Olympics 2012 security: Welcome to lockdown London

Excerpt from Stephen Graham,

Despite the evident success of the Olympics, is London now ‘locked-down’ against social justice?

London's militarised 2012 Olympics.

London's militarised 2012 Olympics.

As a metaphor for the London Olympics, it could hardly be more stark (1). The much-derided ‘Wenlock’ Olympic mascot is now available in London Olympic stores dressed, no less, as a Metropolitan police officer. For £10.25 you, too, can own the ultimate symbol of the Games: a member of by far the biggest and most expensive security operation in recent British history packaged as tourist commodity. Rather eerily, his single panoptic-style eye, peering out from beneath the police helmet, is reminiscent of the all-seeing eye of God so commonly depicted at the top of Enlightenment paintings. In these, God’s eye maintained a custodial and omniscient surveillance on His unruly subjects far below on terra firma.

The imminent Olympics takesplace in an Olympic city still recovering from riots, which the Guardian–LSE (2011) ‘Reading the Riots’ project showed were partly fuelled by resentment at their lavish cost. On 9 March 2012, the UK spending watchdog warned that the overall costs of the Games were set to be at least £11 billion—£2 billion over even recently inflated budgets (Syal and Gibson, 2012, 2). When major infrastructure projects such as Crossrail, speeded up for the Games, are factored in, Sky News, in an admittedly rather cursory investigation, put that figure as high as £24 billion (2012). The estimated cost put forward only seven years ago when the Games were won was £2.37 billion.

With the required numbers of security staff more than doubling in the last year, estimates of the Games’ immediate security costs have doubled from £282 to £553 million. With the final security budget of the 2004 Athens Olympics around £1 billion, even these figures are likely to end up as dramatic underestimates (Boyle and Haggerty, 2009a, 3).

All this in a city convulsed by massive welfare, housing benefit and legal aid cuts, spiralling unemployment and rising social protests. It is darkly ironic, indeed, that large swathes of London and the UK are being thrown into ever-deeper insecurity whilst being asked to pay for a massive security operation, of unprecedented scale, largely to protect wealthy and powerful people and corporations.

Community protests against the corporate-militarisation of the Games.

Community protests against the militarisation of the Games.

Critics of the Olympics have not been slow to point out the dark ironies surrounding the police Wenlock figure. ‘Water cannon and steel cordon sold separately’, mocks Dan Hancox (2012, 4) on the influential Games Monitor website (read CITY’s interview with the team also on this website). ‘Baton rounds may be unsuitable for small children.’

Beyond the concentration of sporting talent and global media, the London Olympics will host the biggest mobilisation of military and security forces seen in the UK since the Second World War. More troops—around 13,500—will be deployed than are currently at war in Afghanistan. The growing security force is being estimated at anything between 24,000 and 49,000 in total. Such is the secrecy that no one seems to know for sure.

During the Games an aircraft carrier will dock on the Thames. Surface to air missile systems will scan the skies. Unmanned drones, thankfully without lethal missiles, will loiter above the gleaming stadia and opening and closing ceremonies. RAF Typhoon Eurofighters will fly from RAF Northolt. A thousand armed US diplomatic and FBI agents and 55 dog teams will patrol an Olympic zone partitioned off from the wider city by an 11 mile, £80 million, 5000-volt electric fence.

Beyond these security spectaculars, more stealthy changes are underway. New, punitive and potentially invasive laws such as the London Olympic Games Act 2006 are in force (see UK Archives, 2006, 5). These legitimise the use of force, potentially by private security companies, to proscribe Occupy-style protests. They also allow Olympic security personnel to deal forcibly with the display of any commercial material that is deemed to challenge the complete management of London as a ‘clean city’ to be branded for the global TV audience wholly by prime corporate sponsors (McDonalds, Visa and, controversially, Dow chemicals).

