The Olympic Clean CIty: A Critique
Reading a blog post entitled, ‘The Olympic Super Brands take over London‘ by former BBC sports editor Mihir Bose, got me thinking about one of the main arguments in my Event Policy: From Theory to Strategy book which is published by Routledge at the end of this month. Within the post, Bose talks about the IOC’s clean-city policy, whereby host cities sign up, contractually, to ensure that advertising is controlled across the city during Games time. The organising committee gets control of the sites and makes them available to the sponsors and third party advertising is prohibited. You don’t win the rights to host an Olympic Games unless you sign the Host City Contract (HCC) which lays out the rights and responsibilities of all partners in delivering the Games, but the general public know very little about exactly what the host (i.e. London) is actually signing them up for and the practicalities of living in the host city during Games time. In this post I want to draw attention to the sheer scale of sacrifices that host cities have to make during Games time and link these trends to a more general ‘privatisation of space’ which urban dwellers have experienced over the last two decades – in neoliberalised economies at least.
As Bose articulates in his post, the HCC requires that the major Olympics sponsors have (essentially) a blank canvas to work with at Games time and existing advertising space must be removed to permit this takeover of urban space. This urban space includes civic sites (e.g. squares, parks etc) and not just advertising hoardings. Olympic sponsors can, almost at will, dress the city with their corporate logos and transform the cityscape completely for the duration of the event – well that’s what they’re paying for, after all. As citizens (well, consumers), we are limited in what we can purchase in (previously) open ‘public spaces’ and once we get near the Olympic venues, we have to check whether we’ve inadvertently kitted ourselves out in the attire of a non-Olympic sponsor – if that is the case, then expect to to asked to remove said item of clothing by the brand police (who will quite possibly be volunteers!). In the name of product protection, the entire city of London will be cleansed, not just of litter or graffiti but of inappropriate free riders of all sorts. Now, whilst the extent of this urban cleansing is unprecedented, the trend towards our urban environments becoming branded spaces is clear for all to see. Naomi Klein famously drew attention to the colonising effects of global capitalism in her seminal text, No Logo in 2000, but she was by no means the first (or the last) theorist to express concern at the implications of global brand proliferation for the urban dweller. Drawing on some excerpts from the aforementioned Event Policy book, it is clear that the clean-city concept is a logical outcome of a trend towards consuming cities. Referring to the role of events and festivals, we argue that:
In the last decade of the twentieth and the early part of the twenty-first century in the developed West, it can be argued that events and festivals have been accorded significant value predominantly because of their contribution to economic development and place promotion. The outcome of the post-industrial commitment to consumption and experiences is that urban environments are now open to marketing activity in the same way that product promotion is understood. Events or festivals – whether mega sporting (Roche, 2000) or cultural – have become one of the key strategic tools in re-packaging a city for tourism consumption. They focus attention, kickstart or showcase image enhancement projects, galvanize local political actors and pressurizes governments to ensure the watching and visiting world leaves with positive impressions of the locale. The extreme cases, of the Olympic Games or World Cups are clearly about accumulation strategies disconnected from the specificities of the ‘local’, parachuting in global brands to transform a living, breathing urban metropolis into a Truman Show-like set.
In the name of ‘progress’ (economically-speaking), planning regulations can be fast-tracked, new legislation must (as part of the HCC) be passed to protect sponsor investments and cities spaces are zoned and secured to ensure the gaze of spectators is fixed only upon the ‘official’ partners offerings. Of course, there are many (including myself) that are critical of the extent of this shift to consumption, arguing that cities are perhaps ‘over-determined by the provisions they make for consumers’ (Miles and Miles, 2004: 2). Again from our Consuming Cities chapter:
There is a problematic emanating from the local state’s commitment to branded events designed primarily to attract affluent mobile capital. Whilst these events may satisfy the lifestyle aspirations of the sought-after tourist audiences, they may also exacerbate the exclusionary processes that exist within the urban milieu of post-industrial cities – in essence, the consumption-led events city may divide as much as it provides. Instead of opening up the city and its civic spaces to a wider section of the population, corporate culture can colonize, mark space and define who belongs and who does not. As private capital is accepted, and welcomed, by civic authorities, the cultures of cities become contested as sites of conflict about who has the right to use them. Events are increasingly choreographed and involve major sponsors looking to secure international profile from media exposure. However, these events now essentially colonize civic space and then proceed to make this space like a gated community where barriers are erected, security guards are employed and CCTV cameras are ubiquitous. If there is little tangible benefit to the local arising from explicit place promotion activity and local actors represent mere props on the theatre stage, which is designed for incoming visitors then there is a danger that the consuming city becomes merely and abstract concept that generates impressive returns to the few (e.g. hotels, retail, PR, financial services) as opposed to the many.
I certainly have fears that the clean-city concept so integral to the commercial agreements in place around Olympic Games are simply an extension of a more generalised trend towards the privatisation and securitisation of public space in our urban environments. How many of realise what securing the ‘rights’ to host an Olympic Games means for a host city? Does it matter that one advertisement is taken down to replaced by another during Games time? We’re told, ‘there is no other way’, ‘it’s not something we can control’ and, to the extent that our commitment to urban entrepreneurial forms of government is all pervasive, I agree. I think we need a more transparent debate long before we bid for global megaspectacles to ensure we know what we’re giving up by ‘winning’ an Olympics or other event – enhancing the public understanding of the value of events and festivals. Few of us would disagree with the notion of a clean city – but once we know what this means in Olympic terms, then perhaps we would think differently.