Print and Go Back News & Opinion

Saturday, August 13, 2011
Uprising in London causes unease about Olympics

By Viv Bernstein

Amid the riots, arson and pillaging in London that have brought international scrutiny and concern about safety for next year's Olympic Games, 2012 organizing committee chairman Sebastian Coe finally broke his silence Thursday and offered his assessment of security.

"There are lessons to be learned, and over the next year we will continue our contingency plans," he told the Associated Press. "They will deal with all sorts of things, including public disorder."

Public disorder? Sales of aluminum bats on Amazon's United Kingdom site went up 6,541 percent in a 24-hour period earlier this week, according to The Guardian newspaper, because people were using them to protect their property and businesses during the rampages.

But apparently, security is under control. You can almost picture Kevin Bacon in "Animal House'' declaring, "All is well!"

Whether the uprising will fester into next year remains to be seen. Officials are still uncertain of the cause, although it began Aug. 4 when police shot and killed a man in London's Tottenham neighborhood. Since then, the riots have spread to other parts of the city and to other towns, an unfolding calamity that has led to the cancellation of some sporting events.

Already, more than a thousand arrests have been made, and assurances have been delivered that London will be made safe for Olympic fans and competitors, even as officials try to understand the uprising's underlying cause. Everything from racial tension to economic despair to teenage bad manners has been offered as a possible explanation.

"We have a commitment to deliver a safe and secure Games, and we will do so," Olympics minister Hugh Robertson told the AP. "All the evidence shows this trouble is low-level criminality driven by messages on social networks and not some new, emerging security threat."

Maybe there's nothing more to it than that. And organizers have tried to go about their business of preparing for the Games and focusing on the mundane as the violence has persisted. Coe, discussing an online travel tool to aid fans, said recently, "Getting spectators to events on time and back home again is going to make a huge difference to how people remember the Games in years to come."

Frankly, if transportation is the only memorable issue at these Games, then they will be a success.

But history warns us to brace ourselves anyway, given the stark reality that the Games could once again be the platform and London the stage for someone with a cause to turn a sporting event into a political statement. It has happened before, from the terrorist attack at Munich in 1972 to the bombing at Centennial Olympic Park in Atlanta in 1996, and there's no reason to assume it won't happen again.

And uprising or not, expect the 2012 Games will go on as scheduled. The Games haven't been canceled since 1940 and '44, during World War II. It's hard to imagine that happening again, despite multiple wars, economic upheaval and political unrest everywhere in the world today. The Olympics are big business now, too big for us to believe they would be canceled no matter what is going on outside the bubble.

That's not to say they should be canceled now or in the future. No one wants to give in to fear.

But by now it is too much to hope that sports and politics can separate long enough to let the Games be just about the games. The question, then, is how much are we willing to sacrifice to keep on playing? Where's the line? China was scorned as it banned protests, arrested dissidents and employed 100,000 police officers during the 2008 Games in Beijing. In London, as many as 16,000 officers have been mobilized to put down the current uprising, a show of force that offers the promise that police will assure safety next year during the Olympics.

If we need to live in a virtual police state every few years at these Games, then that old Olympic ideal of building a more peaceful and better world through sport is no longer feasible. Of course, with so much focus now on individual glory, patriotism and the money to be made at the Games, maybe that doesn't even matter anymore.