Corporate olympics; Image: http://www.bewareofimages.com/

An image that was circulating in social media protesting the 2012 Olympics; Image: http://www.bewareofimages.com/

London is also being wired-up with a whole new range of scanners, biometric ID cards, number-plate and facial-recognition CCTV systems, disease tracking systems, new police control centres and checkpoints. These will further intensify the sense of lockdown in a city, which is already a byword across the world for remarkably intensive surveillance.

Many such systems, deliberately installed to exploit unparalleled security budgets and relatively little scrutiny or protest, have been designed to linger long after the athletes and VIPs have left. Already the Dorset police are proudly boasting that their new number-plate recognition cameras, built for sailing events, are allowing them to catch criminals more effectively.

In Athens, the $300 million ‘super-panopticon’ CCTV and information system built for the Games after intense US pressure remained after the event, along with the disused sports facilities. In fact, the system has been used by Greek police to try in vain to control the mass uprisings responding to the crash and savage austerity measures in the country (Samatas, n.d.; also see Kompreser Collective, this issue).

It is important to remember that all this is ostensibly designed to secure the spectacle of 17,000 athletes competing for 17 days. Even if London’s overall security budget remains similar to that of Athens, that works out at the startling figure of £59,000 of public money to secure each competitor or £3500 per competitor per day.

In 2004, the cost in now-bankrupt Athens was £90,000 per competitor. This was a major contributor, as part of the overall £10 billion costs, to Greece’s subsequent debt crisis.

In the context of post-austerity Britain, these figures are eye-watering. Even more remarkably, given that Olympics budgets have drawn down from many other public and lottery funds, and are no doubt adding hugely to UK national debt, the Daily Telegraph recently argued that the security operation for the Olympics was ‘key to aiding the recovery of UK plc’ (White, 2012, 6).

How can we make sense of this situation? Four connected points are needed to build an explanation. The first is that, amidst a global economic crash, so-called ‘homeland security’ industries—sometimes more accurately labelled by critical commentators the ‘pacification industries’—are in bonanza mode. As the post-9/11 US paradigm of ‘Homeland security’ is being diffused around the world, the industry—worth $142 billion in 2009—is expected to be worth a staggering $2.7 trillion globally between 2010 and 2012. Growth rates are between 5 and 12% per year (Middle East Homeland Security Summit, 2012, 7).

The UK, long an exemplar ‘surveillance society’, is especially attractive to these industries, especially when hosting the Olympics. Recent security industry magazines have been full of articles excitedly extolling the Olympics as a ‘key driver of the industry’ or as ‘keeping the market buoyant’ (Boxell, 2009).

Nation-states, and the EU, are struggling to ensure that their corporations get a piece of the action in markets long dominated by US and Israeli corporations. Ramping up surveillance is thus now as much a part of economic policy as a response to purported threats.

The security boom is unaffected, or perhaps even fuelled, by the global crash, as wealthy and powerful elites across the world seek ever-more fortified lifestyles. Essentially, it is about defence and security corporations building huge new income streams by systematically exploiting three linked trends: the lucrative possibilities created by post-9/11 fears; widening privatisation and out-sourcing in the context of deep austerity programmes; and the desire of big city and national governments to brand themselves as secure destinations for major ‘global’ events.


Another image from social media, criticising the militarisation of the Games.

The final point to emphasise is how the security operations of Olympics have major long-term legacies for their host cities and nations. The security preoccupations of Olympics present unprecedented opportunities to push through highly elitist, authoritarian and speculative urban planning efforts that otherwise would be much more heavily contested—especially in democracies. These often work to ‘purify’ or ‘cleanse’ diverse and messy realities of city life and portray existing places as ‘waste’ or ‘derelict’ spaces to be transformed by mysterious ‘trickle-down effects’. The scale and nature of evictions and the clearance of streets of those deemed not to befit such events can seem like systematic ethnic or social cleansing. A total of 1.5 million were evicted to make way for the Beijing Games; clearances of local businesses and residents in London, though more stealthy, have been marked.

