OLYMPI-HAD?

Tawfiq Chahboune

 

A recent BBC's Question Time was held at Stratford, the main setting for the 2012 Olympic Games. Here we learnt that there has been no money spent on aspiring athletes. The gymnastics teacher of the little girl used in a video promotion with David Beckham for the official London 2012 presentation to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has "no access to facilities". Lest we forget, the 2012 Olympics was advertised as a Games to encourage the building of new sporting facilities in a country where access to decent facilities range from pitiful to almost nonexistent. And to launch the careers of future Olympic champions. Two of the assurances made - facilities and funding athletes - have already been broken. Never mind. We shall see others broken.

Two days later on Radio 4's Any Questions? Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport and Olympics Minister, conceded that if the Games go over budget then it'll be down to London council taxpayers to foot the bill. This is the first sign that another pledge - no further council tax increases - has been dumped. When promises are not being broken, strange claims pour forth in their stead. Ms Jowell and Richard Caborn, Minister for Sport, have made it known that the UK's dearth of Olympic-sized swimming pools has now come to an end. The scarcity problem has been solved. Are more pools to be built? Not quite. Then how so? It is due, say Jowell and Caborn, to the apparent fact that swimming pools are merely "holes" and can therefore be transported with ease around the country to other places without said facilities. Holes, eh? And these "holes" are to be transported, right? Pray, how do you transport and store a "hole"? How do you know it has arrived? How do you know you haven't left some of it behind? The mind boggles.

Ms Jowell has on numerous occasions replied that to answer questions on council tax rises would give them credence and has therefore declined to reply to the preposterous: it is inconceivable that the Games will cost any more than that budgeted. But then this is the same Ms Jowell who believes in human sacrifice. Apropos of absolutely nothing, Ms Jowell squealed that she would gladly throw herself under a bus to save Tony Blair! Talk about cult of the individual. Anyway, has the question suddenly become less preposterous? One can only speculate as to why she has only now chosen to answer in the way she has. Perhaps it is that to have done so before the awarding of the Games to London may have endangered "public support". Maybe it is to send out an early warning that it is wishful thinking to imagine that the Games will come in on budget. My mind raced back to December 2003 when a PR campaign/"consultation" by London 2012 went awry.

Whether one believes hosting the Olympic Games is a good thing or a bad thing, no one - well, nearly no one - would surely wish to see the awarding of the Games to a city where the public mood was distorted, nay perverted, to give the "right answer". As ever, Yes Minister is instructive: In "The Ministerial Broadcast" Sir Humphrey Appleby teaches the inexperienced but aspiring civil servant Bernard Woolley how to create a survey which will give whatever result one wishes it to have. Indeed, Sir Humphrey may well have been impressed by the surveys showing that Londoners were gaga over staging the Olympics. One of the major factors Prime Minister Blair gave for London's award of the 2012 Olympic Games was that "London and Londoners were behind the bid".

 

Any announcement by Blair needs careful examination and dissection

Any announcement by Blair needs careful examination and dissection - before coming to the conclusion that he is, as usual, incapable of distinguishing fact from fiction. Whether it is his claim that as a child he smuggled himself on to a plane heading for Jamaica (such flights did not exist), or insisting that Britain entered World War II to end the Holocaust, or that UN Security Council Resolution 1441 provided "automaticity" for invading Iraq when a matter of months previous to this new reading of 1441 Blair and Co. had cajoled the security council into voting for the resolution because it did not provide "automaticity" or a "trigger", and that the UN Security Council would meet again to adjudicate on whether military force was appropriate, Blair's televangelist mendacity is legendary to all except those self-described "cynical" political journalists whose credulity is astounding - the incredulous are weeded out sharpish; only the unbelievably gullible can stoop to the levels of an Andrew Marr, a Nick Robinson or an Adam Boulton.

In May 2004 the IOC complained of a "lack of public support". This was further reflected in a survey by The Economist, also in May 2004, from Londoners and Britons. In very little time at all, however, Londoners, so reflected the surveys, were "behind the bid". One wonders how this fantastic turnaround occurred. For an answer - or, perhaps, at least the modus operandi - it is instructive to look at the "consultation" London 2012 had with the Londoners who would be directly effected - the residents of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets - if London were to be chosen as the host city.

