The first and only time I’ve met Boris Johnson was when we were on our bicycles at the traffic light at the bottom of King William Street in the City. I stammered: “Uh, good morning, Mr. Mayor.” Play it cool. After a brief (and awkward) exchange, he pushed off, away from my sight and into eternity.
Months later, as the tangible effects of the Olympic Movement’s month-long occupation of central London started to make themselves felt, my thoughts once again turned to my cycling buddy. After reminding yourself for a moment that Boris once gave some constructive criticism to the city of Portsmouth by saying it was “too full of drugs, obesity, underachievement and Labour MPs,” and that barely two months ago he referred to the BBC – which, like that brainchild of the Blairite Labour Party, the 2012 Olympics, is state-run – as “corporatist, defeatist, anti-business, Europhile and… overwhelmingly biased to the Left”, I take the view that BoJo — currently the Games’ biggest cheerleader — would be doing one thing, and one thing only if he were in opposition (if he were so inclined).
He would tear the government, the media, and anyone even remotely associated with bringing the Olympics here to shreds.
In his absence, others have tried. Most have failed to make a dent. Dominic Lawson, writing for the Independent, fired the opening salvo of reason against Olympics fever last month — writing a fairly broad-brush piece which covered most of the general criticisms of this circus (cost, inconvenience, armed police), he scored his best points at the ‘leftist’ BBC’s expense: “[news coverage of the Games] really does make one feel as if this is North Korea,” he wrote, “rather than a country supposedly characterised by individualism and nonconformity.”
Providing a precis of recent on-line news headlines, drew our attention to but a few: ‘Excitement at relay across Wales’, ‘Elephants salute Olympic Torch,’ ‘Police want torch centre stage’ and ‘People unite around Olympic flame’. Frightening, indeed. But few others, doubtless keen to retain their Olympic press passes and ZiL Lanes… excuse me, “Games Lanes” transport, appear to have followed suit. This is a great shame, magnified by the fact that neither Lawson nor I could wield the awesome powers Boris could under the circumstances.
I can imagine his perfect article in this alternative history in my dreams. Written in the Spectator and littered with self-deprecation, references to dead or fictitious Greeks, Liverpool and wiff-waff, Boris would have danced across the pages as he gleefully excoriated the Labour administration for the absurd idea of inviting a bunch of prima donna athletes and bureaucrats, most of them foreign, to compete in an outdoor stadium during the coldest, wettest summer in British history.
He might have pointed out that all this would take place in Newham, a place not altogether unlike Portsmouth and, in any case, one most Londoners consider more alien than Paris, with among the highest incidence of robbery and assault in the entire city. He might have joyfully foretold the pain and suffering of millions of income taxpayers on account of the shut-down of major roads and TfL advising know-nothing tourists to hop the tube at rush hour to make the 10 AM events, and seriously questioned the wisdom of erecting a steel wall around Hyde Park for an entire summer before fouling it up beyond recognition.
In our alternative history he would have savaged, rather than prodded, the implementation of widespread censorship undertaken by a hit squad of intellectual property ninjas; he would have lamented the fact that our police were arresting “marginal” (i.e., possibly innocent) suspects – living, breathing, thinking people – on terrorism charges which they might not be able to prove. If he had really driven it home, he would have pointed out that, under normal circumstances, those arrests would never have been made. He would also have asked why nobody seems to care.
By this point, his oeuvre would have been the most hilarious political essay ever written. He would flay alive in full public view the pathetic, uncritical, fawning news-media industry which crafts its Olympic stories with all the creative flavour of an oak plank, their proxy world to escape from our own inadequacies where professional athletes become “heroes” (seriously, find a different word), washed-up “heroes” become “legends,” and civil liberties violations and government largesse are completely ignored.
He might have pointed out how we lapped up this shallow, wooden mythology through broadcast television, advertising, and unrelentingly positive media coverage, and he would almost certainly have ribbed us for using names of people we hadn’t even heard of the week before with an easy, casual familiarity, as if we’d known them for years — you always knew of Dwain Chambers and Adam Gemili, right? Good guys, both. We go way back.
For those of us behind the curve, Almighty Television would bring us up to speed – as indeed it already is doing — telling all we needed to know about our champions’ upbringing, their hopes, their dreams, their fears, all set to orchestral compositions in major keys and non-stop slow-mo dubstep montages on the BBC which convey upon the proceedings a kind of superhuman majesty, all of which gives us permission to, while also insisting that, we give a damn.
