By Stephen Graham
As a metaphor for the London Olympics, it could hardly be more stark. The much-derided “Wenlock” Olympic mascot is now available in London Olympic stores dressed as a Metropolitan police officer. For £10.25 you, too, can own the ultimate symbol of the Games: a member of by far the biggest and most expensive security operation in recent British history packaged as tourist commodity. Eerily, his single panoptic-style eye, peering out from beneath the police helmet, is reminiscent of the all-seeing eye of God so commonly depicted at the top of Enlightenment paintings. In these, God’s eye maintained a custodial and omniscient surveillance on His unruly subjects far below on terra firma.
The imminent Olympics will take place in a city still recovering from riots that the Guardian-LSE Reading the Riots project showed were partly fuelled by resentment at their lavish cost. Last week, the UK spending watchdog warned that the overall costs of the Games were set to be at least £11bn – £2 bn over even recently inflated budgets. When major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, speeded up for the Games, are factored in, the figure may be as high as £24bn, according to Sky News. The estimated cost put forward only seven years ago when the Games were won was £2.37 bn.
With the required numbers of security staff more than doubling in the last year, estimates of the Games’ immediate security costs have doubled from £282m to £553m. Even these figures are likely to end up as dramatic underestimates: the final security budget of the 2004 Athens Olympics were around £1bn.
All this in a city convulsed by massive welfare, housing benefit and legal aid cuts, spiralling unemployment and rising social protests. It is darkly ironic, indeed, that large swaths of London and the UK are being thrown into ever deeper insecurity while being asked to pay for a massive security operation, of unprecedented scale, largely to protect wealthy and powerful people and corporations.
Critics of the Olympics have not been slow to point out the dark ironies surrounding the police Wenlock figure. “Water cannon and steel cordon sold separately,” mocks Dan Hancox on the influential Games Monitorwebsite. “Baton rounds may be unsuitable for small children.”
In addition to the concentration of sporting talent and global media, the London Olympics will host the biggest mobilisation of military and security forces seen in the UK since the second world war. More troops – around 13,500 – will be deployed than are currently at war in Afghanistan. The growing security force is being estimated at anything between 24,000 and 49,000 in total. Such is the secrecy that no one seems to know for sure.
During the Games an aircraft carrier will dock on the Thames. Surface-to-air missile systems will scan the skies. Unmanned drones, thankfully without lethal missiles, will loiter above the gleaming stadiums and opening and closing ceremonies. RAF Typhoon Eurofighters will fly from RAF Northolt. A thousand armed US diplomatic and FBI agents and 55 dog teams will patrol an Olympic zone partitioned off from the wider city by an 11-mile, £80m, 5,000-volt electric fence.
Beyond these security spectaculars, more stealthy changes are underway. New, punitive and potentially invasive laws such as the London Olympic Games Act 2006 are in force. These legitimise the use of force, potentially by private security companies, to proscribe Occupy-style protests. They also allow Olympic security personnel to deal forcibly with the display of any commercial material that is deemed to challenge the complete management of London as a “clean city” to be branded for the global TV audience wholly by prime corporate sponsors (including McDonald’s, Visa and Dow Chemical).
London is also being wired up with a new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints. These will intensify the sense of lockdown in a city which is already a byword across the world for remarkably intensive surveillance.
Many such systems, deliberately installed to exploit unparalleled security budgets and relatively little scrutiny or protest, have been designed to linger long after the athletes and VIPs have left. Already, the Dorset police are proudly boasting that their new number-plate recognition cameras, built for sailing events, are allowing them to catch criminals more effectively.
In Athens, the $300m “super-panopticon” CCTV and information system built for the Games following intense US pressure remained after the event, along with the disused sports facilities. In fact, the system has been used by Greek police trying in vain to control the mass uprisings responding to the crash and savage austerity measures in the country.
It is important to remember that all this is ostensibly designed to secure the spectacle of 17,000 athletes competing for 17 days. Even if London’s overall security budget remains similar to that of Athens, that works out at the startling figure of £59,000 of public money to secure each competitor or £3,500 per competitor per day. In 2004, the cost in now-bankrupt Athens was £90,000 per competitor (for a smaller number of athletes than are likely to attend London). This was a major contributor, as part of the overall £10bn costs, to Greece’s subsequent debt crisis.
In the context of post-austerity Britain, these figures are eye-watering. Even more remarkably, given that Olympics budgets have drawn down from many other public and lottery funds, and are no doubt adding hugely to UK national debt, the Daily Telegraph recently argued that the security operation for the Olympics were “key to aiding the recovery of UK plc”.
How can we make sense of this situation? Four connected points need emphasis here. The first is that, amid a global economic crash, so-called “homeland security” industries – a loose confederation of defence, IT and biotechnology industries – are in bonanza mode. As this post 9/11 paradigm is being diffused around the world, the industry – worth $142bn in 2009 – is expected to be worth a staggering $2.7tn globally between 2010 and 2020. Growth rates are between 5% and 12% a year.
The UK, long an exemplar “surveillance society”, is especially attractive to these industries, especially when hosting the Olympics. Recent security industry magazines have been full of articles excitedly extolling the Olympics as a “key driver of the industry” or as “keeping the market buoyant”.
Nation states, and the EU, are struggling to ensure that their corporations get a piece of the action in markets long dominated by US and Israeli firms. Ramping up surveillance is thus now as much a part of economic policy as a response to purported threats.