Appropriately enough, in December 2003 London 2012, sans clowns, held a public consultation at Stratford Circus, a 40 million white elephant.  If I am not mistaken, the auditorium hosting Question Time also held the "consultation". Over five days, Wednesday 3rd - Sunday 7th, many topics were discussed, including the "legacy" the Games would bestow on the Lower Lea Valley, the site for most of the proposed regeneration; the homes and jobs to be provided in an "arc of opportunity"; concerns about transportation and the environment; the "aspirations" it would foster among the underprivileged. Since the poor are apparently without "aspirations", and can only be roused to better things by gazing upon people who run really fast and jump very high, they'll presumably return to their fallen state when the synchronised swimmers, rhythmic gymnasts and Greco-Roman wrestlers depart, so why bother? The implication throughout was that without the Olympics there would not be any "regeneration". The general tone was set early on when a consultant twittered: "The Olympic bidding process kernel around creative thinking, prototype services and how new forms of social inclusion can be anchored." And why wouldn't it?

The "consultation" was a curious affair in that it was held during the working day, which had the effect that residents would not be able to turn up and discuss the matters of concern to them. Many residents responded that this was almost certainly the intention. Where there is a problem, there is also an opportunity. London 2012 officials, businesses associated with the proposed Games and development of the Lower Lea Valley, and the London Development Agency outnumbered the public they were meant to be "consulting".

"Do you wish to see London host the 2012 Olympic Games?"

At the end of each session London 2012 consultants asked the public questions so as to get an idea of what they, apparently, wanted. The questions were along the lines of: "Do you wish to see London host the 2012 Olympic Games?" (Similarly phrased questions on jobs, affordable accommodation, transport, the environment, etc were also asked.) Extraordinarily, those associated with the bid were allowed to vote - those present were given an electronic device with which to choose from the various options offered. At one stage those associated with the bid not only made up the majority voting but were at certain voting times were at least double, treble or possibly quadruple that of the residents "consulted". The outcome was not therefore a fair representation of the views of the public, to say the least. Polls are regularly discounted by experts, though not necessarily dismissed, because of alleged "self-selection". This is a case of "self-selection" being taken to extremes. Gerrymandering would be more like it. On the panel at the Stratford Question Time was Labour MP Jacqui Smith. She pointed out that "A lot of local people showed we were enthusiastic". Well, only if all the consultants involved are "local people". Otherwise, Ms Smith's claim is nonsense.

Predictably enough, this "self-selection" caused a stir, with the public demanding that the results not be used in any way. One visibly angry local resident, witnessing how heavily stacked the decks were in favour of those representing the bid, commented that "It isn't a level playing field". The consultants muttered that it was "just a bit of fun", but refused to assure the public that they would not use the highly skewed results as proof that the residents of the three boroughs were "behind the bid". Sir Humphrey showed how to get the right answer: leading questions which can only reasonably have one answer - the one you want. In December 2003, apropos of stolen elections in banana republics, London 2012 oversaw the metaphorical stuffing of ballot boxes. I can just see the Sir Humphrey-type question in a survey of all Londoners: "Given that those consulted in East London are overwhelmingly behind hosting the Olympics, and will have their lives improved via regeneration and economic stimulus, are you for London hosting the Games in 2012, or would you rather see your fellow Londoners continue to wallow in poverty and early death?" And when Londoners as a whole reply as expected, the whole show can start again on a nationwide scale.

The Games is said to be redevelopment, affordable homes and jobs.

Fortunately, for those of an Upstairs Downstairs persuasion, that was not all the "consulted" local residents had to endure. The fun and games continued with a disgusted public looking on as a consultant mocked and humiliated them. It was all very reminiscent of the Monty Python sketch where a customer who has paid for an argument accidentally enters a room reserved for abuse, or the very existence of the loathsome and diabolical "Labour Friends of Iraq". The "legacy" - a word impossible to get away from, such is the falsity pervading any bid - of the Games is said to be redevelopment, affordable homes and jobs.

Sir Humphrey, however, would not have made the blunder in mooting something about "affordable accommodation". Like motherhood and apple pie, no one is against "affordable accommodation". Who, for pity's sake, is for unaffordable accommodation? Faced with the predictable "Yes", the consultant, Sir Steven Jacobs, awarded an OBE in 1999 "for services to regeneration in East London", berated the huddled masses: "Do we want to build housing for poor people?" and "Perhaps we don't want affordable accommodation? You're talking about housing for need. You're being very old fashioned. Should we be housing people according to lifestyle rather than need?" These wise words had the assembled consultants and London 2012 agents nodding in agreement.

