It was rather touching to watch British politicians finally rally round the Olympics on the eve of the opening ceremony last week, to hear Boris Johnson dismissing “a guy called Mitt Romney” who had dared imply that Londoners might not be entirely enthusiastic, and David Cameron cast doubt upon those who stage the Olympics in “the middle of nowhere”, thus prompting the mayor of Salt Lake City to hold a press conference and wave a map.
A few good jokes were made in the aftermath – “unless Romney brings bacon-wrapped shrimp to the Wailing Wall, I guess this’ll be the worst day of the trip” – and everyone got some witty headlines out of it, too. But although it was all very amusing, I do hope this sudden burst of hearty Olympics spirit doesn’t represent some national change of heart. Just a few days ago, the complainers, whingers and moaners dominated the news, not the boosters and boasters.
British politicians were up in arms about G4S, London taxi drivers were on strike, Charles Moore declared that “there is nothing but boredom, inconvenience and officially sanctioned insolence on offer” in London this summer, while Cameron begged journalists not to call this the “soggy Olympics”. Nor was this unprecedented: as far back as 2008, a columnist for this newspaper called the eight-minute handover ceremony in Beijing – involving a red London bus, umbrellas and David Beckham – a “British fiasco”. In particular, Charles Spencer objected to the “raddled, sweat-drenched face of Led Zeppelin lead guitarist Jimmy Page” whose music resembled “a badly tuned transistor radio in a tin bucket”.
Which is as it should be. At the time, still dumbstruck by the sight of thousands of Chinese marching in unison, I wrote this sentence: “Thank you, Britain, for giving the world the gift of nasty, negative, snarky journalism, along with the culture of free speech that sustains it.” Four years later, I fear the whinge culture is needed now more than ever.
If nothing else, the Beijing Olympics proved that propaganda works: what the world saw on the screen was the triumph, the glory and the fireworks. What no one saw, especially not the Chinese public, were the arrests and threats that the Chinese government thought necessary to make the Games run smoothly. No one saw the pre-emptive detentions of people who might possibly have thought of complaining in public. No one saw the thousands of people evicted from their homes without compensation to make way for the Olympic stadiums, either.
At the time, Amnesty International wrote of the “continued deterioration” in the treatment of human rights advocates, journalists and lawyers in the run-up to the Games, Human Rights Watch called the Beijing Olympics a “catalyst for human rights abuses”, and there were a few indignant grumbles when some foreigners were arrested for carrying signs about Tibet. But most of the politicians, celebrities and journalists in attendance said nothing about any of that. Foreign newspapers were as full of praise for “China’s Show of Power” and Beijing’s “Exceptional Games” as the Chinese press, and it is still generally accepted that the Beijing’s Olympics inaugurated, somehow, China’s entry onto the world stage.
In London, there are going to be plenty of attempts to emulate Chinese methods. There will be pushy policemen, overzealous anti-terrorist squads and ludicrous attempts to protect the rights of the corporations that sponsor the Games. There have already been clampdowns on café owners who decorate shop windows with five bagels, and butchers who do the same thing with sausages. Apparently – can it really be true? – you aren’t meant to link an article to the official Olympics website unless you have nice things to say about the Games. Meanwhile, known graffiti artists have not only been ordered to stay away from the Olympic Park, they have been forbidden to possess spray paint and markers between now and November.
But at least in London, one is still allowed to complain about these things, to talk about them and to write about them. I know about all of these incidents, in fact, because I read about them in the Spectator (whose cover showed an athlete being strangled by the Olympic rings), in the Guardian (which investigated the graffiti story) and on a blog published by Index on Censorship (as well as on another site where someone gleefully wrote obscene things about the Olympics and linked them to the official website, just to see what would happen).
There may or may not be consequences: court cases, lawsuits, public outrage sufficient to persuade politicians at least to apologise to the people told to remove the bagels from their windows. If nothing else, people who were unreasonably treated can say so in public. Which is also how it should be.
Just because you have a democracy doesn’t mean you automatically have reasonable policemen, sensible legislators or wise bureaucrats. But at least if your culture encourages you to complain, often and loudly, about the misbehaviour of unreasonable policemen, thoughtless legislators and thuggish bureaucrats then there is a chance you can do something to stop them. Please, Britain, don’t stop complaining about the Olympics: this is London, not Beijing.