The biggest prize in sport

+++++++++++++++++++++++Moan alert!++++++++++++++++++++++

Yes, the 2012 London Olympics are almost upon us. If you’re unlucky enough to live in London, your giveaway evening newspaper has been providing a thrilling day-by-day countdown which I think may have begun on 7/7 in 2005, the glorious day after the capital won the Olympic bid. I’m no fan of the London Evening Standard – which is given away free to grumpy commuters each night and, as such, is by definition worthless, although it can claim to be less unloved than the morning Metro – as you have to machete your way through so much propaganda in order to get to the actual local news, but it’s been especially impenetrable this year, with the Mayoral elections, the Jubilee, Heathrow and now the Games. It’s difficult to know where the editorial ends and the advertorial begins.

But hey, such blurring of truth and profit is very much in the spirit of the Games. I didn’t vote for the Olympics. Ordinary Londoners were never asked if we wanted the biggest sideshow in sport held here, and part-funded by our council tax. We were promised regeneration of some of the East End and Docklands. We were promised a fabulous upswing in commerce and opportunity (“Every sector of the economy will benefit from the staging of the Olympic Games”, went the bid). We were promised a second Westfield shopping centre. We were promised millions of tourists descending up our already full and already filthy city. Some of these dreams may yet come true – there’s a brand new Westfield now in Stratford, whose car parks have already been closed for the duration of the games – but estimates about how many people are coming here on holiday were hugely optimistic, as many non-Olympic “vacationers” have been understandably put off, either by the threat of crowding, or just being blown up.

Let’s contextualise my disinterest in the Games. As a punter I’m really not that bothered about athletics. Sport in general is not something that gets me going. You know I dabble with football, and I ended up watching that tennis match at last year’s Wimbledon that went on and on and on out of peer pressure, but as a rule, as a spectator, I prefer artistic rather than physical endeavour. That’s just my personal choice. I have nothing against sport, or sportspeople. I care about my health and used to love going to the gym when I could afford it. Better to do sport, whether it’s a kickabout in the park or the fully-fledged sacrifice of training for the Olympics, than sit around doing nothing. What I have against these Olympics is that, as a Londoner, I get all of the aggravation and none of the benefit.

It’s not just that the Tube and buses are going to be overcrowded, although that’s pretty annoying when your job involves a lot of travelling about in London, and, I expect, even more annoying if you have a nine-to-five job that can’t realistically be “done from home”. London’s bus drivers are threatening to strike for a bonus payment, as their jobs are going to be extra stressful between July 27 and August 12, and August 29 and September 9. But passengers can’t strike. We’re stuck with it. (I think anyone whose job is going to be made harder by the Olympics should be entitled to a bonus.)

What I really object to is the relentless bombardment of corporate sponsorship. It seems tragic to me that sporting endeavour has to be privately funded. If we lived in the benign Communist utopia of my fevered dreams (and I haven’t worked out all the details yet), sport would be state-sponsored for the health of the nation and the pride of representing your country. So would the Arts. The minute you hand over the Games to advertising “partners”, and these “partners” are then able to literally dictate which credit card you use to apply for tickets, and which fizzy drinks you drink in the stadia, and which burgers you eat, then the sport comes a poor second to profit. And when even the top sports stars must flog their spandexed arses in TV ads in order to keep fit – Usain Bolt clowning for Richard Branson a typically undignified example; Victoria Pendleton getting her actual kit off for men’s magazines for more subtly commericial returns (FHM: “Victoria has the sort of legs that could, should you inadvertently find yourself in a sexual embrace with the woman, kill you”) – it’s a sad world indeed.

As a user of the already creaking London Transport network, I have for some time been assailed on all sides by adverts telling me not to travel in London during the Olympics and the Paralympics; to stay at home; to choose an alternative route; to avoid certain lines and stations; to fuck off. Even worse, there are ads everywhere put up by Procter & Gamble, the American multinational petrochemical giant, whose $82.6 billion turnover for 2011 is helping to fund a big chunk of the Olympics. P&G, as they’d prefer us to call them, want volunteers in London to help clean the place up, using P&G cleaning brands like Flash and Febreze. That’s right, the company that makes Flash wants us to give up our own time to clean the city before the tourists arrive. If they’re so keen on cleaning, why don’t they pay out-of-work Londoners the minimum wage to clean the streets? Just a thought.

On the subject of cost, the Guardian came up with some figures back in April. Originally slated to cost about £2.4bn, Olympic costs had already jumped to £9.3bn by 2007. The total kept rising. The House of Commons’ public accounts committee revealed costs were heading for around £11bn. Then Sky Sports worked out that, including public transport upgrade costs, the final score was closer to £24bn. By continually revising the budget upwards, the Olympic Delivery Authority have been able to say that the whole thing will finally come in under budget. But it’s all based on made up numbers. Big numbers that are constantly being moved about.

The Olympic village was supposed to be financed by Australian developer Lend Lease, but private investors scarpered when the economy imploded in 2008, leaving it to the government ie. us. In August 2011 they sold the village at a taxpayer loss of £275m to the Qatari ruling family’s property firm. (Culture secretary Jeremy Hunt called this “a fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a legacy from London’s Games”. He’s not still Culture Secretary, is he? Really?)

As for security, after initially estimating the need for 10,000 police officers, they’ve since had to tap the military for 13,500 reserves at a time when a) the country is still fighting a war, and b) military personnel are being cut along with every other corner of the public sector. We’ve got ships situated in the Thames, Eurofighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on top of tower blocks. The cost of security has increased from £282m to £553m. There are less than 13,500 soldiers deployed in Afghanistan. (Londoners get the security bill, by the way. I’m not leaving a tip.)

I guess there’s never a good time to hold the Olympics, but London definitely drew the short straw holding them at such a time of economic woe. (April’s Guardian Comment Is Free article about “celebration capitalism”, from which I’ve drawn most of these figures, is here.)

Every huge international sporting event is an advert for something. And the London Olympics just seem worse because they’re on my doorstep and I’m having my face rubbed in them. Even if you’re excited about the sport – and I understand there will be some sport somewhere in the middle of all this branding and synergy – it’s hard to argue with the assessment that it’s a public-private partnership that needs some serious counselling.

For the record, these are the private companies who are funding the Games.

Worldwide partners:
Acer Inc.
Dow Chemical Company
General Electric
Omega SA
Panasonic Corporation
Procter & Gamble
Official partners:
British Airways (thanks for despoiling The Clash’s London Calling in your TV advert, as if Scouting For Girls didn’t do enough damage to it at the Olympics homecoming gig four years ago)
BT Group
EDF Energy
Lloyds TSB
Official supporters:
Cisco Systems
Thomas Cook Group
United Parcel Service
Official suppliers and providers:
Boston Consulting Group
CBS Outdoor
Crystal CG
Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer
London Heathrow Airport
Heineken International
Holiday Inn
John Lewis
McCann Erickson
Mondo Worldwide
General Mills
Nielsen Company
Rapiscan Systems
Rio Tinto Group
Thames Water
Westfield Group

Have I missed anybody?


8 thoughts on “The biggest prize in sport

  1. I live in Roehampton and work in Holborn, slap-bang in Central London and right in the epicentre of where Londoners have effectively been told to avoid. At work, we’ve had to arrange staggered working hours in order to somehow deal with the disruption to the locale, not to mention public transport. Our post has had to be re-directed for the duration. There are all sorts of mundane, everyday logistical issues that we’ve had to re-assess too. Planning for all this started over a year ago. I guess it’s the same for any company based in Central London. I cycle to work, which at least means the disruption to public transport doesn’t affect me, but my route is likely to be subject to diversions nonetheless. It is, frankly, a huge pain in the arse that we are somehow expected to put up with because, well, it’s the OLYMPICS and it’s EXCITING, and we should be PROUD and GET BEHIND IT!

    Really? Fuck off!

    I’ve been involved in a mockumentary that we’re hoping is ready before the Olympics start. For one sequence, we spent a few hours on the South Bank engaging the public on their thoughts about the Olympics and how much they were looking forward to it. Of all the people we spoke to, how many were looking forward to it? None. None at all. Some had some very strong words to say about it in much the same vein as your blog. Within the context of what we were trying to achieve with this sequence, this actually worked perfectly. But it was a good benchmark in terms of how Londoners seem to feel about the whole thing – the disruption, the economics, the grubby corporate aspect etc – it’s great for tourists, but it’s crap for Londoners.

    If it’s OK to post a link to the (no budget, non profit-making) site to get a flavour of the project – an affectionate, bittersweet character piece, it’s:

    As I’m not originally from London, the assumption from family and friends not in London is that the whole thing must be tremendously exciting and there must be a real buzz to being here at the moment. They seem surprised when I tell them what a pain it all is. In terms of the disruption, and particularly the cost of it all in the current economic climate, I find it astonishing how easy some people find it to simply look the other way, as if it’s nothing more than a trifling matter we shouldn’t concern ourselves with. Because it’s the OLYMPICS!

  2. Big sporting events can succeed, even non-football ones (the 2002 Manchester Commonwealth Games were, I think, generally-speaking, loved locally and regarded as a big success (can’t help wondering what a Manchester Olympics would’ve been like)) so maybe the Olympics are just too big, maybe the idea of holding them permanently in Greece is a good one. There would’ve been a similar security bill if it was the World Cup, and London’s transport system needed/needs money spent on it but I’m out of my depth already…

  3. The corporate management of it is what sickens me too – but that is the UK a Corporatocracy with Boris Johnson more interested in becoming its CEO than its PM…

    I do enjoy the Olympics though but will be doing so from a safe distance in Scotland (where I live not where I will be fleeing too for its duration!).

  4. Andrew,
    I agree. For a sports event it impacts on everybody and we’ve been peddled with so much ‘the Olympic’s are great’ material in the media that i’m bored all ready. However, I must point out my distress in you mentioning 7/7 in 2005 as a glorious day for the capital. No doubt Seb Coe and pals were clinking glasses until in the capital’s early rush hour tragedy struck and their thoughts were concentrated elsewhere.

    • It was a facetious comment, I admit. But I find corporate greed just as distasteful as religious extremism. I would prefer a world without both.

  5. I was too young for the 1996 Olympics to bother me (being from the US), and they were also held in a state that was far enough away that it wouldn’t have made things harder on me. I was, however, quite happy when the US failed to get the 2016 Olympic bid for most of the same reasons; if I had remained there (which I didn’t), I would’ve been annoyed to pieces because they were planning to put it right on my doorstep (rather than a location in the States that could, you know, handle it and probably use the supposed economic support/benefits that the Olympics give).

    While I understand the needs for partners, I think it goes quite a bit overboard. P&G thinking people should clean the city for free is incredibly dense. I think telling people what they can and cannot wear or use because of “advertising” is incredibly ridiculous. It’s tiring, inconvenient, and it takes away the fun that the Olympics are supposed to bring.

    That said, I’m a poor spectator. I get bored watching most sports, and I would also prefer to watch the artistic over the physical.

  6. A friend of mine has worked in the Met for the last decade now. He’s told me to basically forget any notion of coming to London for even a few days (networking with other fledgling screenwriters) until perhaps September or October. Not only are they being asked to work 9 days on-1 day off shifts, they’re pretty much unprep… well, it’s got the potential to be a supermegaclusterfuck. At best.

    From my point of view, any admiration of athletes aside, these games are an utter waste of time, effort and money, and will not bring in any financial benefit to the country, so much have we spent providing for them. The fact that people who live and work in London are going to be inconvenienced is another huge flaw in this whole thing.

    As far as I’m concerned, the only good thing about the Olympics is I’ve got a new Katy B song out of it. I don’t expect to change that view in the coming months.

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