by Kevin Meagher
I don’t often find myself in agreement with Diane Abbott, but I have cut out her piece from the Independent about the olympic games and pinned it above my desk, so I can read it over and over again while weeping tears of joy.
God bless the woman. She hit the nail on the head, articulating what I have been murmuring to myself for the past couple of years: the 2012 Olympic Games is a dreadful, expensive pile of tosh. Diane didn’t quite put it like that; she is a London MP after all and it takes more bravery for her to diss the games than it does for a chippy northerner like me; but it was a good effort on her part – worthy of a podium spot.
Diane rightly bemoans the “missed opportunity” of not employing more local people in building the games’ infrastructure, saying the Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) was “never serious” about giving opportunities to local people, which may indeed have been a smart move to help avert this summer’s London riots.
Instead the jobs created by the ODA have gone mainly to outsiders, with workers being bussed-in from all across Europe.
In respectable circles, it still classes as a thought crime to whisper any calumny against London 2012. Yet it remains the most gratuitous, self-indulgent example of waste and over-promise in the history of the British nation. Its garish, juvenile branding is utterly apt: big, jazzy, hard to fathom and in dubious taste.
It bookends New Labour’s original cultural sin – the millennium dome – in its all-encompassing uselessness. The dome was bad enough; a project in search of a purpose – with no clear conceptual design and then given to a committee of tinkerers to deliver. Tony Blair’s political antennae had a day off. Perhaps a week. But the olympics are worse; if only in the quantum of public money expended to no good effect. Where the dome cost us £900 million the games are setting us back £9.5 billion. In this respect, it is ten times the disaster.
Why? Well for the same outlay we could have revolutionised social housing in this country, putting many of the half a million unemployed construction workers back to work and leaving a legacy that any social democratic party could have been proud.
But what do we get instead? A month-long sporting extravaganza where Britain’s medal tally will probably fit inside a McDonald’s happy meal box – (fitting, as they are one of the sponsors). And when the crowds melt away, what will we be left with that benefits a single ordinary person in this country?
Of course there will be clever analyses that point out a return in terms of tourism and the like. There always is, when we know that public money is going down the drain. But in our gut we know that this is a project that seemed more permissible in the economic good times, but now looks like wild excess; the sporting equivalent of Imelda Marcos’s shoe collection.
Yet our entire political class remains utterly transfixed, captivated by the puff propaganda and seemingly blithe to the fact previous olympic host cities have been left with crippling costs to meet after the caravan has rolled on to the next hapless venue.
After the shambles of the dome, Labour ministers, in particular, should have known better than to get involved. But the sunny cheerleaders of London 2012 keep up their relentless sales pitch.
I sat through a fringe meeting during the recent Labour conference to hear Tessa Jowell, Sebastian Coe and former triple-jumper Jonathan Edwards – all fixed smiles and bromides – explain how spiffing the games was going to be. If they handed out medals for talking up the immeasurable wonderfulness of the whole thing the panel would have bagged gold, silver and bronze.
However when the questioning turned to the legacy of the games they were a bit less pleased with themselves. They should be. There isn’t really one. Well that’s not quite true, there’s a new super-sized shopping mall. And some social housing once the athletes vacate the olympic village. But that’s about it.
“The language of priorities is the religion of socialism” said Nye Bevan. It was a warning: do the important things first – and always be clear what they are, don’t get seduced with fripperies. Well we have been; good and proper. The olympics should never have been a priority for Labour or the country.
Neither is spending lots of public money on sport, frankly. We shouldn’t care whether or not we have any world champion hurdlers or javelin flingers. Boxing, football and even angling are sports where Britain (okay, England) excels internationally. They make do without oodles of public cash. So should athletics, tennis or any of the other lame duck disciplines where we are not blessed with any particular national proficiency? All we are doing by doling out on “elite athletes” is subsiding them while they make their own personal fortunes.
And then there’s the impact on ordinary Londoners. The disruption, the extra traffic, the surge in prostitution and people trafficking, the pervasive threat of terrorist attack and the deployment of the army and surface-to-air missiles are but some of the unpleasant but hopefully transient problems that are part and parcel of the games. Cockneys will be crowded off their own manor; while all those pearly kings have a nightmare with the metal detectors.
And then there’s the pointless, unjustifiable double-spending. 200 miles north in Manchester we already have a tonne of international class sporting infrastructure left over from the 2002 commonwealth games. They went well, were delivered on time and on-budget with considerably less hulabloo. Yet, come what may, Britain’s bid for the olympics had to come from London instead. So we now have a load of duplicate facilities.
Finally, why on earth should anyone in the rest of the country give a damn? Cities around the country are trying valiantly to make something out of hosting visiting athletes in their hotels or the ephemeral joy of having the torch relay dash past them. Little more than nuts and berries, while the high-ups and commercial sponsors carve-up meaty contracts. Meanwhile, for the multitudes denied a ticket after they were snapped up by corporates or sleazy ticket touts, there is not even the pleasure of witnessing the games first-hand.
Like Elton John’s bill for fresh flowers, it is truly amazing how little the olympics will actually bequeath us given the vast sums spent on it courtesy of tax-payers. Historians of our current age of turbulence will marvel at how willing we were to lavish public money on the games, while simultaneously slashing spending on our key services.
Diane, on this issue, if not on others, I kiss the very words you write. Like a wrestler from the olympics of antiquity, London 2012 stands, stark naked, before us. Not bronzed and proud, as it should be, but rolls of pimply turkey flesh and a shrivelled protuberance.
With only that wretched logo to hide its shame.
Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut.