So, having returned to the world of the living after many scares with a rather too-simple surgery that turned complicated and vampirical, I was going to write about the third anniversary of the reading down of Section 377 from the Indian Penal Code. For the uninitiated, three years ago today, the Delhi High Court decriminalised homosexuality in India in a landmark judgment. But having shouted out to that, I’d like to post, again, on the place I’ve left behind. I have not yet regained health enough to begin my wandering in this so-intriguing, so-chaotic, so-desperately-hot, so-desperate city and as such, cannot write as much about it as I might wish. In the meantime, bear with me. I must tell you why I hate the Olympics. This post was originally written early this May for another blog, and another interpretation of cities, but was rejected, and deemed by the friend I was co-writing the blog with, as being altogether too disagreeable, and “like Polly Toynbee.” I am inclined to take that as a backhanded compliment.
Let me begin this way – I don’t like the Olympics. The level of competition involved, the problems with gender testing, the excuse for jingoism and all that flight-taking and environmental distress has always put me off. But living in such close proximity to the planning of one, this year has alerted me to a whole other problem, which I elucidate here. I have always been interested in how cities have been ‘cleaned up’, whether for environmental reasons or to hide other forms of perceived unpleasantness such as poverty and homelessness. So it is interesting to consider what the Olympic hosts-to-be are doing to clean up and prepare London for this global event that will see tens of thousands of additional visitors in a city that already receives nearly 15 million visitors per year.
This boost to tourism is considered a good thing by many. Reports have painted a rosy picture of how the Chinese economy has received a big boost thanks to the Beijing Olympics in 2008. London – as have most other cities that hosted the games – will try to put up a pretty show, clean itself up, and make sure the tourists like it, and that they spend all the foreign monies they’ll bring with them. They will, London hopes, go home not just with stuffed toy-versions of Wenlock and Mandeville but also the intention to return to charming old Blighty soon for a proper holiday. These are the migrants that countries generally want – the people who have money to spend, and who aren’t likely to outstay their welcome. London’s authorities will feel under pressure to project the ‘best’ picture that they can of the city in order to make the most out of the intense global attention the city will receive.
There is, however, another type of person who may also arrive en masse for the Olympics, feared and loathed by the readers of The Daily Mail (which has already started drumming up a nationalist frenzy): the undocumented immigrant or indeed the trafficked worker. The Bangladeshi cook, the East Asian domestic worker, or the Romanian sex-worker. This person has no money with which to buy stuffed mascots, attend sporting events or pay large hotel bills, and may come from a violent or politically disturbed home to which she cannot return.
In the language of certain MPs, such as Home Secretary Theresa May, this person is “a burden” to be shared with other countries, offloaded at the earliest opportunity and shipped back ‘home’. Words like ‘terrorism’ and ‘national security’ are thrown about – because, goes the narrative, Bangladeshi cooks and North African refugees undermine the tenor and harmony of the United Kingdom – rather than really just wanting to make a little money, and find a place to live where they and their families can have a little peace. As we found out in Germany in 2006 during the FIFA World Cup, and in Vancouver in 2010 at the Winter Olympics, national governments are not particularly concerned with finding humanitarian ways of dealing with this influx – choosing instead to ‘crack down’ on establishments that might house them, putting vulnerable people at greater risk.
Sex-workers are a particularly controversial group. As to the number of sex-workers who appear at large international sporting events, the statistics are disputed. In East London this summer, a doubling of numbers is predicted. It is evident from recent events that a concern for the sex-workers themselves – the violence they may have been subject to, their stories of displacement as trafficked women, the histories of the homes they have left behind, their health, or indeed their safety – is low on the priorities of the city whose concern appears simply to be to ‘crack-down’ and clean up the city. NHS officials in the boroughs of Tower Hamlets and Hackney report that the weekly raids have left many more vulnerable, sex-workers, new arrivals and long-time residents alike. The migrants, once evicted, stopped visiting health and community projects that offer them support, and are unwilling to report rape and abuse to the police, for fear of arrest and deportation. It is troubling that Rio de Janeiro – in anticipation of the 2016 Olympics – is already cracking down on undocumented workers of all kinds, as well as trafficked sex workers.
The London Olympics will bring many things to many people – medals, joy, railways, revenues, traffic, and a spectacular new park in East London. To some, however, they signal a time of fear, when social support disappears, when the police could come knocking at any moment, when the opportunities to slowly find a better means of living are suspended and the fear of having to return to a violent or non-existent home runs high.