Bread and Circuses

August 19, 2012 2:03 pm

Nobody can deny our athletes’ achievements at the 2012 Olympics.

Their hard work paid dividends in medals and prestige earned for themselves. They provided a canvas for us to emote all the highs and lows, heartaches and triumphs. For a little over two weeks, we could put aside our troubles, all the woes the crumbling economy is raining down on our heads, and root for ‘our boys and girls’

Wasn’t that part of the whole point?

In Ancient Rome, the emperor, and those upper class patricians around him, were wary of the lower class, poor city dwellers. These plebians were apt to threaten revolt against their living conditions. They owned no land, no cattle, no slaves. There was never enough work to go round to keep them occupied, hardly surprising when the slaves worked for free. What better way of distracting them from taking part in political revolt than staging gladiatorial games and circuses at the Colliseum? They could marvel at the spectacle of men hacking each other to death, Christians being fed to lions. The arena was sometimes flooded to stage the odd mock sea battle. In the interval, bread was doled out to quieten the distant rumbling of plebian stomachs.

Oh, but we shouldn’t mix politics and sport, must we? Oh, no. That’s not cricket. (If, indeed, we can suggest for one moment that feeding a poor simpering Christian to one of the ravenous big cats is sport, it was definitely politics!) Well, even before the Romans held their blood-soaked circuses, in (even more Ancient) Greece, where the Olympics were first born, the Games were every bit the spectacle. Moreover, they provided the chance for their soldiers to train in all the events for warfare – running, jumping, wrestling, javelin-throwing, archery, horse and chariot-racing – clever blokes those Greeks. What could be more political than war? It’s just an extension of politics by other means, after all.

And who can forget the 1936 Berlin Olympics, the perfect showcase for Hitler’s ‘Aryan Superman’ – until Jesse Owens demonstrated otherwise and took his gold medals. Hitler walked away in disgust, refusing to present a medal to a ‘sub-human’ black man. The 1968 Mexican Olympics saw demonstrations of American athletes raising their gloved fists for ‘Black Power’ on the winners’ podium. They raised the profile for the Civil Rights struggle back home when young black men were getting gunned down on the streets of the ‘Land of the Free’. It was to cost those black athletes dear. They were prevented from ever competing, or even working again, for daring to step out of line.

The ‘not mixing politics with sport’ lobbyists soon changed their tune, of course, when it came to choosing sides in the final stages of the ‘Cold War’ between East and West. The Moscow Olympics of 1980 were formally boycotted by several countries led by the USA. In the UK, Thatcher’s government found itself in the peculiar position of supporting the boycott (held in protest against Russia’s invasion of Afghanistan – yes, there may be some irony there!) but allowing athletes to attend if they wished.

But perhaps the most political of the Olympic Games had to be 1972 in Munich, Germany. There, multi-millions of viewers across the globe looked on in horror as Arab ‘Black September’ terrorists killed eleven Israeli athletes in retaliation to the ongoing running sore  of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

In London 2012, forty years later, widows of two of the murdered athletes were denied the chance, by International Olympic Committee president Jacques Rogge, to have a minute’s silence at the Games to commemorate the murdered eleven. This, despite pleading with him for forty-five minutes and handing over a petition of 105,000 signatures.

Rogge told the widows, Ankie Spitzer and Llana Romano, that he ‘respected their campaign’ but, he added, ‘I am not going to do it.’ Yet the 2002 Winter Games held a minute’s silence for the victims of 9/11. On August 6, a low-key memorial service was held at London’s Guildhall for the Israeli athletes where, amongst others, PM David Cameron, Mayor Boris Johnson, Lord Sebastian Coe and Rogge himself attended. It seemed churlish that, eleven Israeli athletes murdered on the world stage, could not be remembered on the world stage, forty years and ten Olympic Games later.

Cameron acknowledged it was right to remember the tragedy, yet he backed the Olympic committee’s decision not to hold a minute’s silence at the London Games. Why? Was he afraid that such an occasion might introduce too sombre a mood, that it might counteract the intended upbeat and positive message our politicians wanted to pass on to us? If so, what could that message be that could not be allowed to be blemished by one mere minute to silently contemplate probably the worst of Olympic tragedies.

For many, that message was all too clear.

Our political class wanted the ‘feelgood factor’ of the Games to rub off on them. For two weeks, they wanted to be able to dampen down some of the risible anger at the government’s savage austerity budget. More than 300,000 public sector jobs have been lost so far. Wages have been frozen. Prices are rising, petrol and transport costs are getting hiked. Those on benefits are  being press ganged into working for nothing. The disabled are being rigorously tested for the ability to work, or their Remploy factories are being closed. Student applications to universities are dropping due to extortionate tuition fees. A million young people are unemployed. Yet this represents a mere 15%-20% of the cuts so far.

Meanwhile, in another world quite separate, the rich are becoming richer as the wealth gap increases. Those top earners will have their tax cuts. Bankers still award themselves obscene bonuses while their multi-billion pound institutions are continually being caught out in a series of dodgy or illegal practices such as manipulation of the LIBOR rate, laundering money for drug cartels and terrorists, or financially facilitating the nuclear proliferation of Iran.

And the London Games themselves, awash with £13bn of our money that draws in the greedy multinationals licking their lips in earning big bucks, backed up by security guards policing what people eat or wear. ‘We made the Games’ went McDonald’s line. Shouldn’t that read: ‘We made massive profits out of the Games?’ Not only did McDonald’s eat its fill, the shambles that was G4S gobbled up an astronomical fee of £245m. Yet the private security firm failed to provide adequate personnel. They have offered the Army a little over £2m to compensate for drafting in troops, who otherwise might have been on their way to spend time with their families.

No, our political class didn’t want any ‘sombre note’ introduced. They didn’t want to hear from ‘moaners’ and ‘whingers’. Both Cameron and Johnson have used the successes of our athletes as a shining example of what can be achieved by hard work and that these Olympics will be used as a springboard for recovery.

They are seeming to say: ‘Stop protesting, take your medicine, keep your head down and work hard.’ So desperate is the CONDEM government, they are hoping for a boost for jobs from the Olympics, from a tourist industry boom.

Yet within days, the afterglow of the Games is already beginning to fade. The prospects of more cuts and job losses are upon us and neither the Games or a Golden Jubilee year – our modern day ‘Bread and Circuses’ – can ever hope to disguise that.

If there was a real meaning we can take from the Olympics – if ordinary working people can take their own political message from this sport extravanganza – it begins with some of the sentiments on display from the opening ceremony. Danny Boyle’s message included not so much emphasis on the exertions of the individual – the Thatcherite model – but the key was on community, people coming together at all levels of participation. It was ordinary people that made these Games, not McDonald’s, or Pepsi Cola, ordinary people and the billions of pounds of their tax money. Without the tens of thousands of ordinary  people, including those athletes who competed, the builders who built the venues, the grounds people, the volunteers and the millions who supported it, there would have been no Games, and how dare politicians tell us what they mean?

What they mean is clear. Keep your ‘bread and circuses’. There is such a thing as SOCIETY. It’s the millions that count the most, not the millionaires.

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