Can East London projects win gold for Britain’s 2012 Olympics?

Post-Beijing there’s a compulsion to better the Chinese and deliver a Games that “was   just as fantastic, just as memorable”, said Mayor Boris Johnson when he accepted the Olympic flag as host for the the 2012 Games. But pride from making East London a better living cityscape will garner more world praise than medals and sporting. 


It’s been called “the backside of the city”, “a colony of depressed labour” and a “multi-racial ghetto”. However, the 2012 Olympics Committee could make East London a showcase of urban development with a human orientation. This action, nay, ideology, can carry the mood of Olympics sport and sponsorship to another dimension.


To do this, the great and the good of London’s 2012 world tournament will have to up their game. Olympics sports chief Lord Sebastian Coe and builder-developer David Higgins are key players. The government factotums, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Olympics minister, Tessa Jowell, will certainly have to provide leadership to end the pernicious pattern of benign neglect of London’s East End.


In this regard, the past is an eloquent teacher. Olympics planners and financers should study the commentaries of dedicated East End observers.


Benign neglect is a serial occurrence in the Olympic boroughs. Way back in 1991, the compassionate doctor David Widgery showed how we blame the victims of impoverishment rather than the real villain, the inequality of the “free market metropolis”. The flagship projects of the multi-national commercial developers of the 1980s and 1990s — Canary Wharf, the Isle of Dogs, and the London Docklands (LDDC) — caused wide spread havoc on people and the cityscape.


This upheaval threatens to scratch the thin veneer of racial tolerance. The talents of newcomers from Africa, Bangladesh and Vietnam are grossly under-employed, says senior sociologist Michael Young and his colleagues in The New East End: Kinship, race and conflict (2006).


After Beijing, Britain faces a formidable challenge. But it lies not in breath-taking fireworks and claiming more medals and glory. Team Great Britain must ensure that the creativity of the people gains expression within the Games and around the Olympics sites. Some basic questions must be anwered. 


Will costumed Elisabethans, Jack the Rippers,  and the gaslights of Edwardian days, fish and chips, fruit scones be the main British cultural features in the opening ceremonies, with photos of past medal-winning Black athletes parading around the stadium wrapped in the Union Jack flag?


Alternatively, can the Olympics organisers make sure that the festivities are a genuine display of the myriad cultures that make up East London, an exceptional part of one of the world’s great cosmopolitan cities?


Furthermore, the Coe-Higgins-Burnham-Jowell team Great Britain, backed by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, must be seen to be paragons not only of sporting prowess, but also of corporate responsibility and accountability. They must make effective preparations to uplift communities and their environment. 


Olympic cities have always struggled with their social image. “In Athens, a mere three years after their Olympics… I passed some elaborate Olympic project, already crumbling and abandoned to the weeds”, wrote Philip Hensher in The Independent. China’s government and Olympics authorites were widely criticised for displacing people and destroying homes to make way for its 2008 Games. 


If by 2012 British Olympics organisers do not help identify and change the inequities that plague East Londoners – benign neglect and malevolent intervention — their critics will be proved right.


Indeed, critics will see the failure to aid the reconstruction of East End life and living as the “mask of a species of social apartheid”.  An apartheid that bars the aspiring “people of the abyss” as Jack   London called them, from competing in sports and participating in the economy. (Note: Beijing Olympics gold medallist, Christine Uhuruogu, was born,  raised and still lives in East London). 


A disputed Games that supports the invasive computer-age, affluent athletes and workers and excludes long suffering East Londoners is no symbol of a modern, democratic urban society. 



For a further exploration of this topic, see my article “Vital economic link between Carnival and the London Olympics” in the citizens’ journal submitted  Sun, 24/08/2008