From Bedford to Beijing: inside the Bird’s Nest
As part of their work to promote travel and investment from overseas Visit Britain took a group of regional representatives to the Olympic front line to learn about making the most of the Games. Lloyd Conaway reports from Beijing
Keith Brown, CEO of East of England Tourism, Olympic legend Alberto Juanterino and Lloyd Conaway
A group of people from the Nations and Regions Group of London 2012 were very privileged to have the opportunity to visit Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games. Under the auspices of Visit Britain, the tourism people, and Sportsworld, twenty-six people from across the English regions, Northern Ireland and Wales spent a week in Beijing enjoying the experience and working to attract business to the UK prior to the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games in London. I was part of a group from the East Region, the region closest to the London Games and an area which, with two events scheduled in 2012 (mountain biking in the hills of Essex and the whitewater events in Hertfordshire), has more to gain than most.
While the weather was hot and steamy at times, there was little evidence of smog and after a mid-week thunderstorm the skies cleared to provide wonderful Mediterranean-style sunshine. My overall impression was of a fantastic Games experience. We were made very welcome and everything was very well organised. The food in the stadia was rubbish and the security tedious but the new airport is world-class. As a destination Beijing is well worth a visit, particularly the amazing Forbidden City (how is it that one of the last emperors had 72 concubines and only produced one child?).
Mindful of the purpose of its visit, the group pursued a very busy programme. This included hosting a reception for over one hundred National Olympic Committee members from across the world to promote the opportunity for visiting countries and teams to the UK for pre-games training camps. Seb Coe and Tessa Jowell used the occasion to launch the London 2012 training camps publication. Excellent feedback was received from NOC representatives who had not seen a promotional event like this at previous games. However, the job now is to follow up the contacts made and attract teams leading up to London 2012. A personal highlight was meeting Alberto Juanterino, the Olympic legend who is now the NOC representative for Cuba.
The group also presented a travel trade show where almost two hundred Chinese travel trade people came to learn about the opportunities to visit the UK. While the Chinese market is small at present, there are over one billion Chinese, many of whom are becoming wealthier and more able to travel. Having visited London House, the home of the London Development Agency and the ‘London presence’ in Beijing, the group also visited Holland House to see how the Dutch did it (where as you might imagine there was a very relaxed and low-key atmosphere) and Canada House, the home of the Canadian presence in Beijing and also of the winter Olympics team from Whistler, British Columbia. The group learned about the pre-Games work that had been delivered in British Columbia for 2010 and met business partnership people who were proving successful in realising the benefits of 2010 on behalf of their communities and their businesses.
I also had the added privilege of going to the athletes’ village one morning, a visit hosted by Ben Hunt-Davis, a gold medal rower from the eight in Sydney, who had volunteered as an athlete assistant working for the BOA. This trip gave a fantastic insight into life as an athlete at the games and was one of the most intimidating places I have ever been: over 10,000 of the fittest, strongest, biggest and fastest young people on the planet, all in the same place and most in Lycra. Having held my stomach in for three hours, it was a relief to leave.
When I was invited to visit the Beijing “planning office”, my days of working with local government planners came flooding back and I thought that this was not going to be the most enthralling morning of the trip. However, if you go to Beijing make sure you visit the planning office (just off Tiananmen Square) for a wonderful insight into the city and how it has developed. You can walk round an amazing scale model the size of a badminton court which is bang up to date with every new building included.
The group was also able to learn about the sponsorship side of the Games through a visit to the Coca Cola building in the Olympic Green. The company’s newly appointed London 2012 Games director was able to give a fascinating insight into Coca Cola’s involvement in the games and their early thoughts about London. The company had run a highly successful competition to “design a Coca Cola bottle” around China and the winners were all on display.
We visited the media centre, to learn about the huge media presence and their requirements during the Games, and even saw some sport. The beach volleyball, rowing and two sessions in the wonderful Bird’s Nest were a real treat. The highlights were watching the four win their rowing gold and seeing Usain Bolt break the 100 metres world record.
Lloyd Conaway is the director of ‘Team Beds and Luton’, the county sports partnership, and non-executive chair of BOOST, a partnership organisation working on realising the benefits of London 2012 to its communities.
BOOST also part funded fifteen Young Ambassadors from Bedfordshire and Luton to spend a week in Beijing; they will return to inspire other young people about sport, the Olympics and London 2012.
The Leisure Review, September 2008
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