Once the politicians, brain-dead journalists and our friends and colleagues have whipped us into a frenzy of Olympic zeal, Boris might tell us how, almost overnight, we metamorphosed from ordinary secretaries, postmen, teachers, doctors and van drivers into paraprofessional athletes, seasoned international experts in scoring diving and gymnastics routines (despite never having set foot in a gymnasium or on a diving board); only, in September, regress into our fat, chain-smoking, boring selves again.
He would almost certainly point out the absurdity of praying “for a handful of gold“, when there were rather more pressing concerns to deal with, like the £120bn deficit at the Treasury. He would very likely have mocked us openly for believing that a bunch of homegrown hero-legend-redeemer-titans, brought here by a golden chariot powered by flaming £20 notes with silver spokes, bronze wheels, and reins of bullshit driven by none other than Jacques Rogge himself, “can fulfil our dreams” and secure our entry into a paradise where people of all creeds and nations will dance in harmony under the Olympic rainbow for all time. Which these Olympics had better do, since we’re paying up to £24 billion to host this dog and pony show – roughly twice (inflation-adjusted) of what the United States government spent on the Manhattan Project, and roughly half of what it spent on the Apollo Program.
For the libertarian, of course, the London 2012 Olympic Games (c) — like most public sector-led projects — are emblematic of everything that is wrong with society and government. Long has it been known that humans, essentially weak, are willing to surrender their individuality to powerful leaders, celebrities, or a greater whole (see Fromm, Trotter, etc.) or for a higher cause; a modicum of safety, God, the Nation, Occupy Wall Street, the Insane Clown Posse (seriously), or whatever, something apart from and outside of themselves which does very little for them in terms of tangible results. It is also long been the case that the Olympic Games is not, or at least it should not be, a common endeavour, but an individual one: per the Olympic Charter, the athletes compete as individuals or teams on their own personal capacities. Countries simply do not have standing to compete.
Indeed all of the Olympic rhetoric about unity and the like only makes sense if nationalism is utterly uninvolved. If the Americans and the Chinese are really competing directly to “win the medal count,” in a phrase we will hear quite often over the coming weeks, the whole Olympic movement is a bunch of bunk and they might as well have at it in a good, old-fashioned war, to demonstrate superiority in a more meaningful and direct way.
If, however, the American and Chinese state collectives say, “hey, you send your best guy, we’ll send ours, may the best man win and hey, the human species comes out ahead in the end,” well that is a sentiment worth expressing. And it was this sentiment was in the minds of the founders of the Olympic Movement 120 years ago; in the words of Pierre de Coubertin, the Movement’s co-founder, the purpose of the Games is to “ennoble and strengthen sports, to ensure their independence and duration, and thus to enable them better to fulfil the educational role incumbent upon them in the modern world.”
If not for the countries, then, who are the Games for? Easy answer: the IOC’s mission of promoting world sport has nothing to do with stroking our national egos, but rather, is a cause which serves the interests of athletics, and thus athletes. Fast-forward to today, and the mass market for sport drives even more lucrative rewards: Olympic gold spells sponsorship packages, administrative posts with sporting federations, and steady coaching work once athletes are no longer fit for international competition.
Under even the most cursory of examinations, the pre-eminence of self-interest in these Games becomes undeniable: every athlete, given the choice between doing it for us and doing it for themselves, is almost certainly doing it for themselves. In the Telegraph, try reading a pompous article by Steve Redgrave telling us that “should our British team succeed, they can achieve nothing less than the galvanising of a nation”; then watch how it is almost immediately deflated by the fact that, at the bottom of the page, it links to another article in the Telegraph which states matter-of-factly that “Team GB competitors who win gold will… have to cash in on their triumph after the Games”.
I should point out, there is absolutely nothing wrong with this.
Unfortunately, however, this country – along with many other countries – doesn’t get behind individual achievement easily. As a consequence, the IOC is happy to turn a blind eye to ignorance of its mission, and let us think that the Olympics settles matters of national, rather than personal, importance. Surely enough, for the next two weeks every television channel in the country will count “our” medals won by “our” athletes (as possession of these alloyed pieces of coloured tin confers clear, unchallengeable and eternal superiority, pro rata, upon all members of the state collectives that win them).
But these medal wins do nothing to reduce the tax burden of the secretary at a GP surgery in Fulham today, shelter the homeless man sleeping rough in a tunnel by Marble Arch tonight or improve the life of child in care in Haringey tomorrow.
Despite this lack of utility to the common man, there is ample precedent to suggest he will not care. Because this is sport(!), and sport can marshal and command all manner of resources and loyalty for its own purposes while offering the vast majority of its adherents virtually nothing in return.
