In the glare of the Opening Night Ceremony for the 2012 Olympiad, NBC’s custodians of sporting goodwill would occasionally suggest that the spectacle unfolding beneath their gaze would prove a boon to cash-strapped East London.
The event’s own labored narrative arc told a different story: If the receding industrial prosperity of the East End would ever return, it would only be in the tightly scripted precincts of imagineered spectacle. As a retinue of factory workers poured like so many Orcs out of the Glastonberry Tor erected at one corner of the facility, they hastened to a makeshift foundry to pretend-forge one of the Olympic rings. To Matt Lauer, this tableau was not merely a visual triumph, but an olfactory one: “Not only are you watching this ring being forged actually on the field, you’re now smelling it. They’ve found a way to pump that sulfur smell, that factory smell, out to 65,000 people.”
In all likelihood, the costly, cumbersome Olympiad, arriving as Britain’s economy continues to reel under the fallout from the 2008 financial meltdown, won’t produce any whiff of prosperity more genuine or enduring than that fleeting, simulated stench of the Victorian era’s dark mills. The $30 billion-and-counting that have so far lubricated the London Games will probably billow out of sight once the Olympic Village is vacated. “The typical pattern in host cities is steep cost overruns,” said Helen Lenskyj, an emeritus sociology professor at the University of Toronto who’s published many critical studies on the impact of the Games in host communities. “But the organizations sponsoring the event never learn from that experience.”
Olympics boosters like to point to the stimulative impact that the Games had for Barcelona in 1992. But a more instructive case study may be Greece in 2004. The Greek economy was already a basket case when Athens was gearing up to stage the summer Games; indeed, the event furnished a glittering adjunct PR drive at a precarious moment, when Greece was contracting yet more unstable debt in its misguided drive to enter the now-imploding Eurozone. But once Greek leaders had coughed up the standard 11-figure fees for sponsorship, security details, hospitality and the like, there would be little to do but watch their lovingly assembled Olympic infrastructure molder away in the shadows of the domestic economy’s broader collapse.
What’s puzzling is how civic leaders ever expect any other result from the mobbed-up oligarchy known as the modern Olympic Games. Even in hale economic circumstances, the governing body of the Games, the powerful and secretive International Olympics Committee, is not the sort of organization designed to lift all boats in a rising tide. Ever since the 1980s, when the Games came into their own as a cross-branded extravaganza of sponsorship, ad revenue and media market share, money is very much the performance-enhancing drug of choice at the upper reaches of Olympic power. The sitting head of the International Olympics Committee, Jacques Rogge, is a Belgian count and a retired competitive yachtsman—and that’s what passes for a crusading reformer in the money-blighted world of I.O.C. privilege.
Mr. Rogge was groomed as the successor to the Games’s long-running chieftain Don Juan Antonio Samaranch y Torelló, First Marquis of Samaranch, Grandee of Spain, a former sporting official with the fascist government of Francisco Franco who managed to reinvent himself as a global ambassador of sport with the large-scale financial backing of Adidas shoe mogul Horst Dassler. Mr. Samaranch oversaw a stunning litany of corruption in his two decades on the job—encouraging influence peddling, arranging sinecures for family members and cronies of committee members, and padding the I.O.C. board with fellow authoritarians and baksheesh impresarios. In his more expansive moments, Samaranch would also grace vicious dictators like Romania’s Nicolae Ceacescu with awards for their alleged contributions to international sport. When an HBO interviewer confronted Mr. Samaranch on this latter trespass, he curtly replied that he was “very proud” of Ceaucescu’s garland, adding that the I.O.C.’s judgment was not to be questioned because “we are more important than the Catholic religion.”
Since he came to power in 2001, Mr. Rogge has softened Samaranch’s air of thuggish self-regard, but otherwise little has changed about the Committee’s graft-friendly business model. On Mr. Rogge’s watch, the BBC uncovered a 2004 scandal in which two reporters posing as East London businessmen persuaded Bulgarian I.O.C. member Ivan Svalkov to agree to sell his vote to site the Games in London outright for cash—just two years after the bribery-steeped Salt Lake City Games that Mitt Romney had putatively stepped in and “saved.”
Just last year, Joao Havelange, the former head of the international soccer federation FIFA and a longtime Samaranch crony, was forced to resign the I.O.C. board in the midst of a multimillion dollar bribery scandal involving broadcasting rights doled out to ISL, the now-bankrupt sports-licensing franchise Mr. Dassler founded to coordinate marketing for the Olympics. Jeremy Hunt, the British government’s chief liaison to the I.O.C. for the 2012 Games, has been implicated in a vast Rupert Murdoch bribery scandal involving News International’s plans to catapult BskyB to the forefront of the Asian market. Strongman leaders are still permanent fixtures on the Committee; Belarus President Alexander Lukashenko was unable to travel to London with his country’s delegation because of EU sanctions against his ghastly human-rights record. Azerbaijan President Ilham Aliyev, however, is on hand, despite his government’s routine detention of journalists and dissidents. Even Henry Kissinger sits on the Committee, presumably because it’s one of the only gatherings of global autocrats in which he looks comparatively unindictable.
The I.O.C., in short, specializes in the sort of workaday level of corruption that attends daily life in a strongman kleptocracy in Africa or South America—but on a much more lavish Old World scale. The difference is that the developing world’s tinpot dictators haven’t managed to leverage their marketing clout into flattering global media coverage. When NBC lavishes the Olympics with a $4.38 billion contract—and when the network’s corporate parent, GE, has forked over a multimillion-dollar sponsorship fee for the games—detailed investigations of bribery charges and judging scandals don’t exactly abound. And when more stubborn journalists, such as the Scottish investigative reporter Andrew Jennings, are able to stir up some real trouble, the I.O.C. hits them with criminal lawsuits in its home jurisdiction of Switzerland.
Still, one can easily understand why economic forces well beyond East London are embracing the current festivities in a half-prayerful mien: The other great models of international market comity are shuddering and heaving in the wings. Just a few miles from the where the Industrial Revolution was being re-enacted on Friday night, the British Parliament has been investigating the rampant bank fraud committed in the LIBOR scandal, which reduced the very basis of the global credit economy into a fiction. Shortly after the Games wind down, the flailing Euro Zone faces fresh reckonings in the German courts and the Dutch polls while weighing more bailouts for the still wheezing Spanish and Italian economies.
In short, the only path forward for the great neoliberal sachems of our global market could well be the model pioneered by the I.O.C.: gauzy, soft-focus tales of heroic individual achievement for the masses, and coercive results-rigging and generous payoffs for the privileged few behind the scenes. After all, as the slickly produced montage celebrating the ineffable virtues of the Scepter’d Isle announced at the outset of Friday’s ceremony, Britain is a land “where fairy tales never end.”
Follow Chris Lehmann via RSS.