We think we can’t

By Hugh Muir (THE GUARDIAN, 29/11/06):

In the hours after the UK won the right to host the Olympics, Jacques Rogge turned to Ken Livingstone and Tessa Jowell and reflected on the positive headlines. “Enjoy it,” the president of the International Olympic Committee told them. “That’s probably the last positive coverage you’ll have between now and 2012.” Isn’t it depressing that just 16 months have passed and yet all who feared the Olympic bid might get bogged down in a quagmire of whingeing have been proven right?

Here’s a summary of the issues thus far. The financing of the games is going to bankrupt us. At least they would if they went ahead, but the chances are that terrorists are going to blow them up anyway. If the terrorists don’t get us, the deeply poisoned earth upon which the Olympic village will be built will prompt plague-like conditions throughout the south-east. Far from being an exemplar of how development can live peacefully with the environment, the games will worsen climate change. The village may not be built in time, and if it is the structures will rot, with east London becoming home to a herd of white elephants.

Isn’t what we are seeing just another example of the British disease that means every project we embark upon suffers death by a thousands cuts – the attitude that says we make a hash of anything ambitious, that we can’t control costs, that our managers can’t manage and our engineers are idiots? How did we reach the stage where a country that once prided itself on innovation, dynamism and courage now takes its inspiration from Private Frazer, the manic pessimist of Dad’s Army, always ready to chant: “We’re doomed”?

It was a great coup to secure the Olympics. It was a recognition that we are a nation capable of making the games a success. This bid was Britain’s bid. The fact that the bulk of the activities will occur in London does not prove otherwise. There will be training camps throughout the UK, and stadiums are being designed so they can be moved to other regions once the games are over. And there is solid logic in holding the games in the capital. Livingstone told the government that London would pay its share of the cost, and thus made the proposition more attractive. This may or may not have been a masterstroke, but it is fairly certain that if he had not put London’s money where his mouth was the bid would have stalled. On that basis alone, the capital deserves its chance.

The mayor cares little for sport. He cares about the regeneration of east London and the prospect that ministers who have let the area rot may think differently if it forms part of a project on which Britain’s reputation depends. There is no evidence that the government would have acted for any other reason; the disgrace is that it has taken such a grandiose wheeze to get their attention.

The regions say London – a place of almost constant regeneration – is already overfunded. But we also know that two in five of London’s children live below the poverty line. Four of its local authorities have more than 40% of their population out of work. Three of them, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney, span the Olympic zone. A shot in the arm for those economies boosts the UK economy. London wins, but so do Birmingham, Manchester, Newcastle and Cardiff. Tax from London subsidises the regions to the tune of £13bn anyway.

And so to money. Is there anyone who doesn’t think we submitted a bid with figures massaged to impress the IOC, or that the IOC didn’t know that? A meaningful budget is now being drawn up, and when it is unveiled politicians and the media will scrutinise it. So they should. But let’s be mature about it. Staging the games will be messy, costly and turbulent, but isn’t that a price worth paying if it means that shamefully neglected communities will have better infrastructure and life chances than they have had for generations?