Monday, 9 July 2012

This is what we did

Thank you to everyone who showed up and made Saturday such a beautiful and memorable and inspiring day. About 150 Fattylympians took part, rolling, spitting, spinning, and twirling.

It's hard to choose favourite moments, I just have a feeling of joy and hope about the whole thing. When I think about the day I have images of amazing beauty and loveliness in my mind. Ribbons twirling up into the sky, people singing the Anthem together, Erkan being funny and lovely, folks rolling down the hill, giggling, friends, good conversations, new people, naughty behaviour, medals, dancing, silliness, music and noise, and smiling happy people everywhere. People really really loved it and it showed.

Mostly it was an afternoon of being together, and community and politics that make you feel alive rather than shut down. I think one of the reasons for doing the Fattylympics was to create an alternative narrative that people could draw on, something that deflates the power of the official version, which is due to be rammed down our throats in a couple of weeks. I think we did that. It was so wonderful to see all kinds of people taking on the fat stuff, actively taking a stand against fat hatred, and making sense of it in their own way. I feel really proud about that.

I've been thinking about the Fattylympics on and off since 2005, when London was named as 2012 host. But as the years have passed and the reality of what the Olympics means to East London has become more apparent, the naivety of my original plan has been exposed. I haven't been able to talk about this before now because I was afraid that it would get the Fattylympics closed down. Now that the event has passed, I can be more frank.

We funded the Fattylympics ourselves through a Jumble sale. We wanted the event to be free from the outset, but it turned out that we couldn't have had the freedom to do what we did if we had sought other forms of funding. Our independence turned out to be important.

We couldn't go through the usual publicity channels. This was a big challenge. People who wanted to help were keen to go to the media, but they didn't understand the delicate situation in East London. People go a bit silly when offered media coverage, they become naive and fail to fully comprehend the extent to which mainstream media hates fat and queer people, has no interest in representing people fairly, and is more than happy to stir up Olympics shit.

LOCOG have been extremely litigious against anyone they see as infringing the intellectual property of the Games, which they want to reserve for the corporate giants who have bought the rights to use Olympics symbols. By litigious, I mean things as petty as forcing the hotel next door to paste a piece of paper over a torch illustration on their sign, closing down and threatening local companies for using copyrighted words and symbols, and there are various laws in place to repress free speech and protest (define protest how you will) about the Olympics that are being enforced, Kevin Blowe has a good list. The intrusion feels very personal and frightening. On top of this, policing in Stratford is extremely heavy at the moment, with many stop and searches going on, some anti-terrorist raids, and the on-going criminalisation of black and Asian youth. See the Newham Monitoring Project for more about that. Furthermore, there is a surge in private security contracting and the area is being militarised, with surface-to-air missiles stationed on the tower of a gated community in Bow. This is all in a context of repressive policing following last years summer riots and the upswing in public protest thanks to a government that hates the poor and loves the rich (not to mention a baseline rhetoric of nationalism and winning at all costs).

We had realistic fears that we would be closed down if LOCOG, the police, or the council got wind of us. We would have been able to get some mileage out of their suppression of peaceful protest, and the fact that we framed the Fattylympics as a satire, but we didn't want any trouble at all. This meant that we couldn't risk using mainstream media for publicity.

For the most part this was fine. The Fattylympics was a weird event that fused fat activism and anti-Olympics protest using prankishness and buffoonery. Fat activism is completely unknown to most people, it's regarded as little more than a joke, which is annoying but which also enables us to do things fairly unnoticed. Who'd believe that a bunch of fatties could do anything radical?

Closer to the day things started to change. A woman from "the Chinese equivalent of the BBC" pestered me and Kay, and threatened to turn up on the day with a film crew, whilst implying that we would be stupid to turn down this wonderful opportunity (Louise Beaumont of Blakeway Productions Ltd, a Ten Alps company, you are truly a piece of work). The Telegraph lifted quotes from the blog without warning or permission and published a snotty article. They ignored the notice to journalists to leave us alone. Once that was out more media started to harass us. We began to worry that photographers would come and take headless fatty pictures to sell to photo agencies. It was and is important to us that we make the Fattylympics a happy space where people could mess about without interference, especially given that fat people take a lot of shit for just daring to exist. We worried that we would not be able to do this, and made plans in case we had to stop everything.

Ultimately reporter Jill Foster and photographer Mike Lawn, who sold their work to The Daily Mail, came and sneaked around like cowards, and published a sarcastic story and pictures of people without their consent. Their report is plainly stupid but it is upsetting to know that they were there with their own unethical and silent agenda built on the backs of people's openness and trust. This is abusive. If people want to make a case through the Press Complaints Commission, or contact the National Union of Journalists (they may be members), we will support you.

Kay and I took steps to question people taking photographs, we asked people to be vigilant, but there was no way we could police the whole event, and we did not want to create an atmosphere of suspicion. In any case, Jill Foster and Mike Lawn would probably have lied or been evasive had we confronted them. As the Leveson enquiry has shown, they work for companies that will do anything to get a story, and I don't know what else we could have done to eject them. Perhaps we could have warned people more? I don't know. I sincerely apologise to anyone whose picture turned up in the Daily Mail, I'm sorry that we could not keep you safe.

