London 2012 – what to expect

Lord Coe and Minister Hunt during PR visit with school children

During a holiday visit to London, I took the opportunity to look for indications that the Olympic Games are only seven months ago. Amazingly, it was absolutely impossible to find any Olympic souvenirs, a sharp contrast to the situation in previous Olympic cities at the corresponding time. But I did have a chance to catch glimpses of existing or emerging venues and, above all, the New Year’s period caused a major spike in media coverage.

Lord (Sebastian) Coe, former champion runner over 800 and 1500 meters, now Chair of the London Organizing Committee, and Jeremy Hunt, Minister of Culture, Media and Sport, were constantly appearing in TV and newspaper interviews. As always in connection with the Olympic Games, there are major differences in public opinion regarding the propriety of spending so much money and creating such upheaval for a one-time event. And to put it mildly, the world economic situation and the competition for resources have changed drastically since 2005, when London was awarded the rights for 2012.

So there have been voices suggesting very strongly that London should yet again, just like in 1948 right after World War II, inevitably find it necessary host what was then dubbed the ‘austerity Olympics’. In other words, everything from arena construction, infrastructure improvements and events such as the Opening Ceremonies should be scaled back; London should not try to compete for the sought-after label ‘best ever’. But both Minister Hunt, on behalf of the government, and Lord Coe for the Organizing Committee (LOCOG) see it differently.

They understand the arguments, but they really feel that a world-class event, in the eyes not just of participants and spectators but especially as observed by the vast TV and other media audiences around the world, is just what Britain needs at this point in time. And they are not talking just about the prestige and PR involved in showing the rest of the world what Britain can do, both as an organizer in sports and also in terms of culture, history and creativity. So the aim is to “make an extraordinary statement” and there is a sense that “people in Britain would not really forgive us if we did not make the absolutely most of this moment”.

Indeed, Hunt sees the Olympics as an event that, notwithstanding the enormous investments and expenses, could have the positive economic impact of being a key factor in avoiding a double-dip recession. It is also emphasized that the LOCOC budget of around US$ 3.5 billion is essentially based on private capital being raised. The government’s share is a more ‘modest’ US$ 9 million, apart from the traditional guarantee that any losses must be covered. Of course, this does not convince and quiet all skeptics.

On the basis of a sad history from many previous Olympic cities, there is a special concern about the ‘white elephant’ phenomenon, i.e., the all too common experience that huge stadiums and a vast spectrum of other arenas will become decaying and unused monuments to wasteful one-time spending. London, learning from its predecessors, is trying to take measures to counter this trend. Similarly, there are worries that London will feel obliged to outdo Beijing and others in putting on an ‘absurdly’ lavish and expensive Opening Ceremony. After all, this is often the measuring rod for the Olympic hosts.

It is also somewhat ironic, after the heavy criticism of the Chinese government for its cynical evacuation of citizens, through bull-dozing of entire neighborhoods, to make room for facilities and roads, that similar comments can now be heard in London. There is hope that, on balance, the development in dilapidated areas of East London will have a positive long-term effect, thanks to major new construction of housing, infrastructure especially in the form of public transportation, and major shopping centers. But the reality also seems to be that those who have been evicted from the areas of low-income housing now find it difficult or impossible to acquire new affordable housing.

As always, it is easy to speculate ahead of time, and the actual impact will not really become clear until much later. We can only hope that the optimists in Britain will turn out to be proven right.