Olympics: Let the real Games begin

Good news for London – but a pity that the bid relied on sustainababble rather than sporting excellence.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

London has been declared the winner in the race to hold the 2012 Olympic Games. This is great news for Londoners and for sport – but some of the ideas behind London’s bid do not augur well for a celebration of excellence.

London, one of the few places that really can be called a ‘world city’, is an entirely appropriate place to hold a global sports event. As it goes, Paris would have been just as good a host, an assessment clearly demonstrated by the closeness of the final vote, 54 to 50. Since I live in London, I can take a little selfish pleasure in having this feast of sport on my doorstep.

But while London has clearly been able to convince the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that it can provide world-class facilities, the terms on which the bid was presented suggest a less than Olympian approach to development.

The most important theme of the bid was that the Olympics will provide regeneration – that the IOC in choosing London would leave a legacy of better living conditions for people in the East End. That’s true, but why should the provision of good housing and other urban improvements be dependent on winning the Olympics?

Not that the regeneration will be nearly as thorough as Londoners would hope. The one single improvement to the city that would be welcomed by all would be the overhaul of the transport network. Yet improvements to the London Underground have been delayed for years by arguments over funding, and there are now reports that the work is running behind even the revised schedule. The Crossrail scheme, a new east-west link, has been held up for over a decade. Even if final approval is received soon, it won’t be ready for 2012.

The London bid proposed a transport scheme that piggybacks on the high-speed Channel Tunnel Rail Link. This could be fantastically efficient during the Games, but provides no long-term answer to the day-to-day problems faced by commuters. So much for a legacy.

All of this regeneration will be qualified by a much bigger idea – sustainability. London mayor Ken Livingstone set out a detailed ‘Green Compact’ in 2003, committing a London Games to making the environment a primary consideration. Anyone who knows east London will agree that much of it could do with a good cleanup. But the obsession with the environment will raise the cost of the Games, with marginal benefit to Londoners. It also guarantees that every step will be tied up in environmental risk assessments, making the whole process far more tortuous than it need be.

If sustainability were not enough to convince IOC delegates, the Disneyfied final London presentation in Singapore added the additional emotional blackmail of children. ‘What came over in our presentation is that the Olympics is about giving kids a chance – this is about kids’, said Livingstone after the result was announced.

Never mind providing elite athletes with the opportunity for dramatic competition to stretch the boundaries of human ability. The bid reduced the Olympics to a pick-me-up for the capital’s youngsters. It’s also patronising to young people. The existence of adult sporting excellence on their doorstep isn’t considered enough to inspire them. Instead, our leaders will insist on funding all sorts of programmes to encourage kids to get active for reasons that have nothing to do with sport at all, from fighting obesity to cutting crime.

We should never have doubted London’s ability to win this contest, for Britain is the home of the funding application culture. When grants are handed down from the multiplicity of ministries and quangos devoted to state-sponsored philanthropy, applicants are required to tick all sorts of boxes on the environment, social inclusion and wider educational purpose. London’s team merely had to take this bureaucratic experience and translate it on to the world stage.

The problem with this approach is that any worthwhile project, whether it is a sports facility or a museum, must be shaped to suit the defining political ideas of the age – even if these are irrelevant or even contradictory to the original spirit of the project.

This contradiction is crystal clear in London’s winning bid and the changing nature of the Games in recent years. The Olympics suggests a society striving forward, constantly pursuing progress; sustainability implies settling for what we have. The Olympics identifies the elite of humanity; the Paralympics divides human beings into narrow groups based on disability, so that all shall have prizes. True excellence is obliterated. The Olympics requires effort to the limits of endurance, often to a point that would threaten health; but the Games will be another excuse to promote the idea of moderate exercise for all.

Excited as Londoners should be that the Games are coming here, we have good reason to be worried. The last time the Blair government got its hands on a big idea – the millennium – it built an architecturally interesting Dome, filled it with the half-baked crap of our age, while spending a fortune in the process. It has taken them years to find a lasting use for the Dome.

The Olympics may be too great an idea for even Tony Blair and Ken Livingstone to screw up. But watch them try.

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Topics Politics


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