A mistake of Olympic proportions


Hamish Birrell investigates the hubris surrounding the London Olympics

In the heady days of the summer of 2005 Lord Coe promised us “the best Games the world has ever seen”, going on to declare “we have the opportunity to change people’s lives, we have the opportunity to change this city and to change the face of British sport forever”.

These promises are now starting to ring a little hollow. We are lucky it is no longer the tradition that the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC’s) President, upon delivering the closing speech, declares the past games the best ever. It would be mortifying to watch some Belgian bureaucrat mumble into the microphone, in front of the gaze of the world, that our Olympics were better than Beijing’s because, put simply, they won’t be.

Despite spending £12 billion on the Games, more than the government’s proposed welfare cuts, our Olympics won’t be in the same league as China’s. Those who have trundled past the dormant Olympic Stadium on the train will know it looks singularly uninspiring, devoid of the wrap that was to have provided its character, we are left with a damp squib.

Unfortunately, this stadium could reflect our Olympics. We only need to look at the Beijing Olympics’ handover ceremony to see how poor attempts to portray London’s culture end up being.

London’s glory lies in its diversity – any attempt to define its essence in a series of dance moves, video montages or celebrities is doomed to failure. A former “rock-star”, a reality TV contestant and a mode of transport don’t begin to do justice to the sheer vibrancy of our capital city.

But at least we will be saved from actually having to watch this embarrassment. The prices revealed last week are extortionate and beyond the means of most families. You’ll have to pay a fortune unless you want to sit in a rubbish seat watching an early round of the modern pentathlon – surely a fate any sane person would seek to avoid.

Yet the problems with the Olympics run much deeper than the month-long period when the facilities will actually be used – the legacy we have been promised, which, according to Coe, “will transform this city” – is based upon some truly appalling logic.

Yes, the Olympics will create thousands of jobs. And yes, they will make much of the East End a far more attractive place. But so would any vast influx of government spending into a particular area. The question we must ask, is whether this is an efficient method of stimulating development. And the answer? A resounding no.

Sports venues are only used for a short period of time, at most once a week, and whilst they may attract vast crowds to an area when used, these crowds aren’t high spenders; dodgy burgers and the occasional t-shirt aren’t going to fuel the regeneration of an area. Yet they create a litany of other problems – making the areas surrounding stadiums hugely unpleasant places to live, you only have to look at Wembley and the Emirates Stadium to see this in effect.

We must not be naive. The money spent on the Olympics could just have easily been spent elsewhere – we are paying for these jobs and facilities to be created, and we should ensure our money is spent efficiently. Why not invest in hospitals or even shopping centres? These would ensure a steady flow of people into an area and provide year-round rather than part-time employment. We should reject the cheap rhetoric of politicians and bureaucrats who parrot the official message that the Olympics will regenerate East London, and demand they acknowledge this gaping hole in their argument.

Many would argue that this inefficiency is actually the price to pay for hosting the world’s greatest sporting festival. If so, this is disgraceful. No party should cost this much, especially not one taxpayers are footing the bill for. We must not forget the silent minority (majority even?) who don’t care about sport, who have little interest in watching men and women prance about in spandex, and who will be massively inconvenienced by the Games. They too will have their roads and flight-paths closed for the IOC mandarinate and they too will have to foot the bill for this colossus state-fuelled mess.

Yet what is more dispiriting than any of the above is the lack of opposition to the Olympics, aside from the odd parliamentary grumble.

Canadians, in reaction to having the Winter Olympics hoisted upon them, reacted in style. In the lead-up to the Vancouver Games they donned their balaclavas and caused chaos. Whilst I’m not advocating violent protest, a peaceful protest or two certainly wouldn’t go amiss.

So lets not sleepwalk into these Games – we must wake up to the reality of the situation, however upsetting it is to acknowledge. These Olympics are inefficient, inexcusable and, above all, unaffordable.