The 30th London Olympiad was held on the fifth anniversary of the credit crunch, against the backdrop of economic uncertainties, Eurozone turmoil and predictions of a long, slow financial recovery. The past seven years of Olympic planning has also taken place during a period when we’ve witnessed the end of the debt-fuelled boom, the riots in England, calls for Scottish independence, the defeat of New Labour and the rise to power of a Conservative-Liberal Democratic coalition.
In many ways it was a period reminiscent of the last Olympics held in London, in 1948, which were known as the austerity games. London 2012, it was widely claimed, presented an opportunity for the British public, and indeed much of the rest of the world, to momentarily forget the economic gloom that surrounded us.
In the end, Britain staged a showcase of human endeavour, delivering one of the largest post-war public works mega-projects. London was transformed, with events staged in locations such as Horse Guards Parade and Greenwich Park, presenting the capital in a telegenic light, an inspired global marketing pitch from an economy desperate for growth. After an uncertain start, an attitude of national pride and even sentimental patriotism pervaded.
Having been granted access to photograph the Olympics by the International Olympic Committee, Roberts’ photographs take in not just the sporting spectacle itself, but all its surrounding cultural, economic and political vistas. His perspective is somewhat oblique compared with the plethora of sports photographs we see from such events; they explore the relationship between the public and the athletes, putting them in the context of the built environment and the wider social issues thrown up by hosting such a thoroughly modern spectacle. The drama is not the image of Usain Bolt crossing the finishing line but the alternative narratives; photographs of how we congregate, how such a complex logistical exercise is staged, the assertion of national identities and the backdrop of the British landscape.