Monday 16 September 2013

The pen is mightier than the javelin?

safe and secure Olympic Games?

Summer Olympic Games have been called ‘sport mega-events’ due to their huge scale.  They take place in large capital cities and are generally considered as immensely important occasions, for which massive security operations are mounted. Malcolm N. MacDonald and Duncan Hunter were interested in investigating the language used to describe the security operation surrounding the London 2012 Games and to do this they considered the distinctive linguistic features used in Olympic security documents.

They analysed 176 online documents from 11 UK institutes involved in the security for the 2012 Games.  They found that the Games were made to seem exceptional through certain linguistic devices.  For example, superlative adjectives were often used to stress just how important and unique the Games were:

The London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games will be the largest sporting event in UK history … It will involve the biggest peacetime security operation ever undertaken in the UK.

These adjectives give a very definite idea of sheer size and scale.  As well as this, they found that a recurrent theme in the texts was the impact the Games would have on different security sectors, such as

 The Olympics are the biggest peacetime operation … there will be an impact on policing during 2012’

The phrase ‘safety and security’ was found to be used 132 times in just 12 texts. It seems to be used emblematically to suggest the main goal of the security operation.  For example:

The Government has made safety and security at the Games a top priority …

The phrase occurs 254 times in the texts and is often found with other words such as strategy, programme, delivery and operation, as evidenced in the following example:

 delivery of Games safety and security compatible with the broader Games operation.

It is also used in its adjectival form ‘safe and secure’, usually in front of the word ‘Games’.  The researchers surmised that the phrase is deliberately used to join the positive connotations of ‘safety’ with the more problematic concept of ‘security’, making ‘security’ in turn seem more positive.  The phrase was used so often in the texts analysed, almost repetitively at times, that as well as stressing the necessity of the conjoined concepts, they also appeared as ‘real’ rather than as abstract concepts.

In the texts, prospective visitors to the Games were often addressed directly in the second person (you) and presented in a passive position, as just seeing things, whilst the security agents were much more ‘active’:
 you will see security measures at and around the venues … We will use familiar methods that are proven to work … you will see …security guards … who will all have a role in security at the Games

Visitors are often ordered to do things in the texts, being addressed with imperative verb forms as in
Aim to arrive at the Olympic Park around two hours before… and Make sure you’re in your seat at least 30 minutes before… They are generally spoken of as being somehow controlled. 

The texts use the noun threat very frequently, often along with the noun terrorist, as in The greatest threat to the security of the 2012 Olympic Games is terrorism.  Interestingly, although all the texts incite the fear of a threat, this is never actually attributed to a particular person or group of people.  Instead, it is closely linked with the abstract notion of ‘terrorism’ in general.

MacDonald and Hunter feel that there is a political agenda behind the use of language in the texts that they studied.  Between 2001 and 2011 Europe and USA experienced five major terrorist attacks. In consequence many documents have been written which, although they are designed to allay the fear of a terrorist attack, actually do the opposite by making the reader feel powerless before this supposed ‘threat’ to an event that is presented as exceptionally important.  In the researchers’ eyes, this provides an excuse to mount huge security operations in whichever major city may be hosting the sporting event.  They conclude that such undemocratic, almost dictator–like behaviour, revealed through language use, is actually anti-democratic and ironically goes against the inclusive nature of the Olympic spirit.

So maybe whoever said ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ was right?
MacDonald, Malcolm N. and Hunter, Duncan (2013) The discourse of Olympic security: London 2012.  Discourse and Society 24 (1): 66-88.

doi.  10.1177/0957926512474148

This summary was written by Gemma Stoyle

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