Take, for example, when Manchester City won the Premier League final: a hundred thousand people – count ‘em – turned out in the streets to toast their “valiant heroes.” (No word on who was left with the bill for clean-up and police overtime, but I’d be willing to bet it was council taxpayers in Manchester.) That is but one example of very many particular cases. Throw national pride into that volatile mix, and the levels of false heroics and self-congratulatory, sanctimonious garbage skyrocket to heights that even Jacques Rogge’s golden chariot cannot reach.
Unfortunately, most of our fellow citizens are not going to see this for what it is, so it is here that the fightback of reason must begin. Falling on a grenade is heroic. Winning an athletic competition is not. Professional athletes are now so specialised, and the industry that produces them so well-established, that they are perhaps better viewed as highly-trained, but nonetheless ordinary people with highly particular skills carrying out their particular jobs, and if they are winning gold medals, they are people who are making some very intelligent career decisions.
I say without hesitation that I do not give a flying, swimming, running, javelin-throwing damn whether my or any other country comes home with zero medals, or one hundred. It is the individual, rather than the national, outcomes of Olympic training efforts which are worthy of celebration. To believe that we as a nation derive any benefit from their acquisition is useless, tribalistic, illiberal stupidity; the fact that for the past several years our political class has been knee-deep in this folly does not make it any less tribal, any less stupid, or any less useless.
We should recognise and respect human achievement without regard for the strip the winner happens to be wearing since that is where the true credit for victory belongs. I envision an ideal Olympics being like watching some mundane track meet in the middle of nowhere, where we didn’t know any of the competitors’ names, where television, billboards and newspapers hadn’t been telling us that if we buy Adidas trainers we will turn into Flo-Jo: they run a race, good job to the winner for being the best, better luck next time for everyone else. After it’s over, go home, have dinner, and move on with our lives.
The outcome of this approach to the Olympics is that my religious zeal for London 2012 is roughly the same as everyone else’s religious zeal for other, lesser-known athletic competitions; namely, it is non-existent. This is a far more reasonable and mature approach than that which has been adopted by the British government. Our “heroes,” lest we forget, engage in individual competition all the time, none of which the media seems to call heroic — for example, on a biennial basis in the European Athletic Championships (2006, Gothenburg; 2010, Barcelona; and 2012, most recently, in Helsinki). But (1) nobody apart from track and field buffs talk about the hero-rockstar-legends who changed the course of history in Gothenburg and (2) no multi-billion-pound infrastructure investments were made in Helsinki anytime recently.
This is because (1) none of us were paying any attention when they were running in circles in Gothenburg and (2) it was a track and field meet, for Christ’s sake, not first contact with an alien civilization. It is perfectly possible to hold a track and field meet without spending a dime: you just set a time and a date for everyone to turn up, say “go,” and time how long it takes them to go from A to B. Winner gets a ribbon. Piece of cake.
But somehow, some way, the Olympics are different, and when they came to England, they unveiled the Unholy Trinity of British Government in all its glory: ineptitude, inconvenience, and expense. None of which, in my opinion, is justifiable.
By now, of course, we are well past the point of no return. The press has already swallowed the false nationalist narrative, hook line and sinker, and most of us will, as surely as the sun rises over Newham in the morning, follow their lead and identify with these heroes doing battle on our behalf on the playing fields of the Gods. Perhaps this is the reason why the press, the government, and the IOC manage to get away with the nauseating imperiousness with which the games have been foisted upon us: although winning these medals will temporarily slake our thirst for collective post-imperial recognition, our irrational zeal for the home team has completely blinded us to the serious negative externalities of the Olympic debacle, and the fact that none of this actually needed to happen at all.
What Londoners are about to endure is without precedent in the history of this city. The New York Times makes light of our predicament, saying how “Londoners get to engage in their favourite sport – complaining”, but the reality is actually pretty grim, especially if you work in the City or Canary Wharf, where one pound in ten of this country’s income is generated. Much has been written of the Olympic rings appearing on the tarmac along the city’s main thoroughfares which many people, cyclists and drivers, use to get to work and get around, chiefly via Park Lane and the Embankment.
For our New York readers, the equivalent would be shutting Fifth Avenue and the East River Drive. Millions of taxpayers’ lives will be made measurably more unpleasant in a real and very tangible way for one and a half months as a consequence of what the British government has done, is doing, and will continue to do. And it is not some evil robot which will inflict this misery upon us it is a yet another group of living, breathing, thinking human beings representing all of this country’s major political parties. Think about that when you’ve been stuck in traffic on Park Lane for two hours straight.