Such efforts often amount in effect to expensive, privatised, elitist and gentrifying projects like the Westfield shopping centre in Stratford (the first UK shopping centre, incidentally, to have explosives scanners at all entrances).

During the Games themselves, such so-called ‘Olympic Divides’ are especially stark. In London, a citywide system of dedicated VIP ‘Games lanes’ are being installed (Boffey, 2012, 8). Using normally public road space, these will use 4000 luxury, chauffeur-driven BMWs to shuttle 40,000 Olympic officials, national bureaucrats, politicians and corporate sponsors speedily between five-star hotels and the largest collection of super-yachts ever seen and cordoned off VIP lounges within the arenas. It’s recently been shown that wealthy tourists will be able to enter the VIP lanes by purchasing £20,000 package trips (Boffey, 2012, 9).

Ordinary Londoners, meanwhile—who are paying heavily for the Games through council tax hikes—will experience much worse congestion. Even their ambulances will be proscribed from the lanes if they are not running blue lights.

More broadly, huge increase in land values tends to value only the wealthy property speculators and financiers that are best placed to ride the wave. Already, the Qatar royal family have bought the 1400 homes of the Olympic village in a deal worth £557 million (BBC, 2011, 10).

Looking at these various points together shows one thing: contemporary Olympics are society on steroids. They exaggerate wider trends in contemporary society. Far removed from their notional or founding ideals, these events dramatically embody changes in the wider world: fast-increasing inequality, growing corporate power, the rise of ‘homeland security’ and the shift toward much more authoritarian styles of governance utterly obsessed by the global gaze and prestige of media spectacles.

The full article is available in CITY 16.4 here.

Stephen Graham is Professor of Cities and Society at Newcastle University, and author of the book Cities Under Siege: The New Military Urbanism; Verso Books.


  1. This piece first appeared in the Guardian on 12 March 2012 (for the original, see http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/mar/12/london-olympics-security-lockdown-london).
  2. Syal, R. and Gibson, O. 2012. Olympic Games risk going over budget as cost hits £11bn, say MPs. The Guardian , Friday 9 March, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/mar/09/olympic-games-budget-cost (accessed 17 May 2012)
  3. Boyle, P. and Haggerty, K. 2009a. Olympic-size questions about surveillance and privacy. Straight.Com , 1 December, http://www.straight.com/article-273017/vancouver/philip-boyle-and-kevin-d-haggerty-olympicsize-questions-about-surveillance-and-privacy (accessed 17 May 2012)
  4. Hancox, D. 2012. Kettling 2.0: the Olympic state of exception and TSG action figures. Games Monitor , http://gamesmonitor.org.uk/node/1456 (accessed 17 May 2012)
  5. UK Archives. 2006. London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006. http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2006/12/contents (accessed 17 May 2012)
  6. White, A. 2012. London Olympic Games’ security is key to aiding the recovery of UK plc. Daily Telegraph , 2 February, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/finance/london-olympics-business/9057901/London-Olympic-Games-security-is-key-to-aiding-the-recovery-of-UK-plc.html (accessed 17 May 2012)
  7. Middle East Homeland Security Summit. 2012. Introduction. http://www.fleminggulf.com/conferenceview/Middle-East-Homeland-Security-Summit/210 (accessed 16 May 2012)
  8. Boffey, D. 2012. Olympic VIPs take fast lane leaving patients at risk. The Guardian , 18 February, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/feb/18/olympic-seize-roads-patients-suffer (accessed 17 March 2012)
  9. Boffey, D. 2012. Olympic VIPs take fast lane leaving patients at risk. The Guardian , 18 February, http://www.guardian.co.uk/sport/2012/feb/18/olympic-seize-roads-patients-suffer (accessed 17 March 2012)
  10. BBC. 2011. London 2012: Qatari Diar venture to take over Olympic Village. 12 August, http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-14510415 (accessed 16 May 2012)

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