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London to the safety net: Let them eat sports

COMMENTARYThis week marks the beginning of the London Olympics, 2012's iteration of the largest sporting event on the planet.


This week marks the beginning of the London Olympics, 2012's iteration of the largest sporting event on the planet. More than 10,000 athletes from 205 countries will compete in hundreds of events, sprawling across greater London and beyond.

But there's more to these Olympics than just the games.

(Full disclosure, NBC Universal, which owns msnbc, has exclusive rights to broadcast the Olympics in the United States through 2020.) 

It starts with the swollen price of this year's preparations. In 2003, the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair's government estimated that the Olympics would cost British taxpayers a total of £2.5 billion (or, based on the exchange rate of the time, roughly $4 billion). Now that number has ballooned to £9.3 billion (or over $14 billion).

In a country where public sector jobs, education, health insurance and social welfare are buckling under austerity measures, spending billions of dollars on a colossal, one-time sporting event seems contradictory. As the English novelist China Miéville put it in The New York Times: "youth clubs and libraries are being shut down as expendable fripperies; this expenditure, though, is not negotiable."

Prime Minister David Cameron has defended the expenditure by arguing, "we can derive over £13bn benefit to the UK economy over the next four years as a result of hosting the Games." Economists, however, are skeptical, and the Olympic track record is not great. The economic consensus seems to be that the games' consequences for London will be modest at best and unambiguously harmful at worst.

Surely there are better uses for £9.3 billion, like preserving public workers' pensions or investing in long-term infrastructure needs?

But it's not just about where the money isn't going: where it is going is just as bad, if not worse. Earlier this month, the Daily Mail reported the cleaning staff for this year's Olympics—consisting largely of students from other countries—will be housed in what amounts to a temporary shanty town, with 10 people to a room, 25 people to a toilet, and 75 people to a shower.

It's not just Olympic employees facing shoddy labor conditions; the games have also distorted preexisting London workplace issues. For example, workers at the National Gallery art museum are preparing to strike on the first day of the Olympics, arguing that management hasn't provided them with adequate security for the expected influx of tourists. Cab drivers, too, say that preparations for the games will badly hurt their ability to do their jobs.

Needless to say, London activists are not going to let all of this pass quietly. Organizations such as Our Olympics and the Counter Olympics Network are planning targeted disruptions in protest of all of the above, as well as corporate sponsors like Dow Chemical. Graffiti artist Banksy is now using his brand of subversive street art to critique the Olympics.

It's likely that only once the crowds and lights are gone the Olympics' real legacy for London will become clear: like Beijing in 2008, the city could be left with crumbling monuments to excess, a reminder of what the country's leadership considers to be one of the few vital expenditures during an age of austerity.