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The high cost of the Olympics

May 07, 2012

A RING of surface-to-air missiles is going up around London, with some of the batteries being placed in parks, and others on blocks of flats. A helicopter carrier, the biggest ship in the Royal Navy, slowly entered the Thames recently to take up position. Choppers from this ship will carry snipers to shoot down threatening low-flying aircraft. Submarines are taking up positions off the coast, and landing craft will be on the alert. Royal Air Force Typhoon jets will be screaming overhead in a week-long exercise.

So is London being threatened by a powerful enemy? Not really: all these defensive steps are part of a billion-pound security exercise to ensure that the 2012 Olympics will not be marred by terrorist attacks. But as far as I know, neither Al Qaeda, and nor any other terrorist group, has an air force or a navy. The Tamil Tigers were the only ones to operate a few propeller-driven planes and fast motorboats, and they are now defunct.

Nor is there any specific threat that has triggered this vast and costly exercise: basically, the British government is trying to reassure the athletes and officials who will be flocking to London in August that they will be safe during the Olympic Games. However, as we in Pakistan know all too well, the biggest terrorist threat comes from suicide bombers. No missile can stop a person willing to blow himself up and take as many victims with him as possible.

When Trenton Oldfield interrupted the annual Oxford-Cambridge boat race by swimming before the competing craft last month, we saw that there’s really very little anybody can do to stop a determined person from disrupting a sporting event. If some nut jumps out of the stands to stop a race, how will a helicopter help?

Londoners are slowly realising how their lives are going to be disrupted by the Olympics. After the initial euphoria at being selected for the 2012 Games, the full cost is finally sinking in. Much of the city centre will be locked down for the duration, with traffic jams expected in other areas. Many residents are planning to flee the city in August.

The financial costs of the Games are considerable, and may never be recovered. Already, the original estimated budget of 2.4 billion pounds has gone up to 9.3 billion, and according to some media reports, the final bill may end up at 24 billion, a figure the government dismisses. But one symbol of the perceived waste is the commissioning of a sculpture of a number of large stones balanced on sticks. When local residents discovered that it would cost taxpayers 335,000 pounds, there was understandable fury.

At a time of great financial hardship caused by stringent austerity measures, the spiralling costs of the Olympics is causing rising anger. Earlier dreams of an Olympic bonanza driven by hordes of visitors have faded: August was always a good month for tourists; now many will stay away fearing the traffic jams and higher hotel costs caused by the Games.

Cuts in public expenditure go a long way to explain the drubbing the coalition partners have received in the recent local body elections in the UK. Across the country, Labour has made deep inroads into local councils, picking up hundreds of seats from both the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives.

Leaders of the coalition government have tried to make a brave face of the results by saying that it is normal for the ruling party to lose support while it is in power, especially when it is implementing unpopular austerity measures. But the scope of this defeat exceeds the usual protest vote, and sends a powerful message to the government.

The recent news that Britain had entered a full-blown recession again was a further setback to David Cameron. Despite the clear evidence that his Chancellor, George Osborne, has been unable to improve matters by his tough austerity measures, the government is sticking to Plan A. However, Tory backbenchers are convinced there are other factors at work to explain this debacle: according to them, their party leadership has made too many concessions to their Lib Dem coalition partners. As a result, core Conservative supporters stayed away from the polling booths, or moved to other parties.

But the biggest losers have been the Lib Dems. A party representing some of the most liberal, left-wing elements in the country, the party has seen its support plummet because of its association with the government’s slash-and-burn policies. Even though it is the junior partner in the coalition, its support for basically conservative measures to lower taxes for the rich, while squeezing the middle and working classes, has made it all but unelectable in the foreseeable future.

Labour’s resurgence has given its shaky leader, Ed Miliband, some much-needed credibility. After gaining over 823 seats, he has been able to show that George Galloway’s recent shock victory in a Bradford by-election was an aberration. Nevertheless, Galloway’s Respect Party managed to snatch five seats from Labour in a scrappy, acrimonious contest in Bradford.

Having lost over 400 seats, Cameron and his advisers have to do some serious thinking. To reach out to their core supporters, they need to revert to a basically conservative approach; but this risks alienating their Lib Dem coalition partners. Also, they need to re-think their policy of cutting back on a whole slew of social benefits for the out-of-work and the underprivileged.

Another ticking time bomb under Cameron is the ongoing Leveson enquiry on the links between the media and officialdom. Jeremy Hunt, the culture secretary, is due to make an appearance soon, and his alleged support for the discredited Murdoch empire has already led to loud calls for his resignation. Should more proof emerge, Cameron will be under huge pressure to fire Hunt. And the prime minster will soon have to appear before the committee where his close ties with Rebekah Brooks, Murdoch’s trusted News International executive, have already been the subject of some hostile speculation.

So all in all, this is going to be a difficult summer for Cameron, Clegg and the coalition.