Comment: Let’s minimise Olympic politics

By Dr Matthew Ashton

For an event that is famously supposed to be non-political, the Olympics has become mired in partisan activity over the last few decades. Despite the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) repeated pleas to keep it purely sporting, it's now the case that you're likely to find quite a few political journalists amongst the sport reporters.

The most obvious politicisation of the games stems from people and countries using it as a platform for their political views. This isn't new of course; the Berlin Olympics of 1936 were a huge propaganda exercise, while Munich in 1972 saw terrorists hijacking the Games for their own ends. In the 1980s the Games reflected the heating up of the Cold War with the USA boycotting the Soviet Union because of Afghanistan, and then the Soviet Union boycotting the US in a tit-for-tat move. In 2008 the spectacular Beijing Olympics were China's way of announcing their entrance onto the world stage as the next global superpower.

David Cameron and the coalition are obviously hoping that a successful Olympics will promote Great Britain around the world, but also that it will give them a much needed boost in the opinion polls. If Team GB do well, and more importantly, the Games go off without a hitch, then the coalition might be able to revive the so-called 'feel good factor', and benefit accordingly. However if anything goes wrong the ongoing omnishambles narrative will just be reinforced. No one in government wants this to be a repeat of the Millennium Dome debacle.

Linked to this is the potential strike action during the Games. In a way it makes perfect sense for the unions to make this threat in order to cause maximum impact. They're clearly hoping that the government won't want to play chicken on this issue at such a sensitive time, and accede to their demands. But this is a dangerous game for them. While threatening to strike now gives them the most leverage, it also risks putting them on the wrong side of public opinion. If they do strike, and it causes serious disruption during the Games, it will immediately let the government off the hook for anything that goes wrong as they'll be able to blame the unions. Equally it will give them an excuse to crack down on them even further when parliament resumes.

There is also the politicisation of the Games in the way in which political rivalries translate into sporting rivalries. While we're repeatedly told that it doesn't matter who we compete against, we all know that this isn't necessarily true. For instance, the tabloid press always tend to get slightly excitable whenever Britain ends up in an event where we're facing Argentina. This year, Buenos Aires has attempted to stoke up the rivalry with their promotional training video filmed on the Falkland Islands.

On a more serious note there is further talk of informal boycotts between various countries and Israel. Iran has been doing this for years, but in the aftermath of the Arab spring it looks like more countries could be taking part. Then there's the question of what may or may not be happening in Syria while the world's attention will be focused on London.

Finally there is the very nature of the Games themselves. Notwithstanding the obvious irony of a festival of sport and health being sponsored by a variety of companies seemingly dedicated to supplying children with as much sugar, fat and salt as possible, there is in the ongoing question of the Games' legacy. As child obesity and overall fitness continues to be a growing problem, we need to take serious action to counter this. I seriously doubt that a one-off event will have that much impact, and for all the promises of 'an Olympics legacy', I can't help but feel that buying back all those school playing fields the last Labour government sold off might have been a better investment.

Taking all of this into account, I really hope that the politics this year will be kept to a minimum, and that the Games will be a success, running smoothly without incident. Often the British like to look on the gloomy side of things. If things go well we can be pleasantly surprised, and if they go badly at least we have the satisfaction of being right. Hopefully this time we'll be pleasantly surprised. Who knows, maybe even the sun will make an appearance.

Dr Matthew Ashton is a politics lecturer at Nottingham Trent University. Visit his blog.

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