Apropos the Olympics – Part 10 (final): An overall impression

The London Games were in the Closing Ceremony declared “happy and glorious”, and this was illustrated already in the Opening Ceremony through the image of a ‘happy and glorious’ Queen!

It would be silly to think that Olympic organizers simply are self-less ‘philanthropists’, who go to the effort and expense of organizing the Games just for the sake of the athletes, visitors and TV audiences. Of course they believe that, in one way or the other, it is going to be so beneficial to them that they will turn out to be justified in having made the sacrifices. Their precise motivation may differ from one occasion to another. For instance, much was made of China’s determination to show the world four years ago that they had ‘arrived’ on the world scene in a major way. But that, I believe, is to some extent always part of the picture. The British government clearly made statements somewhat along the same lines. Being able to organize the Olympics in a competent and friendly manner is always going to be a matter of prestige.

And as I see it, as long as we want the Olympic tradition to continue, we should be grateful that there are countries and cities who are willing and able to help us keep it going. It is a totally different matter that some organizers will obviously miscalculate, in their belief that it will all be worth it. Beyond the prestige, there has to be a more tangible, longer-term benefit. Showing off a host city as a place that deserves a major increase in its ability to attract tourists is one calculation. Making a case for being a modern, strong and reliable business partner is another one. Those potential gains are always hard to pin down, but the sense it that reputation of Britain and London surely got a valuable boost.

Therefore, it tends to be more common to point to the benefits for the country’s and the city’s own population. This typically includes the notion that a major redevelopment of a previously lagging part of the city will always be worthwhile. One hopes that this will come true in the long run, because the initial, inevitable upheaval may seem more like a negative to some, even if the approach in London may have been much more considerate than the seemingly ruthless one in Beijing. The construction of new stadiums and arenas is a more double-edged issue. While to some extent new facilities may in fact become useful additions for the locals, more and more the concern has been that the Olympic Games tend to leave behind ‘white elephants’ that will never again be fully utilized. But London seems to have found a good approach, with a clear plan for ‘recycling’ (with Rio 2016 as the beneficiary) or remodeling into more usable facilities.

During the Closing Ceremony, IOC President Rogge referred to the London games as “happy and glorious”. Organizers always hold their collective breath at that moment, hoping for an expression of high praise. Now that, for the first time in a very long while I was not present myself, I still came away with a sense that ‘happy’ was a very appropriate label. The atmosphere around the events and in London seemed to match that. And many of the potential problems that had been discussed in advance did not materialize. There was no crime wave, let alone any hints of the Games being a target for terrorism. Traffic is inevitably going to be a cause for complaints, but how could it not be, considering the huge number of visitors who are not used to finding their way in London. And even the weather cooperated, which may be the most remarkable achievement for a place like London.

Going back to what I said before, it seems more of a concern that the Olympic Games have become a rather overwhelming affair for both host country and host city. So instead of demanding perfection and complaining when we do not get it, we should be appreciative when someone manages to pull it off in an efficient and attractive manner. But one wonders, particularly given the tendency that nobody wants to come across as being less impressive than a predecessor, how realistic it is going to be to find willing and successful organizers in the future, notwithstanding the prestige involved. What countries will be willing to take the risk, and what cities will have the infrastructure and resources to make it work? Of course, some countries may have the political situation and the attitude that ‘the end justifies the means’ and that the will of the people matters less. But it would be sad and dangerous to see such a trend develop, so the question is: what could and should be done to bring the Games down to a scale that would make the demands on an organizer more reasonable!? The options of reserving the opportunity for a handful of locations or else encouraging potential hosts for whom the effort and expense would be unconscionable, seem equally undesirable.