Wednesday, 28 July 2010

Let them eat cake...

Watching the news on BBC World Service today I was struck by the item featuring the new Olympic Village being built in London’s East End at Stratford. The backdrop was a vast new stadium and it immediately put me in mind of the Coliseum in the closing years of the Roman Empire. The Roman politicians found a very convenient way to distract the populace and to bolster their own popularity – stage more “games” and sate the poor with spectacles. Provide ‘circuses’ of gladiators, chariot racing and other ‘sports’ to keep them amused and distract them from the crumbling bureaucracy, failing infrastructures and plethora of external threats and ‘little wars’ slowly strangling their prosperity.

This seems to be endemic now. South Africa spent billions building sports stadia in all its major cities when there were already venues that could have been upgraded or expanded. The money spent on the two weeks of football fest could have been used to provide proper housing and health care, but went, instead, on a feast of football played by overpaid “stars” just as the Romans eventually found their Gladiators were the best paid and wealthiest men in Rome. Never mind the salaries and pensions of the bankers, take a look at what football and other “sporting” stars are paid today and ask yourself; “Why?”

The UK Taxpayer is currently funding the building of a large number of huge stadia and the accommodation that will house the competitors. Admittedly, the majority of these “stars” are not among the mega wealthy, but the money being spent on this spectacle is – it would fund a small nation’s development for probably two or more years! The budget started under Blair and his spendthrifts at a paltry – to some – £3 billion, but has now topped £9 billion and, despite assurances of ‘savings’, will, no doubt continue to rise.

As I look around me at all the “Sporting” pursuits I see increasingly that the ‘sport’ has been replaced by the spectacle. Vast sums of money are spent on motorsport, yacht racing (I used to enjoy a bit of fun competitive sailing until it became almost a blood sport to some.), running is now backed by big money, so are cycling, riding and almost all the track and field sports. To be competitive today you need the big money behind you to ensure you have the tailored running shoes, the specially built bicycle, the ultimate racing hull and, of course, the freedom to do nothing but practice, practice, practice…

Again one has to ask the question: Why?

There are, of course, several answers to this. For the politicians it distracts attention from their incompetence and corruption. There is no greater photo opportunity than to be photographed or filmed shaking hands with someone who has just boosted national pride or prestige by winning some International event. For the person backing the event, it is advertising, a chance to get your company, your product or your services associated with success. A small outlay leads to large returns for the successful backer – just as it did in Rome.

For the man in the street, the person who ultimately pays for it all, there is the great buzz, the feeling of triumphant association when his or her ‘star’ wins, be it a team or an individual. The same went for the Roman Games, a winning Gladiator enjoyed pop-star status, money, property and even entrée into the Imperial Court and his ‘fans’ basked in his success. Marx had it wrong when he said religion was the opium of the people, spectator sports, spectacle and envy are.

What are the benefits for Britain, for South Africa, for New Zealand (About to stage the Rugby World Cup) in spending these vast sums to put on these spectacles of self-indulgence? The promoters argue, probably with justification, that the construction brings ‘jobs’ to an area where there may not have been opportunities before. They will argue that the fans attracted to the venue bring business for the local shops and therefore the residents. They will also argue that it satisfies the emotional and social needs of a community.

The politicians will argue that ‘the people want it; they want to feel proud of their country/city/nation’ in a successful staging of these games. They will also argue that the development ‘brings urban renewal’ to a ‘rundown estate’. I suppose it does, in much the same way that Nero found the burning of the poorer districts of Rome useful. It moved a large part of the poorer population out of Rome and allowed him to ‘redevelop’ on a grand scale. There will also be arguments that it will bring in ‘long-term’ jobs, overlooking the fact that these tend to be at the lower end of the pay scales and the more menial. Factories (derelict), office buildings (rundown), and even some housing and public amenities have been cleared to make way for the Olympic Village and certainly the flats will become “social housing” in the future, but is this really what is needed in that area. Previous attempts to house large numbers of socially dependent families in blocks of flats have not produced the result desired, rather they have created “vertical slums” with massive social problems for everyone.

What of the jobs? OK, so there will be better connections to public transport from this area, but will that increase job seeking? I’m not convinced of that. Nor am I convinced that these “Games” are anything other than a huge expense for the taxpayers who must fund the opportunities for the politicians and mega wealthy businesses, to make even more money at our expense.

Call me cynical if you like, but this looks more and more like a way of keeping the populace happy will the nation burns…

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