Saturday, 28 July 2012

Olympics: the real G4S scandal

Twenty-years ago I worked for the BBC at the Olympics.

It was a great job – almost a month in Barcelona, what’s not to like – but it also opened my eyes to what the Olympics are all about. Up until then, like most people, I assumed the Olympic Games were a showcase for physical attainment and the pursuit of human achievement through sport, not to mention the breaking-down of racial and national barriers by bringing together people from around the globe to compete as equals in the Olympian spirit.

I was wrong. The Olympics are about money.

In Barcelona I was told how the games could not go ahead without funding from global corporations (mainly headquartered in the US) and American television networks, which was why major events, such as the 100m final, were scheduled to accommodate US time-zones and TV audiences.

The power of American TV channels was brought home to me through what, at first, appeared a very minor matter. The Olympic media centre was a vast air-conditioned building on the Gran Via de les Corts Catalanes in the centre of Barcelona and each broadcaster was allocated a stance in nearby streets where staff could be picked-up and dropped off. As it turned out, the BBC was allocated a stance in a back street that happened to be right next to what was effectively the ‘back door’ to the media centre. NBC, one of the two big American channels, apparently objected to the fact the BBC had a better stance to theirs – i.e. NBC staff had to walk slightly further from their transport to the entrance – which resulted in BBC drivers being told to park elsewhere and leave the stance free for NBC to use. The Americans called the shots, to the extent that an armed Barcelona policeman was subsequently stationed at the stance to make sure the BBC didn’t continue to use it. Seriously!

Security was also very tight at all Olympic venues. I will never forget the night of the closing ceremony. There were tanks on the streets of Barcelona. Military tanks! I can remember wondering what they expected to happen that might require the use of tanks in response.

Thankfully, the tanks were not required, and I hope the same can be said of the rocket-launchers currently located on the roofs of buildings in London.

Of course, there will be at least one major difference between security twenty-years ago in Barcelona and the situation at London 2012. In Barcelona, when entering or leaving venues or media centres, our accreditation was checked by Olympic staff, not soldiers.

The farce created by G4S, a private contractor, has meant squaddies just returned from active service in Afghanistan are having to carry out security duties in London rather than spending time with their families. The next time a Tory MP starts repeating the capitalist mantra about how much better the private sector is compared to the public sector, let’s hope there is an off-duty soldier nearby who can forcefully tap ‘G4S’ onto the Tory’s forehead in morse code.

G4S failed to deliver the 10,000 security personnel required through the contract it signed with LOCOG (London Olympic Games Organising Committee), which means it will forfeit some of the £284m the company was due to receive for its Olympic work. Apparently, though, despite its abject failure, G4S does not intend to reduce its ‘management fee’ of £125m.

Incredibly, against this background, Lord Smith, Chairman of the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, last week said there was nothing that could be done to prevent G4S from submitting a tender to carry out security operations in two years time. It would appear that, in the capitalist free-market, even complete incompetence does not exclude a private company from fleecing the public purse.

Perhaps, though, Lord Smith might like to note a recent decision by the European Parliament, which declined to renew a contract with G4S that had seen the company provide security at parliament buildings.

The European Parliament’s decision came after it was revealed that G4S currently provides ‘security’ services in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. Most countries, including the UK, accept Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land is illegal.

In addition to security staff within commercial premises in illegal Jewish settlements, G4S also provides and maintains screening equipment at several West Bank check-points staffed by the Israeli military, and is responsible for security systems at the Ofer complex near Ramallah, which houses a jail and a court where Palestinian detainees, including children, are held and tried.

G4S also has contracts to provide and service perimeter security systems and control rooms at jails inside Israel. It is known that these jails house Palestinian detainees, which is a breach of the Fourth Geneva Convention’s prohibition on the transfer of prisoners from occupied territories.

In its company accounts, G4S posted revenue of £120m accruing from its contracts in Israel and occupied Palestinian land.

While it continues to operate in illegally occupied Palestinian territory, G4S should be an international pariah. While it continues to provide security for the State of Israel at Palestinian check-points, Israeli police facilities and jails, G4S should be barred from bidding for any publicly-funded contracts in the UK.

The company’s activities in Israel and occupied Palestine should have seen it excluded from tendering for the contract to provide security services at the London Olympics, and should result in those organising the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow issuing a public statement that G4S need not apply.

Maybe it’s time the Olympic Games (and the Commonwealth Games) tried to refocus on what sporting events should really be about – striving to be the best through honest endevour.

Meanwhile, we are left with the conclusion that money does indeed corrupt: how else could an organisation supposedly adhering to the highest ideals end up awarding a contract to a company that administers illegally-occupied land and helps to incarcerate children?

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