From Beijing to London: it’s the politics, stupid

Having enjoyed the Olympic show, Nick Reeves offers some inconvenient truths for the Olympic movement and some advice for the organisers of London 2012

Nick Reeves: now in training for 2012

The Olympics was okay(ish) but it was very un-British of Team GB to win so many medals. Winning is not what we’ve come to expect from our top performers. Coming fourth and just missing out on a medal is more like it, don’t you think? And each time one of our medal-winners mounted the podium I just had to look away. It was all so embarrassing. The Americans are so much better at that sort of thing, so best leave it to them, I feel.    

However, despite the cloyingly awful opening and closing ceremonies, the incessant flag-waving, the ridiculous outfits of some of the participants and the toadying of certain BBC TV presenters (although not the three Brummies), it was a delight to see the natural charm and guileless enthusiasm of our Olympic performers and medal winners. ‘Well done’ to them for a job well done. Of course, they’ll now be lauded and corrupted, and grab what they can from a debased and silly honours system, TV deals and advertising. And the media will turn on some of them for the greatest sport of all: dragging heroes off their pedestals. I just can’t believe we haven’t had a ‘kiss and tell’ revelation yet. Surely, there’s at least one love-rat in Team GB? If so, I just hope it’s not our fourteen-year-old diver. Stories on the use of performance-enhancing drugs seem to be so yesterday.

But is the mark of an Olympic sport enthusiast a single begrudging tut and shrug of the shoulders on hearing about the human misery caused by the staging of the Beijing Olympics? Just thirty miles from the “Bird’s Nest” farmers were unable to grow crops and lost their livelihoods as the authorities sought to ensure that the inhabitants of the Olympic village got enough water for their needs. In their anxiety to host a good Olympics, China’s rulers have confused national image with national interest. Anything regarded as unsightly – old buildings, people with non-conformist views, the poor – has been swept away. The result has been a gleaming and efficient Olympics full of happy volunteers and cheery rose-cheeked fans with the reality of a dynamic but ultimately flawed society carefully hidden. Those hacks who are now scribbling their reviews of “one of the greatest Olympic Games ever” will ignore this inconvenient truth. Countless other tales of a China bent out of shape by a desire to showcase the best in sport will barely merit a footnote.

The lessons that must now be learned for London 2012 are quite bewildering and the attendant forensic scrutiny will be relentless. Scapegoats are already being lined up but one thing is certain: Beijing must not be a benchmark for London. We must hold ministers’ feet to the fire on this. And the bonkers threesome of Tessa Jowell, Boris Johnson and Lord Coe must resist any pressure from the equally bonkers panjandrums of that unaccountable body, the IOC, to emulate Beijing’s hysteria and spend, spend, spend. If it’s true that the fat-cats of the IOC want an exclusive limousine lane up the Mile End Road for themselves and the “Olympic family” to avoid public transport the request should be politely but firmly cold-shouldered. Who do these people think they are? And if they get their limo-lane I hope their shiny cars are pelted with something smelly.

Okay, it’s an unfair and trite comparison but I’ll make it anyway – others will: a new equestrian centre (that will involve digging up historic Greenwich Park) or life-saving drugs for those in need, regardless of postcode? A new diving pool or NHS dental care for all? The cost of the Olympics for London have breached all logic. Around half a billion pounds has, it would seem, been spent on consultants, many of whom (I kid you not) were hired to control costs. And I suspect some contractors cleverly under-bid as they guessed that budgets would rise along with the hysteria; whoever issues the contract variation orders is certainly going to be busy. Those who rely on public money for local arts projects, care for the elderly and for all those other essential services neither the public nor private sectors would touch with a vaulting pole deserve to know why the money that will be denied them is to be wasted on barmy ceremonies and parties that cost 2.5 million quid a throw. Three years ago we were promised a Games that would be embedded in the life of the city of London with existing facilities brought in to use. It was said that the whole nation would be involved but the IOC had other ideas and soon put a stop to that idea. It soon became very clear that a minimum budget of £3 billion would be needed to secure the Games.

But, as the Sydneysiders might have put it, no wucking furries. The IOC (a body only slightly less authoritarian but with far more chutzpah than the Chinese government) should be told that 2012 is for London and not for them. So how about something really different that London can offer the world? Simple, tasteful and understated opening and closings, no limousine lanes, no jingoism or toe-curling medal ceremonies, and no hyperbole. And none of the pretence that the Olympics is about one world, peace and fraternity. The Games and the medals tables are about one-upmanship and mirror (or even accentuate) the social, cultural, economic and political differences between nations. Be honest: the Olympics are about conflict and settling old scores. And lest we forget, while we were all enjoying the cut and thrust of competition in Beijing’s sporting arenas the attention of the world was also on Russia as it played out its own more eye-catching conflict in the Caucasus. So can we please set aside the notion that one prime purpose of the Olympics is to be a force for good in the world. I doubt that there is any  evidence that the Olympic movement has prevented war or conflict, or assuaged political ambition. If the Olympics is about anything other than sport, it’s about selfishness, profligacy and spectacle of the glitzy kind. Above all, it’s politics, stupid.


Nick Reeves is executive director of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environmental Management. He is a Brummie by both birth and inclination.


The Leisure Review, September 2008



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“One thing is certain: Beijing must not be a benchmark for London. We must hold ministers’ feet to the fire on this. And the bonkers threesome of Tessa Jowell, Boris Johnson and Lord Coe must resist any pressure from the equally bonkers panjandrums of that unaccountable body, the IOC, to emulate Beijing’s hysteria”

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