For a few weeks before the Olympic Games began, my morning run route was dominated by some of the best athletes in the world. As I shuffled my way around Victoria Park in East London, track-suited Olympians sped by me, their nationalities emblazoned across their backs, their lanyards flailing in the breeze. Marketed as a way of “inspiring a generation,” the Olympics made me at least feel pretty shitty about my athleticism.
Victoria Park, like much of East London, underwent a significant makeover in the run-up to the Games. A new and intricate adventure playground was built, the fishing ponds were dredged and restocked, paths were laid, and drinking fountains were installed. For the duration of the Olympics, chalkboards advertised free tennis lessons while purple-suited security guards looked underneath cars for bombs with mirrors on sticks. Now the runners are gone, and the tennis lessons are no longer free. The first water fountain I came to this morning was broken, its tap snapped off at the base.
The Olympic Park itself, focal point of the games, was built on a patch of land at the eastern edge of Hackney. Its New Labour advocates sold it as a regenerative intervention into a broken industrial landscape, making much of the land’s supposed toxicity in order to claim it for a public-private partnership. The blue fences went up quickly, with Plexiglass windows every few hundred yards as symbols of transparency. The blue fence became a mecca for the psychogeographers, who have for years now made mournful perambulations around the outer limit of the Park.
In my daily life the Park has divided East London roughly in half. When I biked to visit friends in Leyton, east of the Olympic Village, during the games, I was chased into a hinterland of overpasses and bus stops, where Olympic volunteers steered traffic as though they were directing aircraft. Everyone was friendly but firm, with cultish grins. No matter how hard I tried to avoid it, there seemed to be only one way through, which led to a spaghetti junction that forced you off the old, straight tracks until you gave up and succumbed to the newly sanctioned routes. There was no room for desire paths here. The day after I crossed, a man named Dan Harris was knocked off his bike and killed by a bus shuttling journalists between Olympic venues.
Before they began, it was almost too easy to grumble about the “People’s Games”: the spiraling budget of £9 billion while £20 billion was cut from the National Health Service; the mind-numbing pageantry; the incoherent nationalism of the medal predictions; the technocratic demands of the mysterious and shadowy “Olympic Family,” whose jackbooted corporate enforcers policed any unauthorized use of the “London 2012” brand; the tenuous and increasingly desperate claims of “regeneration” and “legacy” associated with the construction of the Olympic Park. Now the Games are over, and the remains of their grand project lie scattered across East London. No one quite knows what they meant, or what to do with them.
I watched the opening ceremony from the roof of a friend’s narrowboat, near King’s Cross, northwest of the Olympic Park. Boat dwellers have had a rough time under the Olympic regime; many of the boats moored opposite us were exiles from the waterways around the Park, displaced because they supposedly presented a security risk. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony, a festival of sanctioned misrule, was the first hint that the games were going to be difficult to read politically. One reading was that Boyle’s ceremony was subversive, smuggling in references to the National Health Service and multiculturalism in order to thumb its nose at the coalition government. (A conservative MP concurred in his way, tweeting that it was “leftie multicultural crap.”) Meanwhile Jenny Diski suggested the ceremony was welfare state melancholia, “a wishful tale of things long gone. It was love as sentiment, a nostalgic cry for what has been lost.”
Though I wanted the assurance of disdain, or the simple fervor of sports fandom, I was never sure how I felt about the Olympics. When the ticket lottery was announced last year, I applied for tickets to everything from track cycling to synchronized swimming to fencing. I didn’t get any. After that, I planned to go to Box Hill in Surrey to watch the bicycle road race, but then the organizers announced that they’d decided to charge spectators to stand there, so I stayed home instead. Criticism of the hundreds of empty seats led to the organizing committee chairman to announce that corporate tickets would be reclaimed and resold to the public. But the ticketing site was fickle and almost impossible to navigate, and I didn’t get any of the reissued tickets either.
