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Saturday, 19 May 2012

Ill-winds from Greece

I watch the news each day. I see the scene from the Temple of Hera in Greece where the Olympic torch goes out moments after it is lit, all the calculated and rehearsed ceremony at the mercy of larger forces, as if those ancient Greek gods are still at play, reminding us poor mortals of the hubris of imagining we can control events...After some moments of panic and uncertainty it is lit again and the whole charade resumes.

And then I see how that other ill-wind from Greece is sweeping its way across Europe trailing financial turbulence and anxiety in its wake. As the flame arrives, stock-markets plunge. But this time there are no quick fixes and the systemic problems in the home of democracy exposes our powerlessness in the face of the modern incarnations of those ancient gods: the financial markets, whose whims and wishes determine all our fates.

And we in the UK, as well as other member states of the European Union, are told we have to make sacrifices to the gods: and so we offer up our livelihoods, our pensions and jobs, our libraries, hospitals, schools, sometimes our homes, the welfare state that has protecting the vulnerable, as cut follows cut deep into the flesh and sinews of our social body. Because the markets must be appeased, we must keep them happy, at all costs. And we will be counting the costs for generations.

But meanwhile let’s distract ourselves with the Olympics, let’s celebrate the arrival of the flame onto our shores - that ancient ceremony that dates back to...well, Berlin in 1936 actually, when it was dreamed up as a way of connecting the capital of the new German Reich with the original games of classical Greece, whose culture Hitler so admired. Never mind, let’s not distract ourselves with history, let’s focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’: the way in which the original cost of the Games, forecasted seven years ago as £2.37billion will end up costing us between £12 and £24 billion – who knows? who cares? it’s the Olympics, don’t spoil the party spirit...

No, let’s not distract ourselves with the finances, let’s focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’: the ground-to-air missiles mounted on London rooftops; the fighter-planes on constant alert above the city of London; the warship patrolling on the Thames; the UK's biggest mobilization of military and security forces since the second world war including 1000 armed American diplomatic and FBI agents patrolling an Olympic zone partitioned off from the wider city by an 11-mile, £80m, 5,000-volt electric fence.

But never mind, let’s not distract ourselves with security concerns, let’s focus on the ‘Olympic spirit’: the steely grip of the corporate sponsors who have enlisted Parliament to issue legislation banning any non-official advertising from Olympic venues and surrounding areas - better not go there with a Nike T-shirt when Adidas are the official sponsors, you’ll have to strip off - as well as ensuring it will be illegal for a member of the public to broadcast or publish video and/or sound recordings from Olympic events “ including on social networking websites and the internet." In other words the ‘Olympic spirit’ ensures it will be a crime to post your pictures to Facebook. And so it goes on, everywhere we turn we see the corruption of an ideal and the brave/foolhardy British determination to carry on regardless. And let’s not start on athletes and drugs...

I do love watching sport – but forgive my cynicism about the Olympics. Will I be watching this ridiculous, and in some respects scandalous, distraction from what really matters? Probably I will succumb in part – but I will do so knowing that I am guilty of a hypocrisy I find hard to bear. For this is true ‘bread and circuses’ (panem et circenses), ‘bread and Games’, that Roman expression for the diversion and distraction of the public through the satisfaction of their shallowest desires. As a political strategy it is associated with the frivolity of the Roman Republic prior to its decline into autocracy. As the ill-winds from Greece presage the disintegration of the European dream, we can only pray – to gods old or new, it will matter not – that our democracies are strong enough to withstand the malevolent social forces waiting in the wings.