It's billed as the greatest show on earth. But the closer you get to the London stadium that will be the center of the Olympic Games in just over a fortnight's time, the more it's starting to look like a militarized occupation zone. East London has become lockdown London. The Olympics are the focus of Britain's largest security mobilization since the second world war.
Soldiers are already on the streets. Around 13,500 are being deployed, more than currently in Afghanistan, along with tens of thousands of police and private security guards. Drones will patrol the skies over the Olympic park, barricaded behind an 11-mile electrified fence and guarded with sonic weapons and 55 teams of attack dogs.
The greatest local outrage has, not surprisingly, been triggered by the decision to site surface-to-air missile batteries, with orders to shoot down any unauthorized aircraft, in six residential areas around the park – including in the former factory buildings where the socialist feminist Annie Besant led the celebrated "matchgirls' strike" in 1888. On Tuesday, residents of another tower block failed at the high court to stop the army putting missiles on their roof on the grounds that they hadn't been consulted and could be vulnerable to terrorist attack.
Of course, if the state hosting the Olympics is in the habit of invading and occupying other people's countries, the likelihood of terrorist attacks will increase. And ever since the killing of Israeli athletes in Munich 40 years ago, Olympic security has been tight. But the scale and visibility of the London operations, including powers to crack down on protest and even remove critical posters from private homes, go far beyond the demands of any potential threat.
There are other motivations, naturally. In the words of one Whitehall official, the Olympics are a "tremendous opportunity to showcase what the private sector can do in the security space". But it's all a long way from the Olympic ideals of promoting peace, internationalism and participation through sport.
As one local resident puts it: "People round here feel that the Olympic stadium landed from another planet." Nor is it likely to attract tourists. Securitization is sucking enthusiasm out of the Games: recent polling shows a striking lack of support – 49% of people in London and 53% in the rest of the country say they're not interested in the Olympics, and only 4% strongly agreed they would be inspired to play more sport.
No doubt that will change once the athletes take over. But given the snaffling of most of the best tickets by sponsors and Olympic officials, along with the daily affront of VIP lanes for fleets of chauffeur-driven cars, many Londoners in particular are bound to see the Games as having very little to do with them.
And they'd be right. The funding may come overwhelmingly from public funds, but it's private corporations that are calling the shots. Private sponsorship of the Olympics goes back decades, but the corporate takeover dates from the Los Angeles Games in 1984, during the heyday of Reaganomics. Commercialization in turn triggered athlete professionalization a couple of years later: a corporate model for the times, nurtured by an International Olympic Committee elite.
So it is that in London we have Coca-Cola, Cadbury's, Heineken and McDonald's sponsoring and branding a movement that is supposed to promote health in a country where one in three children are overweight or obese by the age of nine. Even the IOC's president, Jacques Rogge, is getting embarrassed, though not embarrassed enough to turn down sponsorship from Dow Chemical. That's the owner of Union Carbide whose plant in India leaked poison-gas in 1984 killing thousands and which refused to accept liability for supporting survivors or cleaning up the environment.
Compensation for the corporate and security takeover is meant to be a lasting legacy of trickle-down regeneration, jobs, housing, tourism and greater participation in sport. That's always the promise, from Atlanta to Athens. But the evidence shows that, with the qualified exception of Barcelona in 1992, it never happens. In some cases, the economic impact has actually been negative.
The early signs are that London is unlikely to buck the trend. As mayor, Ken Livingstone fought for the Games to win the investment in transport for east London that would almost certainly never have been secured without them. But at a public cost that has already risen from £2.5bn to over £13bn, the local jobs, training and affordable housing that kind of investment should buy are simply not being delivered.
Qatar has bought the Olympic village at a loss to the public purse, and only a minority of its homes will be made available as affordable housing, while Olympics-fueled rent rises and evictions are already deepening the area's social segregation along the well-established pattern of London's Docklands.
It's clear that the IOC's model doesn't work, even on its own terms. But as enthusiast Mark Perryman says in his new book on the Olympics, they don't have to be like this. Five key reforms would transform the Games, he argues, cut their cost and make the Olympic ideal more of a reality, in place of the tightly controlled corporate "mega event" of the next few weeks.
Decentralize the Games by holding them in one or more countries, he proposes, rather than a single city; increase public participation (now restricted to a fleeting glimpse of the torch relay) by using existing venues that maximize available tickets; move sports outside stadiums to increase the number of free-to-watch events, on the Tour de France model; choose sports on the basis of their universal global accessibility; and disconnect corporate sponsors from the heart of the Games by reserving the use of its five-ring symbol for community and voluntary groups.
It's too late for London to have such a Games for all – though not for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, currently heading down the same road. And the gravy-train IOC elect will see no reason to abandon a model they do very nicely out of without serious global pressure for change.
But the Olympics, as with sport in general, holds up a mirror to society. What is being played out in London reflects a legacy of the war on terror and deregulation of unbridled corporate power – both elite blunders that have ended in failure. If those disasters can be overcome, why should it be impossible to end the corporate grip on the Olympics – and create a Games that lives up to its billing?