The Olympic Divide: from Torino to London

It has recently come to light that several individuals involved in the UK riots of 2011 registered resentment regarding the costly preparations for the upcoming London 2012 Olympics as a motivating factor in their unrest. In a study of the causes of the English riots conducted by the Guardian News and the London School of Economics (LSE), researchers found that disparities in public spending on the Olympics are providing fuel for social unrest in poorer neighbourhoods. The high costs of hosting the Olympics, and the related backlash from young communities who are enduring increasing levels of poverty and unemployment just might prove to be one of the most significant security challenges for Olympic officials who are worried about a repeat of the UK riots during the largest cultural event in the world. 

For those who have been studying major sporting events around the world, the ways that Olympic related urban development projects intersect with urban poverty and social unrest is not a new phenomenon. The Guardian report however, has given this phenomenon an affable name—calling it “The Olympic Divide”. In Olympic cities from around the world, a common trend of Olympics inspired contestation has crystallized in the context of mega-event related expenditures that render stark inequalities within “host-societies” ever more visible to the local communities who traverse the short-end of the disparity.  

In the UK, vast Olympics-related public expenditures, particularly during a period of austerity, are proving difficult to legitimize to the wider public. On the other side of the divide, groups and individuals opposing Olympics related public expenditures while simultaneously experiencing serious socio-economic decline in their own communities are realizing significant forms of civil unrest has as a viable expression of their position.Rehearsing the Olympic DivideSimilar manifestations of a stark, and spatialized, urban divide were seen in Sydney 2000, Athens 2004, and Vancouver 2010. Indeed, one could now say the social implications of the “Olympic Divide” has become an ugly feature of hosting a modern Olympic event. 

This post features a paper from Colin Bennett and Kevin Haggerty's Security Games volume, by Chiara Fonio and Giovanni Pisapia on the social and security implications of the 2006 Torino Winter Olympic Games. While Fonio and Pisapia don’t use the term “the Olympic divide” specifically, their paper demonstrates how a uniquely localized expression of the “Olympic-divide” as a global trend has played out in the lead-up to the 2006 Torino Winter Games. 

Even though the Winter Games existed on a drastically smaller scale than the reported £9.3 billion costs of the London 2012 Games, familiar collisions between Olympic-related urban regeneration projects (touted heavily by partners and politicians in the Olympic Industry) and marginalized communities, also played a significant role in the emergence of social and political conflict which subsequently occupied a central place in the security and control strategies of the Italian authorities. The “Olympic-divide”, it seems, feeds into a condition of (in)security, fuelling real and perceived threats that the host-state pays dearly for in security and control strategies. 

The London case, however, is decidedly more challenging. Hosting the Olympics has translated into the largest peacetime security operation in the history of the United Kingdom and the timing couldn’t be more troublesome. The event is nestled in the shadow of the riots, smack in the middle of a seriously contracting domestic economy, while the nation also crests the steep cliff of potential economic disintegration in the Eurozone. When repeated announcements of over-inflated Olympic budgets circulate in the same news cycle as dramatic spending cuts on pensions and social welfare, only to become overlaid with an unpredictable civil society, a difficult situation emerges for those charged with managing public order.  

It is for these reasons that the “Olympic Divide” is an essential feature of modern expressions of the Olympic Games. The divide, as a persistent feature of socio-economic disparities surrounding the Olympics have become a primary enabler of insecurity. The resultant anxieties of security planners are therefore becoming increasingly heightened in their own response to the Olympic divide. Attempts to address the divide with security and policing strategies often leads to potentially invasive measures in the regulation protest, and now the possibility of riots, as manifestations of the very same Olympic divide.

(Photo by Gwydion M. Williams)

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