Do we really want to host the cut-price Olympics?
12 August 2008
How will your community be marking the imminent handover of Olympic flags from China to Britain, an event recently described by Tessa Jowell as “a truly historic moment, not just for London but for the UK”? In my part of East Anglia, plans are progressing well. The August Bank Holiday weekend will see the climax of the Harleston and Waveney festival, a “Family Fun Day” involving music, entertainment and stalls.
Throughout the day, to celebrate the Olympic handover, a mechanical panda will circulate the recreation ground. There will also be a Chinese dragon fashioned out of balloons. The Olympics, say the local council, are as much about culture as competition.
There is a small but significant problem with this approach, which is an enthusiastic enactment of government policy. By the end of the month, the world will have had quite enough of Chinese swagger and magnificence, and will be looking forward, with varying degrees of curiosity and nervousness, to the next great sporting spectacular – the one for which Britain is responsible. The council-sponsored acts at the Harleston festival should represent not China’s culture but our own – a hoodie on a bike and a balloon representation of the Millennium Dome would be more relevant to what lies ahead of us.
For here is the chilling prospect which faces Britain over the next four years: we are going to have to decide what kind of nation we are. Under normal circumstances, a country can fudge and compromise its national image, changing its personality to suit the situation. Britain leads the world at the game of image-swivel. One moment, the country is proud of its great imperial past, the next it is the very picture of self-abasing multiculturalism. Sometimes we are a brave little island; then, we are standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our friends across the Atlantic or pretending to be cheerily European.
Image-swivel, unfortunately, is not an Olympic sport. From the opening ceremony onwards, one precisely defined message needs to be conveyed. China has presented itself in terms of power, size and beauty. To discover our national persona, it is no good looking around and expecting some kind of instruction as to how the host of the 2012 Olympics would like itself to be seen. It is our decision, and it needs to be made soon. Right now, the omens are not encouraging. The British embassy in Beijing held a reception and press conference last week in an air-conditioned tent. The focus was on the London Olympics. Ten accredited journalists turned up. Tessa Jowell was 30 seconds into a speech about Britain’s effectiveness when her microphone broke down.
The inspiring message the minister delivered was about keeping costs under control. If Beijing is the “no-expenses spared Olympics”, the man from The New York Times reported, “London’s gaze never seems to leave the bottom line.”
Acknowledging the fact that the Bird’s Nest stadium was impressive, Jowell announced, with a surprising degree of authority, that it would be “the last iconic Olympic stadium”. London’s main venue would have an altogether different advantage: after the Games were over, it could be used as a smaller athletics stadium.
In fact, most of the London venues would be temporary. Britain’s 2012 Games would be “a service to the UK taxpayer and also to the IOC”, according to Jowell. “If cities in developing countries are ever to host the Olympics, they need to know they can be delivered on budget.”
So that is the plan, is it? The great moment for which Britain will have been waiting for more than 60 years will convey this bold message to every nation on earth: well, it may not be great but at least it is on budget. The eyes of the world will be on London and in return we shall offer the great spectacle of a very respectable balance sheet.
If that is the image which Jowell, Boris Johnson and Sebastian Coe have in mind for Britain, then we are in for an embarrassing four years, culminating in a summer of low-grade humiliation. Setting poorer nations an example of how to mount the greatest sporting event in the world on a budget – in other words, downgrading a great life-affirming extravaganza into a worthy demonstration of fiscal responsibility – 2012 will be a demoralising confirmation of the old cliché about our being a nation of shopkeepers.
As various committees in London start working on plans for transport, accommodation, security and ticket sales, a more urgent marketing decision needs to be made. The Olympic Games famously offers the host nation a once-in-a-lifetime chance to market itself to the world. What exactly will we be selling?