- A “United” KingdomThe London 2012 Cultural Olympiad
In presenting the bid for the London 2012 Olympics to the International Olympic Committee in Singapore in 2005, Chair of the Olympic Organizing Committee Sebastian Coe explained the presence of thirty-one youth, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, who accompanied the bid from London “taking the place of businessmen and politicians” who typically attend such international presentations. “Each of them comes from east London, from the communities who will be touched most directly by our Games. And thanks to London’s multi-cultural mix of two hundred nations, they also represent the youth of the world . . . What unites them is London.” The then-Mayor Ken Livingstone continued with the point that London is, “a city in which three hundred languages are spoken every day and those who speak them live happily side-by-side. It is a city rich in culture, which will stage a spectacular Olympic festival.” Tony Blair, then-current Prime Minister, further suggested that “My entire Government and the main Opposition parties too are united behind this bid. It has total political support. It is the nation’s bid. It has excited people throughout the country.” At the center of that bid was not merely the Olympics, but the Cultural Olympiad, a four-year cultural celebration allowing people from all over the UK to participate in a range of diverse events: performance, film, art, music, and more. Immediately following that presentation, the IOC voted to award London the 2012 Olympic Games.
Since that presentation on July 6, 2005, London and the world have changed drastically. Londoners awoke the next morning not to continued celebrations over the bid’s success, but to terrorist bombings on the tube and buses. The financial world, of which London remains a global capital, still bears the scars and faces the aftermath of the 2008 collapse. In London, the long-term Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone was defeated in 2008 by journalist Boris Johnson, whose major achievement into his second term is arguably the rolling out of a public bike share system, similar to those already in place through many European capitals. The 2010 General Election resulted in a hung parliament, with the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats forming the first coalition government as a direct result of electoral politics in British history. That government, under David Cameron, has raised university tuition three-fold, along with drastically cutting public funding for higher education in a move to “austerity” financing, resulting in huge student protests. Summer 2011 saw riots and looting throughout the UK, beginning in reaction to the police shooting of a young man, [End Page 19] Mark Duggan, in Tottenham, but expanding rapidly to reveal youth unhappiness with the current political and economic situation worldwide. Although in many ways more brutal than what followed, the riots were arguably the first major volley in the movement that became “Occupy” later that year.
The road to these Games and Cultural Olympiad have often raised real concerns about the ramifications upon many of the UK’s diverse communities, especially in the East side of London, long a home to successive immigrant communities. As massive ground-breaking and rebuilding of the area has displaced many and raised costs for others, the Games and Activities surrounding them have been a place to attempt to redefine and remap, perhaps too optimistically, the UK’s cultural geography. The question of what will happen to these underserved communities beyond the Games remains crucial, especially as a dearth of social housing has resulted in some London borough authorities seeking to move those in need of housing assistance to other regions of the UK. The entrance to the Olympic village runs through a mall operated by Australian company Westfield, who own and operate well over one hundred shopping centers worldwide.
Unlike the U.S., the United Kingdom has not historically relied on a mythology of immigration, although in recent postcolonial history, one has started to take hold. Generations of immigrants throughout the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries have traced and retraced the histories of the former British Empire. Although no longer central to global politics...