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30 July 2011

Countdown to the Olympics

Tag(s): Sport

In twelve months’ time the Olympic Games will open in London. Regular readers of these blogs will know that I am a sports lover but I am afraid this is one event to which I am not looking forward. Back in 2005 when Tony Blair and his cronies won the right to stage the 2012 Olympics I was one of those who expressed their concerns about the cost, the disruption and the so-called legacy.

Let us take each of those in turn.

The cost.

This was first budgeted at £2.3 billion but within less than a year was revised to £9.7 billion. Assurances that the original bid had been fully costed were exposed as shallow. Today the spin doctors are forecasting that the cost will now come in under the revised forecast at closer to £8 billion but the truth is they don’t know. Every day they must be revising the security costs ever upwards; originally it was £200 million; it is now four times that and climbing. Transport costs will also be difficult to control as the militant trade unions flex their muscles.  Of modern summer games only Los Angeles way back in 1984 has been run at a profit. Those games were largely held within existing stadia. The athletics for example were staged in the Coliseum which was built in 1923 and had been used before in the 1932 Olympics. There was no excessive ego getting in the way as there has been many times since. Some cities have been practically bankrupted under the cost of staging the Olympics which have become increasingly bloated. It is understandable why Tokyo in 1964, Seoul in 1988 and Beijing in 2008 wanted to signal to the world that their economies had emerged and were modern and competitive. It is less clear why London which has already hosted the Games twice, has clapped out infrastructure and excessive public debt would want to waste such money except as a colossal expression of political ego.

Allison Stewart is a doctoral candidate at the University of Oxford’s Saïd Business School researching mega-events management. “Planning an event like the Olympic Games is one of the most complex mega-projects a city can take on,” she says. It is like constructing a Fortune 500 company in seven years – then tearing it down again. But unlike a Fortune 500 company the entire venture is evaluated on the performance of a one-time two-week event.[i]

The scale of the London 2012 event is enormous. It involves constructing a 500-acre Olympic Park complete with an 80,000 capacity Olympic stadium, aquatics centre, velodrome, hockey centre, basketball and handball arena, press and broadcast centre and Olympic village. During the event about 500,000 spectators will visit daily to watch about 17,000 competitors reported by 20,000 media representatives. Overall about 250,000 people will be accredited: officials, press, sponsors, security, technicians, caterers, cleaners and general hangers on.

The disruption.

Such an army of people descending on certain parts of London and elsewhere over a short period will cause massive disruption. I was amazed to read recently in an otherwise upbeat article Philip Hammond, Secretary of State for Transport, warning of the massive disruption to transport and asking businesses to make their employees work alternative hours or work from home during the 2012 Olympics because the transport system would not be able to cope. The last Olympics were held in Beijing where similar restrictions were introduced but China is a one party state where such decisions are readily enforced. Factories were even closed to get the pollution down. I was in Beijing the year before attending a global conference and the police closed the road to allow our coach to get to its gala dinner in double quick time. London is not used to such disruption and I predict chaos and misery.

Some events are being held in iconic parts of London, no doubt to generate attractive TV images. But again what disruption will this involve? The equestrian events are being held at the World Heritage Site of Greenwich Park with no doubt considerable risk to the ecological balance of the Park. Some tenants in flats near the venues are being evicted during the Games so their landlords can get much higher rents during the summer.

The legacy

In order to win the right to host the event Lord Coe and his team had to make promises of leaving a lasting legacy in sport. Far from this being the case funds have been diverted from several sports to pay for the investment in London. It is very unclear what will happen to some of the stadia. The main one is apparently going to be the new home of West Ham United, recently relegated from the Premier League and in severe financial difficulty. This decision has been challenged on grounds of corruption and is under investigation. But a stadium designed for athletics does not make a good stadium for football. The spectators are too far from the action and the atmosphere is not the same. I recently toured the Bernabeu stadium in the centre of Madrid where the great Real Madrid plays. 90,000 spectators are all close to the pitch as they sit in stands that climb at steep angles towards the sky.

All these problems seemed clear to me from the moment the decision was announced. But others have emerged that are likely to cause trouble. We have already witnessed the fiasco of the ticket ballot. An extremely complex system was set up. To show how appallingly commercial the Games have begun you could only pay with a Visa card. Sponsors should never be allowed to get hold of such powerful levers. In one survey I saw based on a sample of 1500 respondents 50% thought the ticketing process was unfair, 35% were unsure and only 15% thought it fair, a shocking result. Only 5% were happy with their ticket allocation. Another poll regularly monitors public attitudes to the Olympics and on a scale of 1-9 with 1 being “no interest at all”, 5 being “slightly interested” and 9 being “really excited” the current average is 4.59, i.e. less than slightly interested. [ii]

Spectators will not be allowed to bring their own food and drink, but must buy from the sponsors inside the stadia. Even a bottle of water is not permitted.

The rules relating to guerrilla and ambush marketing have been written so tightly that lots of innocent activity is likely to be caught. LOCOG are reportedly planning legal action against The Great Exhibition 2012 as the pirates behind this event had the gall to include “2012” in their name.  Peter Duffy, Marketing Director of easyJet reports that in April easyJet signed a ground-breaking deal with Visit Britain to bring millions of new visitors to the UK over the next four years. Press reports then stated that easyJet was officially warned by LOCOG about trying to exploit the Olympics by mentioning 2012 without being an official sponsor. Apparently LOCOG did not contact easyJet in any way.[iii]One can imagine how a small restaurateur might like to amuse his customers with an Olympic meal priced at £20.12 but he’ll find himself in trouble with the authorities! On their website LOCOG helpfully list the “Games Marks“ they have been forced to register in order to protect their sponsors’ interests but really to protect their ability to raise obscene amounts of money. These marks include the Olympic logo, the words Olympics, Olympiad and Olympian and even the word "London 2012" which to my eyes is not a word but two words both of which are in every day common usage and should therefore not be capable of registration as  a trademark. LOCOG go on to say “We know that people will express their excitement in a variety of ways and do not want to stifle their enthusiasm”.[iv]When people find that they cannot move around London next summer because of the special lanes for VIPs like Sepp Blatter I’ll wager that people may demonstrate their enthusiasm in other ways.

Of course, it will not be all bad. In the interests of balance I must record that the facilities are likely to be built on time, one of the spectres that have plagued previous Games and many soothsayers thought might bedevil London. No doubt some of the athletic performances will be exciting, even inspiring, so long as we can be confident they have not been assisted by drugs. The Jamaicans led by Usain Bolt stole the show in Beijing with many outstanding sprint performances. But it is concerning that Jamaica had opted out of the regional arm of the World Anti-Doping Agency and had yet to establish an Anti-Doping Commission. My own disillusionment with the Olympics set in in 1988 when I was thrilled to see the manner in which Ben Johnson won the blue riband event, the Men’s 100 metres but then less than three days later the Gold was taken away from him after a positive test for steroids. Since then a line of Olympic sprint champions have been suspended for similar offences though not always in the Olympics themselves. These include Linford Christie (Barcelona), Alvin Harrison (Atlanta), Marion Jones and Konstantinos Kenteris (Sydney), Justin Gatlin (Athens).

I hope to be proved wrong in all this but on balance it just does not seem worth it. Now the Queen's Diamond Jubilee in 2012, that I am looking forward to.

Copyright David C Pearson 2011 All rights reserved

[i]Good Sport” Steve Coomber Business at Oxford Spring 2011

[ii]Marketing 29 June 2011

[iii]Marketing 29 June 2011

[iv]The date that dare not speak its name” Evening Standard 2012 ,

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