Riots act as wake-up call for London's torch-bearers

Our Olympics correspondent, Alan Hubbard, provides a personal perspective on capital's travails after witnessing unrest before the Games in Mexico City and Seoul

Sunday 23 October 2011 08:32
A student throws a petrol bomb in Seoul in 1988
A student throws a petrol bomb in Seoul in 1988

A friend emails from secure, sanitised Singapore: "What the hell is happening over there? Will it be safe to come to the Olympics?"

A good question, and one that I would have answered in the affirmative this time last week. But after the terrifying events of the past week how can we be sure?

Who would have dreamed when London won the Games in Singapore six years ago that just under a year out from the Opening Ceremony, London 2012 would have disturbing echoes of Mexico City 1968 and Seoul 1988, when similar riotingwas a prelude to the Olympics?

Of course there is every hope, indeed every chance, that all will be sweetness and light when the Games get under way. But there can be no doubt that what flared up in the streets of tinder-box Tottenham, Clapham, Peckham, Brixton, Croydon – not to mention Hackney, a javelin's throw from the Olympic heartland itself – is a matter of deep embarrassment and concern, both for London 2012's organisers and the International Olympic Committee.

"London Riots: Worst Civil Unrest in Memory as City Gears Up for 2012 Olympics": this was the banner headline from the Hollywood Reporter, one of scores which have swept across the United States this week. Scary reports of the riots created headlines and editorial comment in Australia, India, Jamaica and just about every other country sending athletes to the Games. Especially in France, where you can bet there were smirks on the faces of quite a few Parisians still sore at being gazumped six years ago.

And while at the IOC they were predictably trotting out the "we have every confidence it will be all right on the night" reassurances, you can bet there were some furrowed brows when they read the following observation by a former Metropolitan Police Commander, John O'Connor: "This is just a glimpse into the abyss. Someone's pulled the clock back and you can look and see what's beneath the surface. And what with the Olympic Games coming, this doesn't bode very well for London."

Of all the things that could happen in the run-up to 2012 (overspending, construction delays, transportation foul-ups with the bolshie union boss Bob Crow and his merry men yet to swing into action – or inaction), this unquestionably was the worst-case scenario. It is to be hoped that Londonwill get over it, as Mexico City did despite the infamous slaughtering of almost 300 students in the Place of the Three Cultures. And as Seoul did when South Korea's military leadersdidn't take kindly to the community's reluctance to host the Games and tear-gassed those protesting over the government displacing 720,000 citizens to make way for Olympic visitors.

I attended both those Olympics. After the tranquillity of Tokyo – my first Games in 1964 – to arrive in Mexico City four years later and observe tanks outside the Olympic Stadium and platoons of soldiers (many ludicrously disguised as Boy Scouts) was a deeply shocking experience.

A few days before, warned that continuing civil unrest might halt the Games, the Mexican president, Diaz Ordaz, ordered 10,000 anti-Games demonstrators gathered in a square – mostly students alarmed at the economic effect on Mexico's poor – to be machine-gunned from helicopters. In addition to 287 deaths, 1,200 were wounded. The Games went ahead.

Mexico City 1968 was the signal for the Olympics to spiral into strife, becoming both a magnet and a convenient platform for politically extreme protest movements and, inevitably, terrorism. Munich 1972, with the slaughter of Israeli athletes held hostage by the Black September group, remains the darkest, most indelible stain on Olympic history,

There were the political boycotts of Montreal (1976), Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984). In Atlanta (1996) a bomb planted by an anti-abortion fanatic killed a young mother,and thousands of dissidents suffered in the name of the Games at the hands of the brutally repressive Chinese regime leading up to Beijing.

No one is suggesting the London riots are as appalling as those of Mexico City and Seoul. Yet the images that have gone around the world from London of burning buildings, petrol bombs, widespread looting and vandalism, police charging in riot gear, mass arrests, vigilantes armed with cricket bats, and talk of of plastic bullets and water cannon, have tragically undermined the superb work of Lord Coe and his team in getting the city into shape for the Games.

Now that same Olympic city has been despoiled by criminality and a total disregard for law and order. Perhaps the most worrying aspect of all this is the claim that London's police were under-resourced andill-prepared for such an eventuality.

One wonders how, if a form of "terrorism" from within could not be contained, they will manage should the real thing strike from the outside during the Olympics. There are 7,000 fewer police scheduled to be on duty then than were finally needed to quell the London riots.

I have always felt that staging the Olympics in one of the most socially deprived, crime-ridden areas of London, once the manor of Reggie and Ronnie Kray, was a high risk, although arguably one worth taking.

Perversely, had the terrible twins been around today, such was their known fondness for sport one imagines that the Olympics would have had some unsolicited protection, at least from vandals and looters.

The one piece of good fortune is that this has happened a year, and not a week, before the Games. At least it gives the opportunity to hold a comprehensive review of security measures rather than the somewhat smug "of course it won't happen during the Olympics" response. London will be better prepared for 2012 than it was for 2011. It has to be.

The fervent prayer is that all that is burning in London next July will be the Olympic flame, and we will be reading the Olympic Charter, not the Riot Act.

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