It's billed as the greatest show on earth. But the closer you get to the London stadium, the more it's starting to look like a militarised occupation zone.
The Olympics are the focus of Britain's largest security mobilisation since World War 2. Soldiers are already on the streets. Around 13,500 are being deployed, more than currently in Afghanistan, along with thousands of police and private security guards. Drones will patrol the skies over the Olympic park, barricaded behind an 11-mile electrified fence and guarded with sonic weapons and 55 teams of attack dogs.
The greatest local outrage has, not surprisingly, been triggered by the decision to site surface-to-air missile batteries, with orders to shoot down any unauthorised aircraft, in six residential areas around the park. Of course, if the State hosting the Olympics is in the habit of invading and occupying other people's countries, the likelihood of terrorist attacks will increase. But the scale and visibility of the London operations go far beyond the demands of any potential threat. There are other motivations, naturally. In the words of one Whitehall official, the Olympics are a "tremendous opportunity to showcase what the private sector can do in the security space". But it's all a long way from the Olympic ideals of promoting peace, internationalism and participation through sport.
As a local resident puts it: "People round here feel that the Olympic stadium landed from another planet." Nor is it likely to attract tourists. The funding may come from public funds, but it's private corporations that are calling the shots. So it is that in London we have Coca-Cola, Cadbury's, Heineken and McDonald's sponsoring and branding a movement that is supposed to promote health in a country where one in three children is overweight or obese by the age of nine.
Compensation for the corporate and security takeover is meant to be a lasting legacy of trickle-down regeneration, jobs, housing, tourism and greater participation in sport. But the evidence shows that, with the exception of Barcelona in 1992, it never happens. In some cases, the economic impact has actually been negative. The early signs are that London is unlikely to buck the trend.
It's clear that the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) model doesn't work, even on its own terms. But as enthusiast Mark Perryman says in his new book on the Olympics, they don't have to be like this. Decentralise the games by holding them in one or more countries, he proposes, rather than a single city; increase public participation by using existing venues that maximise available tickets; move sports outside stadiums to increase the number of free-to-watch events; choose sports on the basis of their universal global accessibility; and disconnect corporate sponsors from the heart of the games by reserving the use of its five-ring symbol for community and voluntary groups.
It's too late for London to have such a games for all. And the gravy-train IOC elect will see no reason to abandon a model they do very nicely out of without serious global pressure for change.
But the Olympics, as with sport in general, holds up a mirror to society. What is being played out in London reflects a legacy of the war on terror and deregulation of unbridled corporate power — both elite blunders that have ended in failure. If those disasters can be overcome, why should it be impossible to end the corporate grip on the Olympics — and create a games that lives up to its billing?