Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Anti-Olympic Protest Works – The Berlin Experience

Say that you have a problem with the Olympics and an awful lot of people look at you as if you’ve just suggested a nationwide kitten and puppy massacre. How could anyone possibly be against something so pure and honest and good? This weekend will see hopefully thousands attend the demonstration in London against the corporate Olympics. I urge everyone that can make it to get to this event. The truth is that at various points over the years, often hidden away out of sight, there has been a long history of anti-Olympic protest. One such example is from Berlin in the early 1990s. It is a story in which the people of that city made the IOC feel so unwelcome as to ruin their government’s plans to stage the 2000 Olympics. It is a story that, sadly, far too few people have been told. But before we get to Berlin, we must go to Barcelona.

The Barcelona Games took place in 1992, the first Olympiad after history had been brought abruptly to an end. The fall of Communism meant that the Games were bereft of Cold War rivalry; the world was joined together in competition on the free market and in the sporting arena. Indeed, so fraternal were international relations that the XXV Olympiad was the first for twenty years not to be boycotted by any nation state. The goodwill and bonhomie extended even to those Spanish politicians who were traditionally the deadliest of enemies. The Socialist Mayor of Barcelona, Pascal Maragall, joined together with Juan Antonio Samaranch, the Spanish IOC president and one-time Franco loyalist, to welcome the Olympics in a display of collective amnesia. The Games would take place in the Montjuic Stadium where fifty-six years previous the assembled worker-athletes had gathered to take part in the Popular Olympics. A fascist uprising meant that the Games were over a day before they were meant to begin.

Those Barcelona Games of 1992 were, however, the Unity Olympics. It was even reflected in the medal table. The Unified Team – a collection of states from the former Soviet Union – finished first, the United States second. In third place, just three years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was the team of the newly unified Germany. The 1992 Barcelona Olympics looked like a Pierre de Coubertin wet dream. Nation states, wedded to capitalism and secure in their identities, came together to share a love of competitive play. It was not just a symbol of unity, but also of reconciliation.

This spirit of togetherness would not have been lost on the German government who announced their intention to bid to stage the Olympics in 2000. To see the newly united country stage such a prestigious event at the dawn of a new millennium was certainly a genuine attraction as well as simultaneously being a huge ideological reinforcement. Eberhard Diepgen, Mayor of Berlin, was clear when he spoke to an IOC delegation: "Berlin wants to present an Olympics in the year 2000 that will reflect people's desire for peace and freedom… We want to show the new Germany: democratic, united and unpretentious." The IOC too saw the symbolic value of staging the Games in Berlin, and for a time the city was the frontrunner, ahead of Sydney, Beijing, Manchester and Istanbul. What neither the IOC nor the German government could have expected was that their plans would be scuppered by a wave of popular protest.

By September 1993 anti-Olympic feeling was so strong that a march through the centre of Berlin could attract more than 10,000 people. But this wasn’t the first act of defiance, nor the most militant. Three months earlier anti-Olympic activists had disrupted the opening of the IOC’s self-congratulatory shrine, the $65 million Olympic museum in Lausanne. Eggs were hurled at Samaranch and protesters shouted “No Olympics in Berlin” before twenty of them were led away and detained by police. Demonstrations and attacks on private property continued until it became clear that the IOC, ever desperate for good press, would be forced to look elsewhere. Despite staying in the race to host the Games, Berlin were never really in the running again, and finished a long way behind Sydney, the eventual winners. 

Why did the people of Berlin turn so against the Games? It seems fair to say that the price tag attached to staging the event was a major reason. One anti-Olympic statement read, "The people of Berlin do not favor mammoth projects which the power elite, supported by the police and media, plans and executes without our consent. The Government promises a great deal, but gives only to the rich." Activists also cited other negative effects on the city such as disruption and pollution. Sound familiar?

Later protest movements against staging the Olympics in Sydney, Athens and Vancouver were charactersied by how heavily they drew inspiration from the anti-capitalist and anti-globalisation movement which began in Seattle in 1999. What is fascinating is that the movement in Berlin began not just before this time, but before the other great events that gave lie to Francis Fukuyama’s claim of the end of history – the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas in 1994 and the public sector strikes in France in 1995. People power was alive and well in Berlin in 1993. It was as though the people of the German capital said, “We have already brought down the Berlin Wall. Why shouldn’t we stop the IOC?”

The Berlin experience is a timely reminder that anti-Olympic protest works. Here in the UK we may not be in a position to stop the country wasting billions of pounds on a sporting event at a time of terrible economic crisis, as our brothers and sisters in Berlin were able to do. But it remains the case that protest is necessary. It will show to the corporations that they cannot profiteer and bully without opposition. It will demonstrate to the IOC that not everybody buys into their phoney ideals and spin. And it sends a message to the ConDem government that no matter how much they bully and restrict our right to protest, people will always be prepared to stand up and be counted. I hate to quote Seb Coe – I really do – but we really do have “a once in a lifetime opportunity”. Be there this Saturday to say No Limos! No Logos! No Launchers! And be part of the demonstration against the corporate Olympics.