London 2012: Despite our anxieties, the Olympics will be a force for good in Britain | Observer editorial
Rain, the G4S security fiasco, a cracked flyover, officials selling tickets on the black market… all this and more, yet the Games are set to be a triumph
In February this year, a team from the International Olympic Committee made their tenth and final visit to inspect and assess preparations for the 2012 “Games of the XXX Olympiad” due to begin in 12 days. The Games will embrace 26 sports in 34 venues across the country, involving more than 16,000 athletes watched by 11 million spectators and billions more around the globe. The cost to the public purse has risen over seven years from £2.5bn to more than £9bn. The IOC’s verdict is that it is money well spent. “London is ready to host the world,” it declared boldly.
Events over the past week or so have injected more than a modicum of doubt into that enthusiastic assertion – while raising questions about a lack of political leadership. A series of crises have occurred that appear all the more alarming both because of their proximity to the Games’ opening on 27 July and also, perversely, because the previous seven years of planning and delivery, under the stewardship of Lord Coe, have gone mostly smoothly.
First, a crack in a flyover on the M4 risked putting London’s most important Olympic route in jeopardy. Then, the ongoing issue of inadequate immigration staffing at Heathrow resulted in the public relations disaster of arrival lounges packed with visitors queueing for up to two hours and no staff in sight despite a ministerial promise that this would not happen. Most disturbingly, and still ongoing, is the security fiasco caused by the mismanagement of the international company G4S in failing to meet its target of providing up to 17,500 guards for the Olympic Park. As a result, 3,500 military personnel have had to be shipped in, many facing redundancy and forfeiting well-earned holidays, as well as extra police reinforcements. Ian Swales, of the House of Commons public accounts committee, has criticised G4S for charging “colossal fees” for “very poor service”. On Tuesday the G4S chief executive, Nick Buckles, explains the company’s latest public sector calamity (it lost its contract to deport refused migrants last year after one death and 773 complaints of abuse) to the home affairs select committee.
Boris Johnson, mayor of London, has told us glibly this is a case of “pre-curtain jitters” before the “very safe, very secure” Games begin. He is almost certainly correct, but what was needed was not flippant Boris-lite but a strong ministerial reminder of the uplifting mission and potential long-term rewards of London 2012. Jeremy Hunt, the Olympics minister, has been in purdah since his appearance at the Leveson inquiry and David Cameron, perhaps wishing to distance himself from yet another potential shambles, has conspicuously failed to fill the political void. Well, at a time when the eyes of the world are on London, someone needs to.
The prime minister could still rise to the occasion and give a clear explanation for the “jitters” and, as importantly, provide a spirited narrative about the world-class athleticism and human endeavour to come. He could pause to praise the admirable response of more than 70,000 volunteers (“big society”, anyone?) and the fortitude of the local East End community, disrupted for the past seven years. He could remind us that Britain has faultlessly delivered world-class stadiums on what was a toxic industrial wasteland. He could talk of the hope we all have that this redevelopment will help regenerate one of the poorest parts of Britain. Instead, what we have this weekend are reminders to the public of the cost of the Games and the potential vulnerability of the host city.
Critics remain convinced that the London Olympics is worth its weight in gold, but only if you count the bounty that will accrue to the corporate sponsors – among them McDonald’s and Coca-Cola, whose brazen appearance in the Olympic Park seems, at best, incongruous.
The commercialisation of the Games is not of London’s making – it’s a pact that any bidding city signs up for. The IOC insists that the candidate cities must sign a contract, described as an “epic masterpiece in micro-management”. It stipulates IOC transportation in exclusive “Zil” traffic lanes in 500 air-conditioned chauffeured limousines and accommodation in 1,800 four- and five-star hotel rooms. It also demands that the Olympics are a tax-free haven so the 18 Olympic partners won’t have to pay £600m tax on the £2.5bn they are expected to harvest.
What the contract does not do is confront the IOC’s continued association with corruption. Last month, for example, 27 Olympic officials and agents were caught selling tickets for London 2012 on the black market.
Critics also voice concerns that the public money invested in the monumental regeneration of the East End (75p in every £1 spent by the Olympic development authority) will benefit the already affluent, with jobs going to outsiders and housing beyond the price of locals. In addition, although the Games are sited across Britain, many non-Londoners view them as a purely capital city bonanza. In a BBC poll last week, 74% said the rest of the UK would not benefit and 59% thought the taxpayer had footed too large a bill.