The message, as I received it, was clear: the Olympics were to be enjoyed, from afar. A sign attached to the fence of Haggerston Park, another local green space appropriated by the Games organizers, warned people to keep away:
You cannot see the Olympic Opening Ceremony from Hackney Marshes
There are no facilities or lighting on the Marshes at night
The best place to watch the ceremony is on television or a big screen
Perhaps watching the Games at home was the best way to experience their Disneyland of nonthreatening passion, a carefully guarded environment in which nothing unusual or unexpected was allowed to occur. The predictability of this world bled into the events themselves: we felt cheated when athletes didn’t conform to the narrative that had long been established for them. When eight badminton players were disqualified from the women’s doubles competition for not making their “best efforts to win” what was supposedly appalling was not that they’d threatened the honor of badminton but rather that the rules of a carefully calibrated world had been violated by external forces. Many of the events themselves require the construction of artificial landscapes that mimic the real world while paralyzing it. The Arcadian canoeing river, with its concretized white water pumped in an endless loop, was an assault to Heraclitus. Here was a river that remained the same no matter how many times you stepped into it.
The Olympics were anticipated by last year’s summer riots, during which youths participated in grim parodies of the games themselves. The Olympic flame was lit in furniture stores and off-licenses while the events—the 100-meter police line charge, the brick discus and the railing javelin, the stolen moped dressage—were played out on the streets. A year after the riots, on the eve of the Olympics, East London was ruled with an iron fist. The night of the opening ceremony, one hundred and eighty Critical Mass cyclists were arrested for drifting too close to the stadium, reclaiming designated Olympic lanes as they did so. Their bail conditions specified that they were not to go within 100 yards of any Olympic venue, not to enter any Olympic-only roadway, and not to enter the London borough of Newham with a bike. At the bicycle road race, a spectator with Parkinson’s was preemptively arrested because he was not smiling.
The day after the Opening Ceremony, protesters held an anti-Olympics: the Austerity Games, a demonstration/sports day organized by the “Counter Olympics Network.” At the protest, activists traded leaflets with each other and spoke to international journalists (there didn’t seem to be many UK reporters there). I heard one man telling a Chinese reporter he’d been barred from entering Canary Wharf because he was wearing “punk trousers.” Most people were angry about the commercialization of the Olympics, and the nationalistic fervor they create, rather than the Games themselves. I overheard two SWP members discussing the Opening Ceremony: “I thought it was really good actually, but don’t tell anyone.” A group of Circassian exiles in national dress performed folk dances and made an impassioned speech condemning the 2014 Winter Olympics, which are to be held in Sochi, on the shores of the Black Sea. “We are an exiled people.” they said. “We are a diaspora. Those of our people who remain are tortured, raped, or killed.” “Sochi Olympics! Blood Olympics!” they chanted. “Don’t legitimize the genocide.” Later we marched down Bow Road, passing the Bow Quarter, once the Bryant & May match factory and now a residential development where Olympic missiles have been installed. A plaque on the building commemorated Annie Besant, who organized the London matchgirls’ strike of 1888. Soldiers stared down at us from a water tower.
It’s been over a week now since the Games ended. We are gearing up for the Paralympics, and predictions of high ticket sales abound. Those who couldn’t get tickets for the Olympics are being encouraged to buy them now, to see the Park before it’s closed for two years as its fate is decided.
Today I ran along the River Lee, across from the western edge of the Park. The natural barrier has been accentuated by watch towers, yellow anti-car barriers, and miles of fencing. The final canal lock on the Lee Navigation is still welded shut, so that the exiled narrowboat dwellers remain unable to return. A bright yellow dam blocked the canal further down, just as it joined the river. A security guard coming home from a nightshift stood watching a huge fish swim lazily, trapped between the lock and the dam. It was a tench, he said, or a carp, and he’d been watching it for weeks.
A group of security guards sat on plastic chairs on the other side of the bridge. The towpath along the edge of the Lee, not within the confines of the Park but running alongside it, has been declared out of bounds. Olympic fatigue seemed to have set in, and the guards looked bored of denying people entrance, bored of the walkers who came and remonstrated with them and the cyclists who came to protest their rights to access the footpath. I retreated and ran back through Hackney Wick, a windswept industrial area long ago colonized by artists and musicians. I realized I had not been there for a long time.
On the wall by the side of the canal someone had written, “I wonder how the owner of this wall feels.” Across the river, under the bridge, another message read, “Imagine waking tomorrow and this shit had disappeared.”