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.
Londoners may be watching their city’s security takeover anxiously, but they can't seem to turn away.
Security measures at London’s Olympics will be so heavy they risk turning the city into an open prison. No, wait – they’re actually too light and won’t be enough to protect the city against major civil unrest. Currently, Britain’s media can’t quite decide which of these takes on London’s Olympic security provision is true. Some commentators claim the games’ huge security presence will bring about Lockdown London, a nightmarish police city state manned with more troops than Britain has in Afghanistan. Others fear that the concentration of police and guards around the Olympic Park will create a perfect storm for unruly youth to stage a replay of last summer’s riots.
Whatever position you take, everyone agrees that London’s Olympic security program is on a level Britain has never seen before. So far, its total budget(covering military and police backup across the city as well as security at Olympic venues) exceeds £1 billion, with the security presence at Olympic venues alone rising to over 23,000 guards. A missile-bearing aircraft carrier will be moored on the river Thames, drones will circle above the Olympic Park, an 11-mile long electrified security fence will be erected and 13,000 soldiers will hit the streets – a level of mobilization that Britain hasn’t seen since World War II.
This autumn, there were even rumors (since denied) of 1,000 armed American agents accompanying the U.S. Olympic team. This prospect was especially unpopular with Britons who, raised on a diet of American cop shows, tend to think of U.S. law enforcement as trigger-happy.
In a country where armed police have only become common in the past 15 years, the security presence planned gets many Londoners a little spooked. That said, Britain already has such phenomenally high levels of public surveillance that resistance to being constantly monitored has been largely broken down. And with a history of recent rioting and of terrorist attacks that date back long before America’s War on Terror, being a little spooked is something Londoners have got rather used to.
This unquiet history does make the London Olympic Committee’s initial budget miscalculations seem a little perplexing, however. It initially claimed it needed £282 million to provide site security at Olympic venues, but officials now admit that the first estimate was just a “finger in the air exercise”. The figure for policing these venues alone has now almost doubled to £553 million, partly due to U.S. pressure, with the number of guards greatly increased since this Atlantic Cities report in November.
This leap in budget partly accounts for the substantial Olympic military presence, as Britain’s army is the only body that can plug the glaring gap in Olympic planning at a relatively low price. Security firm G4S, who are already providing 13,000 private security guards for the games, offered to train the extra 10,000 guards needed, but proved too expensive. The company is currently under investigation following the death of Angolan deportee Jimmy Mubenga and has profited so hugely from the games already that granting it yet more public funds might also have proved unpopular. Such budget considerations are increasingly important in a climate where the spiraling Olympic budget is being criticized even by government insiders.
You might expect this security overkill (and the threats it counters) would get Londoners fleeing for the airports during the Olympics, only pausing on their way to register their apartments with Airbnb. There’s actually no sign of this yet. So far, sales of flights out of London during the games period have slumped as many city dwellers decide to stay put. They may be watching their city’s steady takeover anxiously, but many Londoners seem curious to stick around and see how this Olympics thing plays out.