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London 2012 games bath
A light installation called Frequency, illuminates steam rising from the Great Bath in Bath, England. The event marks the start of the RELAYS 2012 celebration programme during the Olympic Games year. Despite elaborate planning, organizers fear that the London Olympics could be marred by protests. (Matt Cardy/Getty Images)
United Kingdom

London protesters gear up for the Olympic Games

The extent of protest leveled at London could be symptomatic of a broader problem with the games.

LONDON, UK — When Trenton Oldfield, a 35-year-old Australian activist, jumped into the icy waters of London’s Thames river last week, the ripples traveled further than he expected.

Oldfield’s unscheduled swim, which disrupted a major university rowing race, was intended to be a statement against elitist colleges. Instead it has been widely greeted as a harbinger of the protests likely to blight the Olympic Games that the UK capital will host this summer.

It also highlights battle lines being drawn ahead of the games: Bitter clashes between officialdom and opponents that observers say will see 2012 remembered not as a glorious showcase for London but as a final, desultory kick in the ribs to a dying Olympic spirit.

London’s Olympic organizers and the UK government are spending millions of dollars on security, deploying more than 23,500 personnel to safeguard against terrorism and keep out anyone seeking a platform to air grievances.

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As previous hosts have done, the UK has enacted laws ahead of the games giving police enhanced powers to apprehend protesters and prevent demonstrations from being staged anywhere near sporting venues.

But Oldfield, who says he is willing to go to prison for his actions, appears to have unwittingly exposed a chink in this armor — one that officials admit could be easily exploited.

“It just takes, and is likely to be, one idiot,” Colin Moynihan, chairman of the British Olympic Association, told the BBC after the boat race incident. “You can never get it perfect unless you remove all the crowds and nobody is going to dream of doing that."

The problem facing Olympic organizers is that, while they are unlikely to call themselves idiots, the ranks of people who would potentially wish to visit chaos upon vulnerable sporting events — or at least attempt to steal the media spotlight — are legion.

Already, multiple anti-Olympic groups are flexing their muscles.

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Earlier this week, police and bailiffs evicted several dozen people from a camp on the building site of an Olympic basketball practice center. The camp was the vanguard of what is expected to be a series of Olympic-linked sit-ins organized by the anti-capitalist Occupy group.

This week also saw the unveiling of a manifesto for a summer of protest by UK Uncut, a direct action group (loosely affiliated with Occupy) that demands that public-sector cuts be abandoned in favor of higher taxes on big business.

The group, which has been involved in high-profile acts of civil disobedience, said it had “no plans to directly disrupt” the Olympics, but will set up nationwide roadblocks to coincide with both the games and celebrations in June marking 60 years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign.

Other protesters have focused on the big name sponsors who provide essential financial backing to the sporting spectacle, but also expose its organizers to embarrassing questions over their commitments to ethics and sustainability.

Chief among these is Dow Chemical, which has been invited to sheath the Olympic stadium in an $11-million decorative wrap, much to the fury of victims of the 1984 gas leak disaster in Bhopal, India, who insist the US firm must pay compensation and fund site decontamination. The leak left thousands dead and countless more people injured.

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Both Dow — which has been linked to Bhopal since 2000 when it acquired Union Carbide, a former parent of the pesticide manufacturer blamed for killing thousands — and the games’ organizers insist the chemical giant is not responsible, and that its Olympic involvement is beyond reproach.

But campaigners in the UK and India say otherwise. Last year, disaster survivors torched an effigy of a British Olympic official on the streets of Bhopal. And in London last month, a 28,000-signature petition against Dow’s involvement was delivered to 2012 organizers.

There have been threats of further direct action against Dow and other corporate sponsors. BP was targeted this week by a cyber stunt that used a fake London 2012 website to announce the petrochemical company had been dropped as a “sustainability partner.”