The disgusted East Londoners were further taunted by the knighted consultant to "make good and move out. My parents they made good and moved out", and that making accommodation affordable in an area attracting rich people "means having sand in the cement". That is to say, the filthy and poor grainy sand mixed in with the rich and smooth cement. This particular insult angered the local residents no end. The farce that "affordable accommodation" will be one of the results of hosting the Olympic Games is PR. Those who haven't "made good and moved out" are losers - and whinging losers to boot. Having been raised in East London, something he boasted about, Sir Steven would have some faint inkling about the East End's legendary camaraderie. Not quite. Cue Sir Stevens: "Does it matter if neighbours talk to each other?"

"Why don't you treat us with the respect we deserve?"

The very idea that the Olympics will improve the lives of Londoners is fantasy. Indeed, property prices have rocketed even further since London won the bid. The London Development Agency were stumped for an answer when a local resident questioned how local people would be able to afford a home when the mere prospect of the Games coming to London had resulted in soaring house prices (many property speculators were buying up all they could get their hands on upon hearing years ago that there was a possibility that London would bid to host the Games). The upshot was a rather exasperated local resident shouting: "Why don't you treat us with the respect we deserve?" The peasant, evidently, was unable to understand that her type of people have to earn respect, something stock brokers, estate agents and accountants have earned. This was almost certainly due to her mind being clogged up with chip fat (a new insult for you, Sir Steven). When all is said and done, the "consultation" PR campaign did not have the desired result. By May 2004, six months after the "consultation", the IOC registered a distinct lack of interest in surveys for London hosting the 2012 Games. The modus operandi, however, may have been set by Stratford - dirty tricks. Heaven knows what the London 2012 team got up to after the "consultation". What happened in Stratford was meant to be schmoozing!     

So-called "regeneration projects" (translation: social exclusion) are notorious for corruption, cost over-runs and uselessness to the community. In general, it is only the rich who are the beneficiaries of international sporting events. For instance, council tax rates are generally increased in line with inflation for businesses. And given that the only community which will benefit from the Olympics will be the big business community, should their tax contributions not rise? Homeowners, meanwhile, have seen considerable inflation-busting increases as central government squeezes its local counterpart. Moreover, London residents will also see their council taxes rise as they are apparently to benefit in some hazy way from an Olympics that has hitherto been nothing but a colossal economic failure wherever it has been held.

The fact that no Olympics has ever made a profit is something that has to be kept quiet - some cities were either virtually bankrupted or left with sporting facilities they cannot use. Sydney and Athens are but two, and the most recent two at that. Where an Olympic games has made a "profit" - a deliberately imprecise term - it has been due to imaginative accounting: any infrastructure built is considered an injection of investment. For example, the Sydney Olympic Stadium, which has barely been used since the Games, is considered a massive investment of hundreds of millions of dollars, though the costs for its upkeep are enormous and does not benefit the local community. Similarly for Athens. That is not an argument against staging the Olympics. It is an argument for being - and do forgive my naivete - truthful with the taxpayer.

"national pride"

After all, one can make an argument for holding the Games for all kinds of reasons, none of which, however, are economic: one can fulminate till the cows come home about "national pride" or some such guff. Unsurprisingly, such arguments don't find receptive audiences. And so a tissue of lies naturally arises about "regeneration" and "legacy". The question arises, why do so many countries battle it out to hold the Olympic Games if they have zero economic value, or, as is usually the case, if they are an economic burden? A minor answer is that politicians wish to shower themselves in glory. The major answer is that the right people benefit economically: big business make out like bandits. (For example, private healthcare is not nearly as efficient or as competent as the NHS, so why run down and privatise one of the finest healthcare systems in the world? Because the right people benefit.) 

No matter what financial difficulties London may face, surely what is not in dispute is that a great number of jobs will be created, right? Well, not exactly. Marilyn Taylor (what else but a consultant?) drew great inspiration from the "success" of the financially disastrous Manchester Commonwealth Games and the "good legacy" it had for employment. Ms Taylor's words are nothing if not highly enlightening: "There is a lesson to be learned [from Manchester]. The number of jobs in cleaning was underestimated." This and the rather extraordinary number of jobs (46,000 - 66,500 over twenty years and at least 3,000 jobs almost immediately) the Olympics would create in the three boroughs directly impacted were, however, "deeply controversial and not to be quoted". Do forgive me, Marilyn.

