Wiff-Waff for the Riff Raff – Olympic Notes No. 6

Under the cleverly constructed heading, ‘Wiff Waff for the Riff Raff’, I recently received’ a request for a donation towards a bid to win some Olympics table tennis tickets for some youngsters in a hard up community table tennis club. For those unaware, ‘wiff-waff’ was the original name for ping pong, which itself eventually gave way to the more sober sounding table tennis, and it was wiff-waff that Boris Johnson bizarrely referred to in the closing ceremonies in Beijing. Behind this wonderfully astute touch of self deprecating humour lies a deadly serious point of contention. Why is it that our sporting youngsters have to go begging for the money to get a foot inside the Olympic circus when thousands of top class tickets are freely distributed to every two-bit VIP and corporate tax avoiding criminal?

he answer is self evident of course. The modern Olympic Games would be better named the Global Corporate Games, because that is exactly what they have become with any trace of the original Olympic Corinthian spirit long ago being jettisoned in favour of the big buck. The chances of London’s lowly paid working class, let alone the huge impoverished unemployed underclass, getting into the Olympic arena are close to zero.

While rereading John Pilger’s compelling essay on the fate of the Australian Aborigines during the Sydney 2000 Olympics, I was reminded that the dispossessed the world over were never intended to play any part in the modern Olympic Games other than to be an embarrassment to the host nation. Athens, Sydney, Beijing, London or Rio; the homeless, the unemployed and the vast army of poorly paid workers in the great game of corporate globalism need not apply.’ A few token gestures are invariably made, but don’t expect the Olympic Games or any other of the great sporting road-shows to be festivals of working class public involvement ‘ all the best seats are already reserved for the new global elite.

Pilger’s account of the Sydney Games is a damning one. Anyone who has had first hand experience of the plight of Australia’s indigenous people will not be surprised but even so, Pilger’s journalism still has the power to move even the hardest, most cynical amongst us. Pilger prefaces his essay, ‘The Chosen Ones’ with two diametrically contrasting quotes. The first is the typical Aussie fairytale that so many European Australians love to tell themselves, this version coming from the Prime Minister himself.

“There is something special about being an Australian. That Australian spirit, that capacity for mateship that allows us to pull together in times of challenge and times of adversity is something special.”

Compare that nonsense, which totally ignores the two centuries of adversity that the indigenous peoples of Australia have had to endure, with the following indictment from Professor Colin Tatz of the Genocide Studies Centre in Sydney who claims,

“If there was a race between democratic nations to see who could best address the violation of the human rights of its original people, Australia would be coming stone motherless last.”

Having set up the parameters for his essay, Pilger proceeds to indict White Australia for its appalling record on coming to terms with the genocide that was carried out by the British colonial authorities in the 18th and 19th centuries and how that record continued to make itself felt in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Pilger’s essay resonates because it is true. Every time I visit Australia I never fail to be shocked at how little has changed in the communities of the indigenous Australians. It doesn’t change because European Australia still will not come to terms with the deliberate genocide that was carried out in its name. Quoting Professor Tatz, we learn,

“Very few Australians use the word genocide. Almost all historians of the aboriginal experience ‘ black or white ‘ avoid it. They write about pacifying, cleansing, excluding, exterminating, starving, poisoning, shooting, beheading, sterilising, exiling, removing ‘ but avoid genocide. Are they ignorant of genocide theory and practise? Or simply reluctant to taint ‘the land of fair go’, the ‘lucky country’, with so heinous a label?”

Pilger confirms this state of denial by highlighting the desperate attempts by the Australian Government to keep the aboriginal question at a safe and tightly controlled distance.

As the Olympic Games approached, the Federal and NSW Governments began to show signs of panic. With the opening ceremony three weeks away, the Howard Government responded to yet another damning United Nations report on Aboriginal health by banning visits by UN human rights inspectors and declaring it would no longer appear before UN human rights committees. The Australian Attorney General described the issues of discrimination raised by the UN as ‘minor, marginal issues’. Australian Olympic Committee officials, who had allowed Aboriginal activists to set up an ‘indigenous cultural pavilion near the main stadium, now demanded they sign a contract banning political speeches, demonstrations and marches on the site during the games. The director General of the Olympic Co-ordination Authority threatened ‘sanctions’ if the ‘special conditions’ were contravened and warned that the authority reserves the right to review the text of all material on display other that text describing works of art.

Pilger offers a particularly revealing scenario that is no doubt re-enacted in every Olympic host city. The particularities may change but the contempt for the dispossessed is constant. Pilger recalls:

On one junket to Sydney, the wife of an IOC delegate spotted a black man playing a didgeridoo at Circular Quay, where he is a tourist fixture.

“Who’s that?” she enquired.
“An Aborigine,” replied one of her hosts.
“Really? Where are the rest of them?”
“Er, in the outback.'”

Pilger then explains

“Sydney has a large Aboriginal ghetto, a five minute limo drive away. It is easily distinguished from the rest of the city by an oppressive police presence. The Aboriginal Legal Service tried to interest the IOC in visiting an Australia they had not seen, the one behind the postcard, but there was little time and the atmosphere was not conducive.’ Anyone who threatens Sydney’s bid had better watch out! declared the New South Wales government minister responsible for the Olympics.”

Don’t be surprised if similar draconian threats start appearing in the UK as the London Olympics gets closer should anyone dare raise their voices against government austerity measures, bankers bonuses, corporate tax avoidance or foreign wars. Don’t imagine either that the anti war protesters outside Parliament will be around for too much longer. Nothing must stand in the way of a happy and grateful nation uniting together to enjoy a corporate global sporting spectacular. Riff raff from the nation’s deteriorating housing estates need not apply.

It is not too late to address the problem of disenfranchisement. Distribute free tickets to every sporting club in the country as a counter balance to VIP corporate backhanders. That way the ‘riff raff’ might just get a chance to see this ‘once in a life time’ sporting extravaganza. But don’t hold your breath. You’d have more chance robbing your local bank than waiting for Lord Coe to come up with anything so practical. ‘

NB If you read nothing else this year, get yourself a copy of Pilger’s, The New Rulers of the World, Verso Press 2002 where his ‘The Chosen Ones’ essay sits surprisingly well alongside his other brilliant journalistic exposures of the neo-colonialism in Indonesia, Iraq and Afghanistan and elsewhere.

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