We can still win the Olympics … by hacking it back to size

By Simon Jenkins (THE TIMES, 28/01/07):

There is only one way to save the 2012 Olympics from six years of agony, expense and public outrage. It is to abandon the idea of a Stratford encampment and integrate the Games into London’s existing sporting life. This year is the last opportunity to do so.

The Commons culture committee was right last week to insist that the soaring cost of the Games be borne by the Treasury. Gordon Brown knew when he agreed to the bid in 2004 that this meant state underwriting. It is inexcusable for 10% of all lottery grants to philanthropic, arts, heritage and sports charities to be creamed off for six years to pay for three weeks of minority sports in 2012. Charities have already been told to surrender £1.5 billion, including £340m that would have gone on sports playing fields, clubs and training facilities. Heritage has lost £134m.

While such sums are flea bites to Olympic planners, to voluntary organisations they are make or break. Last month they were told to forgo another £900m — again for just three weeks of sport.

When Tony Blair, Tessa Jowell and Ken Livingstone, London’s mayor, “won” the Olympics for London and accepted the plaudits of an ecstatic nation, nobody thought the Games would be financed through a regressive tax, a lottery, at the expense of its charitable recipients. This was the politics of Ceausescu and Nero. We were even told, mendaciously, that the Games would somehow make money. If so, why no banks?

Britain should not have bid for the 2012 Olympics. This was not because London cannot put on a good show but because the once-noble Olympic concept has gone rotten in the hands of the International Olympic Committee (IOC). The Games have become an extravagant stunt by a cabal manipulating national chauvinism to exploit a bizarre selection of minority sports. Football, cricket, rugby, boxing and tennis do not need such nonsense to boost their world championships. The Olympiad is a white elephant in a maharajah’s stable.

To win the Olympics, cities must pledge utterly stupid amounts of money, making fraudulent pledges in the process. Britain’s 2004 bid would not have passed an Enron audit. Jowell said it had been “costed and rigorously checked”. By whom? Sir Roy McNulty, her current chairman, later dismissed the bid figure as “a concept developed in a matter of months”. They knew they would not be around to pay the bill.

When Livingstone was asked if his offer of a tenth of the cost — £625m from London taxpayers — was final, he at first said yes and then added, “Any guarantee I give about what happens in 2012 is not worth the paper it is written on.”

We have since learnt that Jowell’s team omitted inflation, site decontamination, regeneration, Vat, contingency and a scam called a delivery fee, an outrageous £400m paid to a mysterious “outside consultant to keep down costs”. This is unbelievable. It is also unbelievable that, after the Millennium Dome, the Treasury was not party to these figures — the dome was a tenth of these sums and was active for a year.

The failure to include Vat apparently stemmed from a claim that the Games were a government project and the £300m (or far more) in Vat would be waived by the Treasury in return for the extra tourist revenue. All new building in Britain pays Vat and the reference to tourism was a lie. There is no likelihood of more tourists for the Games, since any specialist visitors are more than cancelled out (as Athens knows to its cost) by others avoiding the city. Sydney saw no rise. It staged an ironic advertising campaign with the slogan “Where the bloody hell are you?”.

For all the hype, there are no noticeable economic benefits to the Olympics. There may be some gain to smaller cities wanting to boost their world image, such as Atlanta and Barcelona. London has no such need and the IOC has priced small cities out of the market.

Regeneration applies only in so far as spending large amounts of taxpayers’ money increases activity for a while, like the building of a moon rocket.

Montreal and Munich, which borrowed to finance their Games, were left with heavy debts. Athens saw its budget rise 10 times to £3.5 billion and the Greek government had to plead with Brussels for temporary relief. The Chinese for 2008 were blowing $35 billion at the last count, a mammoth cross-subsidy to their capital from some of the poorest people on earth. The Los Angeles Games are said to have made money by using existing facilities and being crudely commercial, for which wise decision they were much criticised.

London’s spending ran out of control after the nationalist hysteria that surrounded the winning of the Games. Not just politicians but the media lost all sense of proportion. Some 700 staff in Canary Wharf promptly began pushing the budget from £2.4 billion to any number they could imagine, even as high as £8 billion. There must be a point at which such sums pass beyond all reason for what should be a simple festival of sport.

To be fair, the £6 billion to £8 billion figure is full of fat. The regeneration of Stratford should never have been included. The £620m spent on land acquisition by the London Development Agency has cost an absurd £320m in overheads, not helped by 80 firms, 250 residents and 150 travellers refusing to budge and going for gold.

The tripling of the security budget “after 7/7” indicated total consultant capture. Nobody can stop another 7/7 and demanding almost £1 billion for three weeks’ security is more than is spent defending the green zone in Baghdad. It would be cheaper to give every athlete an armoured car and three bodyguards. If the Games are considered too dangerous to be staged in cities, they should be discontinued.

Most of the cost is going on flattering the ego of the IOC’s flatulent, self-perpetuating oligarchy. The demand for a special stadium (at £280m and growing) should be rejected at once. A 400m track with 80,000 seats is unusable afterwards because spectators are too far from the pitch (except for cricket). No former Olympic stadium is fit for any other purpose without massive rebuilding costs. Sydney’s is lying empty. The idea of reducing the 80,000 seats to 25,000 as an athletics venue is ingenious if extravagant, but why? London has an athletics venue at Crystal Palace which could be upgraded. Besides, there is no need for 80,000 seats except for the opening and closing extravaganzas and these could be held in the new Wembley.

The other five structures at Stratford are not needed for British sport in the long term. London has 25 stadiums that could be adapted for cycling, hockey and gymnastics. Pools could be upgraded for swimming. Other world championships use existing facilities at a fraction of the Olympic costs.

As for the IOC’s 17,000 bed-space “village” within walking distance of the Games with full security, air conditioning and extra large baths, forget it. Earlier this month officials reportedly “demanded” that the 3,600 flats not be high rise lest “the competitors spend too much time waiting for lifts to get to their rooms”. Barcelona had to spend hundreds of millions of pounds making its Olympic village habitable for ordinary people. London has ample hotels spare for athletes and officials in August. It has no need of special trains or high-speed limousine lanes down the Mile End Road, an incitement to cockney riot. Olympic Games are television events rather than mass spectator sports. If the venues are dispersed, London’s transport can cope.

The escalation in costs, rows with developers and the acrimonious resignation of Jack Lemley, the project boss, suggests already poor relations between the IOC monitors, the Olympic Delivery Agency and such players as Lord Coe, Jowell, Livingstone and the Treasury. This is not the end of the world. But the flaw lies in the concept of a giant “lumpy project” at Stratford.

Refashioning of the Olympics to fit London, rather than London to fit the Olympics, would integrate the Games into the city’s existing sports fabric which is as it should be. In a fortified camp in Stratford they might as well be anywhere. A properly urban Games with associated festivities would involve no loss of competitive edge and far less cost. The present cost is simply crazy. There is still time to call the IOC bluff. Blair’s last gesture should be to return the Games from the tycoons to “the people”.