Class and the Olympics

By the time you read this the Olympics and Paralympics will be over in London. Both sets of games have been very popular in Britain and have stimulated thousands of column inches of media interest.  In amongst the coverage of sport the issue of class has emerged in a number of different contexts.

Even before the games had begun Londoners’ ire was raised by the dedicated ‘Games Lanes’ dedicated to traffic of the Olympic ‘family.’ In amongst the grumbles was a noticeable critique that these transport arteries seemed to be more about ferrying elite members of the ‘family’ from their five-star hotels in West London and less about getting competing athletes to their venues –the West end of London has always been the poshest part of the city due to the prevailing winds.  Industry, and the majority of working-class communities who worked in them, tended to be planted in the East end where the Games were located. When challenged on this exclusivity, Jacques Rogge, President of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), rather bizarrely claimed that his Committee were workers and that “We are working-class people.” Defending the IOC encampment in the Park Lane Hilton, Rogge made an argument about workers like himself and his colleagues  needing adequate conditions and was quoted as saying “I am sorry but in three-star hotels you will not find the facilities there are in this hotel: conference rooms, simultaneous translations- this is something only more upscale hotels have.” To be fair, I find the same myself.

Arguably the most interesting and deeper reflection on class came in the debate stimulated over the social and educational background of British medal winners, especially the over-representation of privately educated medal winners among the successes. This sparked a debate about the lack of opportunity of access less well-off children and young people get to certain sports, such as rowing and especially the equestrian events. While the privately educated make up 7% of Britain’s population, privately educated athletes at one point had won over 60% of the medals.  This proportion later improved, but not before Conservative politicians and media attempted to explain the disparity by claiming that this was proof that state schools discouraged competitive sport rather than structural and cultural issues around access to training facilities and equipment.

Class, or rather working-class history, was reasonably well represented in the Olympic opening ceremony. While it may have left most of the world’s viewing audience mildly bemused, the show included many nods to working-class politics and class struggle. Most obvious was the part of the performance where the utopia of pre-industrial rural England was swept aside by the industrial revolution. Stovetop-hatted capitalists gathered in small huddles surveying the creation of dark satanic mills, or at least their chimneys, tended to by a grimy faced proletariat. Again, some right-wingers saw this and other aspects of the show as evidence of left-wing bias, and the director being ‘anti-business.’ Even more interesting was the way this narrative of work and class was conveniently constrained to the representation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As an amusing postscript to that aspect of the performance, the next day three of the volunteer actors who played the ‘factory hands’ in the ceremony were interviewed on national television. The curious interviewer asked the group what their day jobs were in real life. Their individual answers gave a fascinating insight in to the changing nature of Britain’s economy: the first was a civil servant, the second an accountant, and the third worked in ‘new media.’ So Britain’s industrial workers of the past were played by middle-class workers of the new economy.

There were, of course, many real workers on site during the opening ceremony, most notably at its climax where construction workers involved in building parts of the Olympic Park at Stratford formed a guard of honour for the Olympic flame as it entered the stadium. Of course, the comprehensive commentary didn’t mention that at least one of the construction firms working on the site is under investigation for blacklisting workers and compiling a database of those who raised concerns about workplace health and safety. These included trade unionists as well as non- activist workers who had particular concerns.  More embarrassing for the Conservative Party was that at least one of the firms involved in this illegal activity – Sir Robert McAlpine – was a substantial corporate donor to the Party.

One final aspect of class around the Olympics, and especially the Olympic Park itself, can be seen in the erasure of evidence of working-class culture and industry on the site.  Much of the commentary on the games focused on the role of regeneration of what was usually referred to as a “post-industrial wasteland.” This ignored the fact that many working-class jobs and working-class communities had been moved after the games were awarded to London back in 2005 in order to make room for the Olympic Park. While this erasure was not of the scale seen in Beijing, it was nonetheless notable. The immediate site itself and the wider Lea Valley area that surrounds it were home to a range of industries, including the manufacture of armaments, and this was  where gasoline was first refined. St. Etienne made a fascinating film about the area in 2005 called What have you done today, Mervyn Day? More historically but also ignored by commentators,  the games sat directly on the site of what was once the largest locomotive construction and repair shops in the world, where for a century and a half thousands of workers had built and maintained rolling stock for the Great Eastern and other railway companies. The local authority has an oral history section featuring some of those who worked at the site.

So class was strangely both absent and present at the London games in the summer of 2012. At times it was portrayed in graphic historical terms but not as something live in the present. Working-class culture, protest, and struggle were boxed off in a past represented by bygone industry, the parts of industrial workers played by members of the new economy. But for those of us who take the time to look, working-class culture surrounded both the sport played in the venues and the sites themselves.  In four years time it with be Rio’s turn to host the games, I wonder what stories of class will be told or left untold then. But as Jacques Rogge claims, the IOC are “working-class people,” so surely we can count on them?

Tim Strangleman

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1 Response to Class and the Olympics

  1. Alan Harrison says:

    An interesting piece. I have just one quibble: the description of the three actors playing workers in the opening ceremony as “middle class”. I’m not sure how useful it is to posit a “middle” class between proletariat and ruling class, but doesn’t the class position of the civil servant, accountant and “new media” worker depend on what they do and their position in the politics of the workplace? Unless the civil servant was a permanent secretary, s/he was very likely to be objectively a member of the working class, and more likely to be a trade unionist than most of the surviving manufacturing workers.


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