I got an email last week from London 2012, advertising a Cultural Olympiad gig in a park in Hackney. In the footer I noticed something bizarre: The email listed the Olympic and Paralympic corporate partners, and number one on the Paralympic list was Atos. Atos, who administer the deeply flawed disability benefits assessment. Atos, who play a leading role in the Tories’ production of class antagonisms, in this case between the able-bodied and the disabled.
The brazenness of it shocked me. It’s not as if the issue has faded away, though the stories have largely moved off the front pages. The Hardest Hit campaign (among others) is still going on, and there was an investigation into the computerised test in Monday’s G2. But deep cuts to legal aid are approaching. 46 percent of disability support allowance tests that fail are overturned upon appeal, and the majority of those who appeal are only able to do so because of legal aid. The appeals system is chaotic enough as it is, and it’s only going to get worse.
So I was angered by the presence of Atos’ logo, prominently displayed as supporters of the Paralympics. But I think this is a reflection of how the Olympics works as a corporate nostalgia machine par exellence. The Olympics operates in the public consciousness on the level of a festival of internationalism and sport, with implicit reference to times when things were supposedly better. In the case of London 2012, the particular referents are the 1948 games (the Austerity Olympics) and London in 2005 (when the games were awarded, pre-crisis and pre-7/7). This is the logic of that nostalgia: We should all pull together, and make do and mend, like after the War – while at the same time, we should think of the Olympics as something that’s still basically appropriate and affordable, like it was supposed to be in 2005 (it’s not).
While this nostalgia is how London 2012 works on an ideological level, the games are at heart a tool for the protection and creation of capital. The main beneficiaries of these Olympics have been private interests who have benefitted from land deals, advertising exclusivity and a massive public profile boost – for more on this I recommend Anna Minton‘s book Ground Control, which was recently reprinted with a new chapter on the Stratford site. It’s also worth noting that lots of people are concerned about the games’ material effects on East London as well as the economy as a whole – nostalgia is the ideological framework by which the games are approached, not a mass delusion. Plus, there have always been critical voices from the communities most directly in contact with the event.
We shouldn’t be surprised that the company sponsoring the Paralympics is also making disabled people’s lives a misery. We shouldn’t be surprised that Atos, Coca-Cola, Dow Chemical and BP use the Olympics to sanitise their brands and receive a massive boost to their corporate profiles. We shouldn’t be surprised that London 2012 sponsors will control advertising across the city during the games, and we shouldn’t be surprised at the percentage of tickets that are going to corporate guests. This is what the Olympics are for. We can’t separate the corporate roadshow from the sport.
I’m not against the idea of the Olympics in principle – I’m a sucker for sport on telly, to be honest, especially athletics (I ran for Camden once upon a time). But I wouldn’t wish these particular effects of the Olympic circus on anyone, least of all my own city. It’s too easy to fall into defending a nostalgic Olympic ideal against the realities of the event.