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London's Olympic Promise to Ethnic Communities Falling Short

Posted: Jul 20, 2012

Three days of grassroots activism, petitions and popular pressure have resulted in a reversal of the British Olympic Association’s decision to deny press accreditation to The Voice, the UK’s only national, weekly newspaper for the black community.

The Voice had been denied official media access to the Olympic games, with organizers citing a lack of space, despite the presence of many black athletes on the British Olympic team, and despite the fact that roughly 700 press passes were set aside for UK media. However, following a community uproar and criticisms from such high profile figures as London Mayor Boris Johnson, Tessa Jowell, an MP on the Olympic Committee, and several other high profile black MPs, the association was persuaded to reverse its decision.

Sadly, the episode is yet another sign that the London Olympic Committee has failed to deliver on its fantastic promise of leveraging investment in the games to uplift ethnic minority communities in Britain.

London Organising Committee for the Olympic Games (LOCOG), which has hailed the global event as an opportunity for societal changes in London, is the first ever Olympic organizing committee to boast a Diversity and Inclusion Division, and London’s successful bid in 2005 to host the 2012 Olympics was due in part to the city’s commitment to diversity and the rejuvenation of neighborhoods heavily populated by ethnic minorities.

During a speech at the Canadian Suppliers Diversity Conference in Toronto, Stephen Frost, the Head of Diversity and Inclusion for the organizing committee, said: “The London vision will definitely empower change, enhancing the hiring of disabled people, including gays and lesbians and dealing with homophobia in sport, bringing cultural communities together.”

LOCOG also made specific promises to the five London boroughs playing host to Olympic Park: Tower Hamlets, Newham, Waltham Forest, Hackney and Greenwich. All the boroughs are in need of government support and investment; three of them are among the top-ten most deprived areas in Britain, and their average unemployment rate is 9 percent, over 2 percent higher than the rest of London.

They also represent some of London’s most diverse areas; over half of London’s 300 languages are spoken there and 42 percent of the inhabitants are non-white, compared with a 31 percent London-wide average.

The Olympic organizing committee’s strategy included job creation for residents of the five boroughs, asking big businesses to divide their work into smaller contracts that local businesses could also compete for, and producing pamphlets in a number of languages to reach out to ethnic communities for volunteers.

As long ago as 2009, the Olympic boroughs put together a Strategic Regeneration Framework that outlined their goals for the area over the next 20 years. The three main themes were creating wealth and reducing poverty, supporting healthier lifestyles and developing “successful neighborhoods.”

Director of the Olympic Host Boroughs Unit, Roger Taylor, is realistic about how far London has come to achieving its goals for the boroughs. He stated that only modest progress has been made in measurement areas such as exam results and life expectancy; and although poverty and unemployment remain static, he said, they should be taken in context of the economic downturn.

However, he added, “At a physical level, the Olympics have brought into use a large area of semi-derelict land that has always worked as a barrier between the East End of London and the rest of the city; this has enabled new connections for travel to be made, which are enhancing access to work and leisure (for borough residents).”

Mike Brooke, a reporter for the East London Advertiser, had this to say: “Promises are made on jobs, but only a handful go to people who are genuinely from the five Olympic boroughs. We estimate 3 to 5 percent during construction. Top jobs with specific managerial expertise go to those most qualified who do not necessarily come form the local community, although they may now live in the area as part of the influx of middle class into East London in recent years.”

He characterized any community involvement organized by LOCOG as “window-dressing and public relations image creation... the Olympics Park is fenced off from the community and heavily guarded, like Fort Knox.”

Roger Taylor’s response was to say that: “Much of the criticism and negativity is because these things are not that easy to see… unless you have direct experience, or, like me, have access to the bigger picture and the data. But it is happening, and this part of London will remain the Mayor's priority for many years to come.” He cited as an example the job training that some locals received as part of their short term Olympic employment.

Although the new Olympic Park may feel guarded and impregnable now, it is meant to leave a lasting legacy in the area. In terms of development, the Olympic accommodations will be converted into residential flats, the first of which will go on sale next year. Some of the flats, by law, will be designated for “affordable housing.” However, the affordability of a property is defined by the value of surrounding property. Critics have argued that a new, up-market housing development will push up the price of affordable housing in that area, pricing out those at the bottom of the economic spectrum.

The dismantling of barriers between the East End and the City of London also makes the area tempting for high earning city workers looking for housing. Londoners are already being pushed out of the central London housing market by wealthy foreign buyers and are looking toward new developments in previously undesirable areas. However, if they do not also spend their money in those areas, then the influx of new wealth will not create wealth for the community.

The Olympic site itself will be christened Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park, and local councils are promising to turn it into an international attraction.

Sir Robin Wales, Mayor of Newham, one of the Olympic boroughs, said: “Our vision for the 2012 Games has always been to create significant community benefits including job creation, increased sports participation and the establishment of a world class visitor attraction. We are determined to help deliver the promises set out in the original Olympic bid book to transform the lives of those living in London’s East End.”

Only time will tell whether these attempts at regeneration will have a beneficial effect on the majority of inhabitants of the five boroughs. The influx of wealthier residents and tourists does not always equal greater benefits for locals who ultimately can be priced out of their own market.

The issues surrounding official sponsors have also caused contention. Organizations have complained about BP being a Sustainability Sponsor, and “unhealthy” food giants such as Coca-Cola sponsoring a sporting event. In return for their money, sponsors demand a high level of control over their rights, and breaking parliamentary rules on Olympic advertising is a criminal offense.

One example of the fallout is the half-mile, 35-day Brand Exclusion Zone that surrounds Olympic Park, which has forced small businesses such as the ‘Olympic Cafe’ to temporarily re-brand. The owner simply painted out the ‘O’ on the shop front.

Rules against using any Olympic related words, such as “London 2012,” “Team GB” or “Olympian” for advertising mean that local businesses will find it hard to benefit from the event. Big companies such as Marks & Spencers have the money to spend on clever marketing strategies that circumvent the rules, but smaller businesses lack the expertise, time and money to do the same.

There are also long term implications for local firms. The International Committee Ruling, implemented in all host countries, states that companies who have worked on, but are not sponsoring, Olympic projects are only allowed to mention their involvement 12 years after the games. Businesses that benefit from Olympic work, which according to LOCOG should be many local, small, and therefore ethnically diverse, businesses, will therefore not be able maximize on their Olympic work in the future.

Road closures and heavy use of transport links will negatively affect the majority of Londoners, but people in the host boroughs will be hit the hardest, with the heaviest footfall and highest number of road closures. A BBC news report stated that local businesses were planning to sue LOCOG, claiming that travel restrictions would decimate small businesses. Michael Spinks, managing director of the food company Essex Flour & Grain, based in Hackney, said "It's an unacceptable risk to a business established in 1853 and responsible for up to 100 jobs." LOCOG are sure to be facing more complaints as the reality of Olympic disruption hits London.

The Olympic Committee made huge promises to secure the bid for London in 2005 and continued to assure Britons that the huge cost of the Olympics would bring not only increased prosperity but improvements for a diverse range of groups. However, these promises now seem to be far out of reach. Stephen Frost’s comment that, “There aren’t enough PR agencies in the world to cover this up if we don’t get it right,” seems rather too close to the bone.

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