banning an Occupy activist from the Games. Twenty-nine-year-old Simon Moore was issued an antisocial behavior order (an “Olympic ASBO”) for sitting in front of a truck to stop the construction of the basketball court at Leyton Marsh in April. Among other restrictions, Moore is prevented from coming within 100 yards of Olympic venues, participants, officials, spectators and the Olympic torch route. Moore tells TIME he had no intention of disrupting the Games, but is nonetheless angry over the increased security surrounding the event. “I wouldn’t charge out in front of the marathon,” he says. “But I would rather see that torch runner bungled 200 times by crazed activists and not even arrive at his destination than for this country to turn into a police state.”
Olympic organizers have also been criticized after security guards have attempted to stop photographers and videographers from filming at numerous venues this year. One photojournalist, Mike Wells, who works for the Games Monitor, a website seeking to highlight the negative impact of Olympic-related development, was arrested in April for filming at the Leyton Marsh construction site. “I think they are operating under clear guidelines: if you see anyone outside photographing the Games, challenge them. They have no legal basis for doing that,” says his colleague, Martin Slavin. Afterward, LOCOG, the Olympic organizers, acknowledged there have been “regrettable incidents” involving private security guards not responding in an appropriate manner to photographers.
Some believe the authorities are becoming less tolerant of protesters as the Games draw nearer out of appearances rather than fear. Maria Gallastegui, a 53-year-old peace protester who had lived on Parliament Square for six years until authorities ordered her tent removed last month, says the government is wrong to think that protests don’t have a place at the Olympics. “Actually most people are supportive, and certainly tourists, because they can’t believe that we’re there with these powerful messages, and commonly they’ll say, ‘In our country we’re not allowed to do this.’” Considering the authorities’ stance, however, the battles may not be restricted to the playing field in London — they may spill onto the streets, as well.
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