Be that as it may, how have previous major construction projects helped East London? The Jubilee Line extension, Dome and even the massive Docklands project have not directly helped, in any meaningful way, residents in those areas. There are minor superficial benefits, but capital does not respect secondary intentions, and poverty is still endemic in East London. Big business understands this; it also understands that blabbing something about "regeneration", "legacy" and "social cohesion" costs little but goes a long way in changing attitudes. People, after all, regularly vote against or subvert their own interests. Major sporting projects like the new Wembley Stadium (the company building the stadium has gone bust) and the farcical Pickets Lock are or were massively over-budget.

who will pay if costs do spiral out of control

Why should London 2012 be on budget when previous major construction projects have not? A London Development Agency official answered that those in charge of previous projects didn't know what they were doing. Fair enough. Tessa Jowell commented that there was no chance of cost over-runs because there now exist "detailed costings to prevent these consequences" (she has since changed her mind). But there weren't any "detailed costings" for Wembley or Pickets Lock or the Dome? Surely they can come up with better lies than this? Or have all their best fibs been used up already on Iraq (a law of conservation of mendacity)? Verily, there are more horses' asses in the world than there are horses. Ominously, the BBC revealed that "the details are still being hammered out" on who will pay if costs do spiral out of control. Channel 4's economics editor reported that "few serious economists" believe the cost of the Games will not increase and the extravagant claims made of the Olympics in boosting London's economy.

London residents will have to endure council tax rises for many years to come in order that their city will "benefit" from the Games, something, whether deliberately or not, that was misrepresented by London's mayor to make them believe that any council tax increases were for fewer years than actually is the case. Mayor Ken Livingstone tried to console Londoners by regurgitating his monotonous confectionary economics: "That's 38p per week. Less than the cost of a walnut whip." (Just for the record, my local shop stocks walnut whips at more than 38p.) But how to guarantee that Londoners' council tax would not have to carry the burden of any cost over-runs? Finally cornered, Mayor Livingstone replied that it was inconceivable that Londoners would have to pay more because their original contribution was "doubled and twenty percent added" to come to the new figure of the walnut whip council tax increase. That's some admission: the original cost to Londoners has already doubled and then some, although "few serious economists" think that Mayor Livingstone's "think of a number, double it and add a bit more" tax will be nearly enough. As Ms Jowell has conceded. In what way is this not already looking like other sporting cost over-runs?

Lord Banks

Lord Stratford, hitherto Tony Banks (memorably, while live on radio, he called a member of his East End constituency a "wanker" because he was not of the same opinion as the then "honourable" member of parliament), nonetheless thought that, since east London is a place "where not a lot of good happens", the whole thing was "the best thing that's ever happened to the East End ever". East London must be a helluva depressing place with little going for it if a two-week sporting event, which few local residents will be able to afford to attend, is the "best thing ever" to happen to it. One wonders if Lord Banks, a former Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport responsible for a whole host of financial sporting disasters, would be of the same opinion had he attended the "consultation", nay denigration.     

All said, was this not all just one big PR exercise - and one with tremendous propaganda value? The answer to this is easily grasped by looking at the dates the consultation was held and when the final planning application had to be received by the Olympic authorities. The "consultation" ended on Sunday 7 December 2003. The final date for London 2012 to submit their final planning application was 22 December 2003. Now, given that the application would have been a laborious affair, taking in all manner of considerations, is it conceivable that it would potentially have to be rewritten in fifteen days - if that is they started right away that very night - to take account the views of the residents of Hackney, Newham and Tower Hamlets, who have only recently been "consulted"? Shit, after all, has its own integrity. It is also efficacious: London will host the 2012 Olympic Games.

Given all this, how many Londoners would want to stage a highly commercialised event where they are ripped off? Put in those terms, not many. If you let Sir Humphrey ask the questions you'll find yourself agreeing to all kinds of things. Perhaps, you'll even find yourself agreeing that you don't want affordable accommodation, especially not for the poor. And perhaps you'll find that you berate yourself to "make good", you pathetic loser. Faced with seduction like that, who wouldn't go weak at the knees and get a warm, gooey feeling inside? Aaah, makes yer proud!