Edition number 11; dateline 6 August 2008
Flying the flag in pursuit of the possible
Despite the news focus on security, political paranoia, weather and air quality, it seemed that the run-up to the 2008 Olympics began relatively quietly. A little excitement was noticeable beyond the newspaper supplements but even the BBC’s advance publicity had something of a low-key feel to it, a nervousness about what was to come. All will change, of course, once the Games begin and medals start to be handed out. As ever, the spectacle of supreme sporting achievement will capture the imagination and take away the breath of everyone watching from afar.
There are rumours of quiet confidence within the Great Britain team but back home among the members of the Olympic Delivery Authority and LOCOG there is bound to be some trepidation. When the flame goes out in Beijing it will be our turn. A large number of people across GB sport will as one feel as though they are trying to swallow something hard and jagged as they contemplate the task ahead.
The London 2012 bid was built upon the promise of legacy and the legacy of Beijing (similarly trumpeted in advance of the Games but with the long-term impact promised by the International Olympic Committee rather than the host city) will be closely studied. Will the promised effects upon the political machinery of state be discernable a few years after the Games? Will there be more openness and access, a willingness to move away from repression, control and state-sanctioned murder? Or will it transpire that the global corporations that bankroll the IOC have been the real winners, finding new markets and even greater profits? Will Beijing and London follow on from Atlanta, Athens and (whisper it) perhaps even Sydney on the ignominious roll call of hosts who failed to find and deliver a legacy that had a positive and profound effect on the communities that paid for it?
As London prepares for the reality of being next on the Olympic list it is time for the organisers of 2012 to recapture the potential of the Games for legacy and leadership. London 2012 is currently mired in arguments about buildings and costs, an inevitability given the scale of the project. These arguments will take a back seat as long as the benefits are clearly understood and effectively communicated. We may be assured that a nation transformed in its health, activity and aspirations will be worth ten times whatever it finally ends up costing us. Someone just has to remember this aspiration and have the confidence to restate it.
There is also the opportunity for London 2012 to save the Olympic Games. That the torch relay for 2012 has already been cancelled for fear of a repetition of the protests seen this year speaks volumes about how damaged the Olympic movement has become; press restrictions, street clearances and nationalism in the run-up to Beijing have only added to the problem. How long can the Olympics Games survive if it continues to grow in size and cost, and serves only to enrich and aggrandize governments and corporations that exploit the peoples of the world for political and economic gain?
Instead of aspiring to the biggest and best, London organisers should consider taking the foot off the accelerator. In a world of environmental meltdown, over-population and corporate exploitation, continuous growth is no longer a sustainable – or even sensible – goal. London 2012 should be working out how to lower expectations, decrease the mass of the Olympic machine and return the Games to a human scale. It can still be an impressive and exciting celebration of all that is good about culture and sport but it should also be seen to be an achievable event for cities and nations that do not sit towards the top of the world wealth league table. Any nation not in the top ten cannot realistically expect to be able to host an Olympic Games in its current form and if the proposal for a permanent site for the Games in Greece – as sensible a suggestion as any other currently doing the rounds in Olympic circles – gains ground it will have to be a much smaller undertaking. Let’s start now.
London 2012 has done a great deal already to make sure that the green box is ticked but it has the opportunity to reinvent the Olympics for the rest of the century and the next as the beacon for humanity that its modern founder once hoped it would be. By celebrating the achievement of individuals rather than nations, by undermining the myth that political structures or value systems are somehow able to deliver better human beings, by choosing to deny the received wisdom that wealth is all that matters, London could do an immense and immeasurable service to the world. It could start by declaring that the London Olympics will be wholly dedicated to providing a community legacy for the UK and the rest of the sporting world. It could demonstrate that London is serious about its responsibilities by declaring that British athletes will be competing under the Olympic flag in 2012. Imagine athletes striving for success in the name of sport and the individual, taking to the podium in a shirt free of advertisements for equipment manufacturers or national superiority.
It’s time for leadership. Let the Union Flag fly over the Olympic stadium as host rather than vanquisher. Let the glory come to those who deserve it: the athletes who compete and the people whose lives can be changed by a different perspective of what is possible. Let the host nations and the Olympic movement raise their sights a little higher than gold and lucre.
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