Add to that cavalcade of criticism the daily thrum of unrelenting rain and the appalling neglect of school sports (a squandered Olympic legacy) and it might appear that there are very few reasons to be cheerful about London 2012.
The Observer disagrees.
Of course there are caveats, including profound concerns about security; the IOC’s “vanity” modus operandi; excessive commercialisation and inequities such as highly restricted ticketing that has locked out many ordinary people. But, uncharacteristically in Britain, let’s look at the upsides.
The planning and execution of the London Olympics, delivering impressive transport connections, including the high-speed rail from King’s Cross to Stratford. Completing infrastructure on time and £1bn under the adjusted budget. And, most importantly, the longer-term, meticulously planned legacy transforming an area that has suffered decades of shameful neglect. All these add up to an achievement of which Britain has a right to be proud.
And that is even before the Games commence, bringing with them a potential tally of medals accrued by our many young athletes, among them 15-year-old Rebecca Tunney, Tom Daley and Jessica Ennis. Over the past several months they have done so much to rebalance the almost wholly negative media coverage of youth. So, hopefully, we are on the threshold of a much needed 17-day holiday in optimism for Britain, an historic event that has its roots seven years ago in the quality of Britain’s original bid and a promise “to inspire a generation”.
In Singapore, in 2005, Team GB included 30 children from London’s East End; David Beckham, Ken Livingstone, then mayor of London, and a typically crowd-pleasing performance from Tony Blair. London stole victory from the favourite, Paris, by only four votes. Lord Coe, two times gold medal winner, said he had won “the biggest prize in sport”. Tessa Jowell, then minister for culture, media and sport, deserves credit as the godmother of London 2012. Against almost total cabinet opposition, and the professional judgment of economists she hired to conduct a feasibility study, Jowell persevered, allied with Ken Livingstone. Both believed that the Olympics could deliver to the highly deprived boroughs of Newham, Tower Hamlets, Waltham Forest, Hackney, Greenwich and Barking and Dagenham, “60 years of regeneration in six”.
The 200-hectare site designated as the Olympic Park had the equivalent of 10 football pitches of Japanese knotweed; acres of fly-tipping; landfill and contaminated soil. The Queen visited in 2005 and viewed a mini-mountain of discarded fridges where the Velodrome is now sited. It is telling that while G4S has been handed bags full of public money without apparent scrutiny, targets or penalties, in contrast the Olympic development authority (ODA) has been transparent on goals, challenges and delivery. In the process it has created local jobs, training and apprenticeships.
Contracts have also been spread across the UK. Every public pound has worked hard trying to retain a senior partnership with private investment. While new techniques have been pioneered, from burying pylons to washing 2m tons of toxic soil to recycling and design, this is a remarkable story that has yet to be fully told. At London 2012, for the first time in Olympic history, the legacy plans were initiated three years before the Games began. That is a powerful blueprint for future Games.
Could more have been done for the East End community? Undoubtedly, but there are the next 30 years to make that good. The Observer would like to see an independent watchdog with clout established to ensure that this is the case. “Convergence” is a plan to improve a range of issues in the six boroughs – for instance, in education, employment, poverty and health – and bring standards up to the level of the rest of London. In July next year the Olympic site will reopen as the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Six of the eight permanent venues are secure. The stadium goes out to tender again in the autumn; on Tuesday, it is likely that its agreed the press and broadcast centre will become home to iCity, a digital university, enterprise hub, broadcaster and provider of the first digital apprenticeship scheme.
Effort has been made in regeneration to treasure the past, not ensure its obliteration. Over the next three decades, 11,000 new homes (35% “affordable” housing) will be built. Homes, not high-rise apartments. Homes with gardens built into a new living community in the Park. All of these are reasons to cheer.
Twelve days hence we shall judge whether the imaginative appointments of Danny Boyle and Stephen Daldry will produce a multimillion pound opening ceremony that sets a benchmark for creativity. London 2012 has already proved that, for a tiny island with a population of 60 million or so, we are far from slow off the blocks. Last week the ODA published its final report. In The Finishing Straight, Sir John Armitt wrote: “At every turn since 2005, the UK has proved that it can compete with the best, win, deliver and do what is promised.”
Let the Games begin.