Intervention – The London Olympics: Urban Geopolitics

Marijn Nieuwenhuisby Marijn Nieuwenhuis, University of Warwick

As the London Olympics 2012 draw to a final close and the city returns to its quotidian routine it is perhaps time to analyse some of the long-term impacts the Games could have on the geopolitics of the city. This article will analyse how the drastic spatial reorganisation of the city, as a result of the ‘exceptional’ event of the Games, exposes some more broader and worrying trends in the increasingly politicised relationship between being and space.

Despite the strenuous efforts of the International Olympic Committee and the British Government to depoliticise the event, before the first contest had begun the Olympics had been described as ‘the most political’ since the infamous 1936 Summer Olympiad in Berlin. British and international press outlets (e.g. BBC 2012a; The Guardian 2012; NBC 2012; Russia Today 2012) were filled with news on the unprecedented involvement of the military, the participation of private security firms, and, of course, the infamous ‘surface-to-air missile’ defence system’ on London rooftops.

The motto of London 2012 – ‘inspire a generation’ – was cynical at best and sinister at worst. Who was the generation the slogan referred to and, perhaps more important, where were they? The Games were most certainly exclusionary in social terms but they also promoted a spatial fragmentation of the city. Carefully planned and policed ‘Brand Exclusion Zones’ were introduced not only in London but also in other British cities (BBC 2012b) to make sure that the Games would inspire a generation. Police and military involvement was accordingly employed to guarantee that inspiration was channelled most effectively. At other times such involvement was mobilised to ensure that unwanted segments of the generation would not spoil the inspiration of their peers. ‘Suddenly’ there was the realisation that a dystopian militarisation scenario was closer than ever before in post-war Britain. The ‘state of exception’ – which for many in the underprivileged parts of London and Britain is really no longer an exception – brought about by the Olympics was said to justify such extraordinarily high social costs.

The fact that the event has been labelled as the ‘biggest peacetime security operation in British history’ should give further food for thought to those that still so readily employ clearly demarcated divisions between areas and situations of war and peace. The militarisation of London also once again reminds us of the fact that war and the city have throughout time shared an intimate relationship. The latter forms the social-spatial construct of collective everydayness and is as such “the definitive human place” while war is characterised by the “consciously prosecuted occasion of collective violence that destroys places” (Graham 2004: 2). Modern warfare is, however, no longer (if it ever was) solely about ‘destruction’ in and for itself but is instead first and foremost about the controlling or securing of territory. Urban spaces are increasingly ‘securitised’ through ever more advanced Foucauldian ‘technologies of power’ in which detailed knowledge of territory becomes increasingly advanced and strategically essential. This is particularly the case with regards to the knowledge contained within maps.

London was during the Olympics placed under quarantine through territorial policing units such as the so-called ‘Territorial Support Group’ (TSG)[i] which employed carefully zoned cartographies of control (see Figure 1) to ‘securitise’ the area against unwanted ‘dangers’ that could disrupt the functioning of this mega event. Maps have in fact for centuries served as the potent means and favourite instruments of those in power to collect “information relevant to state control of the conduct of its subject population”. As such they aid in “the direct supervision of that conduct” (Webster and Robins, quoted in Harley 2009: 130). Strategic maps such as those employed by the TSG contain explicit territorial knowledge of the space in which people travel and dwell. Such knowledge is consequentially used to pursue political interests such as those set out in Rule 50 of the Olympic Charter which demands from sovereign governments that “[n]o kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in any Olympic sites, venues or other areas” (ICO 2011: 91).

Figure 1Figure 1: The map (available at: has the title ‘Total Policing’ inscribed at the bottom which has been the Metropolitan Police’s new strategy ever since the student protests in 2011

Freedom of movement and the right to protest was temporarily suspended during the Olympics but it was ensured that this ‘exception’ of the law did “not include activity that promotes or advertises a good or service” (DCMS 2011b: 79). This recommendation was mentioned in a report drafted by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport which went as far as imposing clothing requirements for visitors to the Olympic venues to prevent so-called ‘ambush marketing’ campaigns. The means to ‘inspire a generation’ were technically effectuated through the drawing of territorial borders and the creation of zones of exception (see Figure 2). The British government and a number of for-profit entities reacted (predictably) positively to the report and almost no mention was made about the issue of rights. The government and its stakeholders seemed instead more concerned about the “unlawful pedlars and charity collectors operating unregulated within the zone” (DCMS 2011a:11), ‘ambush-marketing’ (a key phrase used often), and generally protecting “sponsors’ investments” (DCMS 2001a: 12). The report stated in rather explicit terms that the suspension of rights was justified as follows: “The Games are a once-in-a-lifetime occasion and it is reasonable for the Government to enact measures to facilitate the staging of the Games, even where those measures necessitate a limited and temporary interference with individuals’ rights” (DCMS 2011b: 92)[ii].

Figure 2Figure 2: Map for advertising and trade restrictions for Wimbledon. The objective of such maps is “to ensure: that the Games have a consistent look and feel across London and the UK; that the Games’ sponsors are able to achieve appropriate brand exposure and are protected against ambush marketing; that spectators and those participating in the Games can access venues easily and safely” (see This and other maps are available at

Maps played a central role to technically enable such a legal suspension of rights. Demarcations were drawn which legally affected the bodies of those located in these special areas. Spatial control through such cartographic means is an important part of the Met’s new ‘total policing’ strategy in which territorial policing has become a core component. The newly created ‘Territorial Policing Development Programme’ which in early 2010 was established as the “[Metropolitan Police Service’s] largest Key Change Programme” (London Assembly 2012: 1) is a good example of the important role of territory in the total policing approach. The programme is said to explore:

all aspects of territorial policing, from total demand for services to our response to emergency and non emergency calls, from intelligence and investigation capabilities to detention and criminal justice processes, from safer neighbourhood policing to customer service and satisfaction” (Metropolitan Police 2011: 25).

Detailed information about the spaces in which humans exist has become pivotal for policing in London. The London Olympics have provided the ‘state of emergency’ (Agamben 2005) which allowed for an extraordinary suspension of rights in the spaces of the city. The supposed temporal nature of this suspension is, however, questionable given the increasing political priority that the policing of territory receives. The means through which this is achieved have rather unambiguously placed the spatial dimensions of biopolitics at the fore of discussions on the workings of power.

“[A]ll of a sudden”, Graham (2004: 12) notes, “it seems normal for Western cities to face a palpable militarization previously more common in cities of the global South”. This emphasis on ‘suddenness’ is perhaps misleading given that this state of affairs has for decades been internalised by those living in not-so ‘exceptional’ areas that have long been demarcated and labelled as ‘no-go’ or banlieue. The gradual privatisation and militarisation of the urban, justified by exceptional events such as the London Olympics but also the London protests, have a direct and long-lasting impact on the urban environment. These environmental changes are more fundamental than we might think given that the conditions for life itself start in space.

Marijn is a PhD student at the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Warwick.


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[i] For more information on the TSG, see their website:

[ii] The report goes on to justify this suspension and argues: “It is legitimate in a democratic society to take steps to protect commercial investments which have a public interest element to them. In this case, the social benefits of the Games could not be achieved without such commercial investments” (DCMS 2011b: 93).