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Exclusion at the London Olympics

Playing Games on the Poor

by LINN WASHINGTON, Jr.

London resident Zita Holbourne plans to participate in the Friday July 27th Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games held at the gleaming new stadium located not far from her community of Newham.

However, Holbourne, a trade union activist and poet, is not participating as one of those lucky enough to have secured an expensive ticket to attend the glitzy Opening Ceremony.

Holbourne’s participating instead in a community forum on the 27th about the legions of unlucky London residents who’ve received no jobs, no contracts no other economic benefits from this multi-billion-dollar premier international sports competition which was originally touted by British politicians and promoters as a vehicle for helping low-income Londoners.

“The Olympics have been a disaster. The Olympics have not created opportunity for black communities,” Holbourne said.

British officials secured the Olympics for London on pledges of providing improvements for low-income and minority residents in England’s capital city. Nearly half of London’s population is non-white.

Holbourne, co-chair of Black Activists Rising Against Cuts, will participate in an ‘Alternative Opening’ not far from the stadium as part of a continuing campaign to oppose the austerity policies of Great Britain’s Conservative-led government — policies that many across that nation say are producing rising unemployment, injustice and inequality.

Olympic preparations in England, including the building of facilities for the games, have cost over $17-billion, with most of the funds coming from the national and local governments, according to a July 26 article in The Guardian newspaper.

This massive public funding for Olympics-related expenditures (plus bailouts for bankers) occur as Britain’s Conservative led government continues its budget-cutting ‘austerity,’ slashing funding for education, employment, housing and other social needs, including requiring the terminally ill to work part-time to continue receiving government benefits.

The conservative government claims insufficient funds exist to address the worsening economic plights of Britain’s poor, working and middle classes.

Omowale Rupert, a member of London’s Pan-Afrikan Society Community Forum, said the 2012 Olympics is “being used as an excuse to siphon money from the pockets of ordinary people – the bills will be left for us and the profits will go to the transnationals.”

Rupert once competed as a high jumper in international track-&-field meets, including the World Championships and the Commonwealth Games.

The London Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG) is the first ever Olympic organizing committee to have a Diversity and Inclusion Division.

Preparations for the games did achieve many of LOCOG’s stated goals, for example reclaiming long derelict toxic industrial wasteland in East London (where the stadium and other game’s sites were constructed).

Yet LOCOG’s pledges about jobs and contracting opportunities, particularly for uplifting black, ethnic, minority and low-income whites living in the five London boroughs abutting the 560-acre Olympic Park remain unfulfilled, according to many community leaders and residents from those five ‘host’ boroughs.

The host borough of Tower Hamlets, for example, has one of the highest rates of youth unemployment in London, yet only 1,700 residents from that borough held any of the tens of thousands of Olympics- related construction/retail jobs, according to a report in one London newspaper earlier this week.

London Olympic officials have earmarked one-third of the post-Olympics housing in the apartments built to shelter athletes for low-income residents of those host boroughs.

Officials claim 27 percent of the work force that built the athlete’s housing lived in the host boroughs but in fact foreign workers imported for construction work at Olympic sites were counted as ‘local residents’ if they found housing in those host boroughs.

The majority of the Olympic facilities, including the main stadium and the athletes’ housing, are located in the host borough of Newham.

“Newham is an area where minority ethnic people make up the majority of the population and in [Great Britain] over one million young people are unemployed, with one in two young black people unemployed,” Zita Holbourne said.

“Newham was one of three boroughs where the deepest cuts were made to the budget as part of the [Conservative government’s] austerity program. Yet it is one of the poorest boroughs,” Holbourne said, explaining that austerity budget cuts mean severe slashes in services, jobs and facilities.

The pre-Olympics opening edition of The Voice, Britain’s most influential black newspaper, carried the lead headline: “Broken Promise – The Olympic Diversity dream has failed to deliver.”

In another example of diversity disappointment, London Olympics officials denied The Voice credentials to cover the coveted track-&-field competitions inside the stadium.

A petition drive initiated by Holbourne plus wide-ranging pressure from across Britain forced London Olympics officials into a reversal where they provided The Voice coverage credentials for those competitions, which feature many filled non-white athletes.

Business development specialist Devon Thomas, director of Lambeth Enterprise and a respected community leader in the Brixton section of south London, said he isn’t “disillusioned” about failed Olympic diversity pledges because he had “no illusions” about Olympic inclusion to begin with.

“Black people received nothing contract-wise. The big boys on the inside sliced up the contracts,” Thomas said.

“I brought together an international consortium including firms from America. We had capacity to perform construction but we were still left out. The European boys cleaned up,” Thomas said.

“Exclusion is institutional. We get a tiny flake of a crumb.”

Simon Woolley is another London leader who considers exclusion as one of the “greatest tragedies” in this Olympics that British officials secured based on pledges to utilize Olympics-related economic expenditures to close remaining inequality gaps.

“It dawned on us early that organizers were not beholden to opportunities for the ‘left out.’ I went to a main Olympics sponsor and asked for [diversity] involvement and I was run out of that major bank. The exclusion is truly shocking,” Operation Black Vote head Woolley said. OBV is one of Britain’s most prominent civil rights/human rights activist organizations.

As London officials focused on finalizing Olympic preparations during the past three months, including mobilizing more military assets (from soldiers to supersonic jet fighters) for security than Britain maintains in Afghanistan, activists in that city hosted separate programs featuring two American Olympic legends: Tommy Smith and John Carlos.

During the 1968 Olympics, Smith and Carlos performed the iconic Black Power salute protest against racist deprivations when receiving their medals for taking first and third respectively in the 200-meter dash.

“Massive crowds came out to see Tommy Smith and John Carlos. They were well received,” Omowale Rupert said.

Paul Bower, who worked on securing Olympics-related jobs for residents of the host boroughs, reminded that LOCOG Chair Sebastian Coe, a former Olympic champion, said LOCOG couldn’t solve everything, while stressing that LOCOG’s job was to put on a big show.

“I think people are fairly positive about the Olympics,” Bower said. “The gap between rich and poor is pretty much ignored by the [ruling] Conservative party.”

Linn Washington, Jr. is a founder of This Can’t Be Happening and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He lives in Philadelphia.