By now many of you will have noticed that the Olympics is eating people, too. By now no-one will have missed the overweight folks in pink and purple tracksuits with matching pink and purple satchels and pink and purple water bottle holders: these are temp employees and the volunteer corps who (in the case of the volunteers) have given up their free time (which must be ample if they do not have to be at work for a month) in exchange for tickets to the games that we, the working taxpayers, could not afford, were not able to obtain or simply could not justify leaving work to use.
Perhaps aware of the longstanding British cultural aversion against wearing a uniform unless one is a postman, policeman, clergyman or on-duty soldier, every time I see these volunteers they seem a little embarrassed, and are trying their level best to not engage with their surroundings, either by looking straight down at the ground or by chatting to other tracksuits, smoking cigarettes while loitering idly near London landmarks and Mayfair hotels. (Incidentally, I don’t think the uniform is that bad. I had a one-piece skiing get-up just like it back in the ‘90s.)
Somewhat improbably, many can be found milling about at Canary Wharf. Over the course of the last two weeks, not one of them has been of any assistance to me or, as far as I can tell, to anybody else. I can’t imagine how they might be.
With the exception of the Financial Times, London’s print and broadcast media constitute little more than a claque; whether this is as a consequence of fear engendered by the Leveson Inquiry or simple laziness, I cannot tell. The Telegraph, arguably the only serious newspaper in the country after the FT, signalled for all to see that it too has surrendered to hype when it installed advertising all over the city that exhorted its readers to “follow every moment with our Olympic legends” through the Telegraph’s iPad app.
The Telegraph’s deeds have matched its rhetoric; coverage of the London-based torch relay, the same one maligned by Dominic Lawson, received an entirely free pass. In case you missed it, the torch was delivered to London in grand style by a Royal Marine abseiling out of a Sea King helicopter over London Bridge.
But in the middle of the greatest recession in modern history and sovereign debt crises at home and abroad (even if the one at home is not yet officially admitted), nowhere did anyone mention the operating cost of a Sea King helicopter (£14,000 — per hour, in an Olympics which is already five to ten times over budget). Even assuming that only one hour of flying time was involved (and this would seem conservative), look at your next payslip, and ask yourself how many months you would have to work to pay for that little caper on your own: 12 months? 18 months? More?
The security operation, too, is scandalous; not because, as one might think, the security firm which was contracted for the games at a staggering cost of £284 million couldn’t deliver the goods, but because it was decided to deploy thousands of soldiers to make up the difference, so dire was the need, and so serious was the emergency.
I will leave it up to you to decide what it says about this great country that we were willing to deploy the army at great expense, carrying the most lethal weapons we have, to protect a sporting competition when our police forces were nowhere to be seen as our businesses were ransacked and our homes were burned.
As you drag yourself to work every day and hear Boris Johnson’s harmonious voice on the tannoy, remember that you cannot Get Ahead of the Games: for two weeks there simply is no escape, only the inevitable passage of time will set you free. If you live in London, your key transport links will be closed off; your trains will be even more uncomfortable and overcrowded; your city, your government, and your day-to-day life will take a back seat to heroes without deeds, legends without songs, and events to which you couldn’t get a seat, no matter how you tried.
What’s worse, once the Olympic Flame is extinguished and the music in Hyde Park fades to silence, you will be left holding the £24 billion tab.
These Olympics are emblematic of a century-long mistake known as social democracy, a form of government which arrogates to itself virtually limitless power to hold its entire population — its taxpayers, its civil servants, those living, those recently dead and even those yet to be born – in complete and utter contempt.
There is now nothing we can do. The deed is done. So, for the next two weeks, enjoy, be merry; root for our British boys and girls. Take an overcrowded Jubilee Line train to Newham. Watch our promethean warrior heroes be delivered from life unto Avalon through the vigorous and liberal application of our plucky brand of uniquely British courage.
When the party ends, the stadium lies fallow for twenty-three hours a day and we are left behind with several decades of sovereign debt slavery, there must be a reckoning. We must hold those responsible for this debacle to account. We must rededicate ourselves to the cause of limited government; and not merely thinking about limited government, but making it happen by electing MPs who support the cause of limited government, and speaking out against the most outrageous excesses of the unfree, pork-barrel democracy we have had the misfortune to inherit.
We should start by ensuring that no British national government is allowed to pull a stunt like this ever again.