So these were the pressures under which we produced this event. The Fattylympics took a lot of work to pull together because we had to make it very personal and go through friends and networks. We struggled because, by a twist of fate that emerged too late for us to change the date, it took place on the same day as Pride and meant that we could not rely on people in the queer community to show up. We approached but were fairly ignored by arts communities in East London, who didn't get what we were doing at all. The anti-Olympics movement here is suffering from the effects of heavy-handed policing. It took a bit of work to show that we were sincere, though there were still people who didn't get it and treated us like a joke. I mean, we are a joke, we are pranksters, but we are also protesters, and we have politics. Even then, people's fatphobia and possibly their homophobia meant that we could not rely on those networks to support us, though they wanted us to support them!

By work I mean working evenings and weekends to tell people about the event, constant emailing, writing for the blog, making things, encouraging people to get involved, wrangling volunteers, the space, the stalls, the events, the food, various people, problems, annoyances and so on. It took about six months to pull together, and a couple of years before that to talk through what we wanted to do. When people say to us: "You must do another one!" or "Come to our town and do one there!" they are ignoring the phenomenal work that we put into this event, as though we could just pull it out of the hat just for them at any other time, as though it happened by magic. We don't want to do this work again, we are exhausted. You do the work if you want things to happen, we are happy to help you. And amidst this work we were taking a lot of risks in relation to LOCOG and the culture of Olympics protest suppression in Stratford, whilst trying to make something beautiful and free that would encourage people to feel really happy. People, this was a stressful thing to pull off.

But this is what we achieved:
  • We created an afternoon of sheer joy where nobody got arrested and the worst thing that happened is that a couple of mean people came and were mean
  • We produced a public protest in a culture that is doing its best to suppress dissent
  • We developed an experimental model for how people might organise and protest in repressive circumstances
  • We made a protest that articulated some of the complexities of why the Olympics are problematic, and generated dynamic intersections between anti-Olympics protest and fat activism, disability activism, DIY culture, performance, queer stuff, and so on
  • We made beautiful things: the torches, the medals, Egg'n'Spoon, the gym knickers, the colouring-in, the posters and street art, and all the rest of it
  • We made a protest that attracted diverse people, and which was supported by people internationally
  • We produced an event that was free, independent, a lot of fun
  • We imagined something lovely and unlikely, we made it real, we did it collectively, and we totally got away with it

There will be a few more posts, including pictures and maybe some video, before this website becomes an online archive of the event.

I invite people to share their recollections of the day here.

I will be offering the objects that people made for the Fattylympics to an institutional archive sympathetic to the Fattylympics values. It is important that these objects are cared for into the future and made available to people through archives and exhibitions rather than remaining in my private hands. I think they are culturally important artefacts that could be useful to other people, and which form a visual archive of evidence in themselves that challenge the dominant rhetoric surrounding the Olympics.

I am retiring from putting on big events for people. Kay and I and other key organisers have had a good run with The Fat of the Land, the Big Bum Jumble, and the Fattylympics. We have ideas for other kinds of projects that are less stressful and risky, and are happy to support people who want to build on our work, but for now, that's all. Thanks to everyone that has supported us over the years.


  1. I've organised some events in the past (mostly bi stuff), and I can totally sympathise with your decision to back out of stressful stuff now. I would usually get access to community pots of money and wouldn't be fighting such a behemoth of a corporation, and I would still find it stressful beyond words.

    The event was AMAZING. Thankyou so much. It was one of the most truly radical and powerful events I have been to. I hope you can take with you how damn awesome it was, and ignore the petty little shits who snipe.

  2. Thank You so much for your hard work, I see/read what an awful lot of stress you were all under and I can only give a heartfelt thanks for making it all happen despite this.

    It was a fab day, and the ideas/thoughts and positive energy will live on for a long time.

    I myself came to Fattylympics to charge some of my own organising batteries, after creating 'protest' events highlighting the lack of Queer DIY culture and art at this years World Pride.

    And I left your event with a smile and a belly full of lovely food. So, THANK YOU again!

  3. Firstly I want to congratulate you on running a successful event, getting 150 people to turn up for an event like this is amazing, in spite of conflicts with pride (which to be honest would probably be minimal) and the constant threat of rain.

    Quite aside from some inconsistencies in the above post it’s a shame you needed to undermine what was apparently a positive experience for everyone that attended (even the Daily Mail article, while full of terrible writing is actually quite positive and everyone looks amazing and happy in the photographs) with vaguely passive aggressive public whining about the organization of it. You staged a free public event! You had help from friends! Lots of people turned up! Everyone enjoyed it! You got attention and press coverage (you don’t get to stage a free public event and then complain when there’s interest from the public, if lack of control was likely to be a problem you should have staged it indoors and ticketed it. Also if you have a problem with the blog being quoted by other sources maybe you shouldn’t have creative commons listed as one of the things that you “dig”) for your cause! This is all immensely positive stuff!

    By all means write an article critiquing the Olympic machine. Or critiquing Pride even. But accept that running DIY events takes time and energy. That’s part and parcel of the experience and should be one of the things that makes it all worthwhile when everything pulls together and works as well as this event did. Otherwise it just looks like ungrateful trolling for sympathy and wanting to bask in the attention without doing any of the graft. I wish you all the best for your future endeavours.

  4. Other people might want to pretend that everything went smoothly in order to protect people's memories of the day. My choice was to give more context for the event so that, if other people want to produce things in the future, they won't make the same mistakes we did.

    Anonymous, although you say you wish us the best, the tone of your message is pretty heartless.