Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Organizers of the London games have taken unprecedented measures to stop "lone wolves" from wreaking havoc. But that hasn't stopped them from making them a central part of this summer's festivities.
From aerial attack to germ warfare, London’s Olympic Committee have anticipated many potential security threats to this summer’s games.
Nobody, however, could have predicted that a modest display of sporting prowess would start its alarm systems ringing. This unlikely event happened on April 7, when a wet suit-wearing "anti-elitism" campaigner swam the muddy Thames’ West London reaches to disrupt the annual Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race. This small attempt to disrupt the major sporting contest between Britain’s oldest, most exclusive universities has started Olympic organizers discussing their vulnerability to similar stunts this summer. Security bosses have suggested that like-minded "lone wolves" may be the greatest threat the games face.
Outliers like the boat race’s wet suit warrior are not the only lone operatives Olympic officials currently have their eye on. According to the Guardian newspaper, the London Olympic Committee has admitted it will be using a team of "branding police" to tackle infringements of sponsors' promotional rights. Any non-sponsor advertisment that matches the number 2012 with the words "London," "medals" or "summer" risks incurring legal action. This makes it almost impossible for most London businesses – which the games were supposed to boost – to mention the Olympics without falling on the wrong side of the law. While campaigns from major brands like Nike have found ways to profit from London’s Olympic bonanza without infringing these laws, independent small businesses (such as local pubs wanting to publicize Olympic screenings) don’t have the legal advice or resources to take on the risk. Given the hefty investments of major sponsors like Adidas, such strong-arming is perhaps to be expected. It has certainly been a feature of most recent games.
What makes London’s case curiously different is that the games will simultaneously celebrate the sort of non-corporate lone wolves that Olympic organizers might want to keep at bay. Punk veterans the Sex Pistols, who memorably dubbed Britain’s monarchy a "fascist regime" in 1977, have been asked (but have refused) to play at the opening ceremony by its organizer, film director Danny Boyle.
Equally interesting are rumors that the opening ceremony will celebrate the suffragettes, the women’s suffrage campaigners whose vigorous civil disobedience scandalized early 20th century Britain. The suffragettes’ best-known hour came in 1913 when protester Emily Davison threw herself under a horse owned by King George V at the annual Derby. This disruption of a major sporting occasion (which led to Davison’s death) seems an awkward event for the Olympics to bring back to public memory. It finds echoes not just in this month’s boat race protest, but also in the recent police eviction of campaigners protesting the takeover of East London marshland for Olympic facilities.
Danny Boyle’s hoped-for punks and protesters do nonetheless have a surprisingly established place within mainstream British culture. Mohawked youths posing in red telephone boxes are still one of London’s postcard sellers' favorite clichés. More broadly, Britain has a modest history of accepting pioneers and eccentrics who might find themselves in handcuffs or straitjackets elsewhere. London was Karl Marx’s long-time home, Charles Darwin is on the British £10 note, contraception campaigner Marie Stopes has graced its stamps and the Sex Pistols’ anti-royal rant once topped the pop charts.
Celebrating this unruly tradition against the backdrop of a monumental security presence and corporate control freakery is no easy feat – it risks looking like retro-radical window dressing. At the same time, it suggests promisingly that the official face of London 2012 won’t try too hard to smooth over the interesting cracks in its host city.
Top image: A man (R) is seen in the water during the Oxford vs Cambridge boat race in the River Thames in west London April 7, 2012. The 158th annual Varsity Boat Race between Oxford and Cambridge was dramatically halted when a swimming intruder in the River Thames was almost hit by the Oxford boat. (Paul Hackett/Reuters)