Maybe treading water is the right metaphor. Possibly something about running around in circles, going off half-cocked, scoring an own goal, being on the ropes or canoeing up a less than pollution-free creek without a paddle. Whichever you think most appropriate for describing the challenges facing London’s plans for the 2012 Olympics, surely we need a timeout and change of gameplan before we are forced to throw in the towel.
It should give no one any pleasure that this is so. Cries of “I-told-you-so” get us nowhere. But nor do accusations of joy-killing. While the descent from cream-suited euphoria in July 2005 to rose-tinted explanations of overspend and delay last week was wholly predictable, there should not be any embarrassment that London has fallen victim to the economic and logistical problems of hosting an Olympics. Structurally, the system for determining the hosts and creating the necessary infrastructure concentrates too much pressure on governments, cities and organisations unable to absorb it.
It was not until 1984 and the 23rd Olympiad (actually only the 20th, but still), in Los Angeles, that the games made money for the first time. China’s budget for 2008 is soaring past the original $23 billion estimate. Montreal’s taxpayers are still forking out for 1976. Athenians have the EU to thank for subbing them two years ago. $32 million per year of public money is still required for the upkeep of Sydney’s Olympic venues. Atlanta basically ended up as the Coca-Cola Games to take the sting out of the costs. But still had to have a billion dollar bail-out.
Add to this overarching reality our functional inability to deliver on such projects and you have a situation that requires a totally new approach. And not just to London 2012. A successful fortnight of sporting spectacle and a transformed East London will be a proud achievement. But a more significant Olympic legacy could be the reform of the organisation, economy and politics of the Games itself.
First, we need to challenge the convention of having a single city and its surrounding area as host. Joint hosting, making use of several locations, works for the world’s second and third largest sporting events (the football World Cup and European Championships). Why not the largest? In fact, in an age of 24-hour broadcasting, the internet and fast and cheap inter-continental travel, why do the Olympics even have to take place within the same time-zone, let alone the same postcode?
What if, for 2016, instead of single cities bidding for the whole Olympics, potential hosts (be they cities, regions or countries) bid for one of the 28 Olympic sports and the dozen or so events each comprises. Let’s say that no country will “get” more than five sports. Then whichever nation tops the medal table gets to choose the four sports it wants to host in 2020. Second place chooses the next four and so on up to seventh. But one of the sports that the seven top nations choose has to be jointly hosted with a nation that came in the bottom seven. And it has to be on that second country’s soil.
If this had been the case after Athens 2004, then economies with a combined per capita GDP of $182,000 would now be building new infrastructure and encouraging tourism to those with a combined per capita GDP of $39,000. Admittedly, there’s more than the fair share of political and security obstacles to that scenario (USA and Syria getting together on a velodrome project is probably a little premature). But the basic point remains. The Olympics could be a vehicle for building international relations and spreading a bit of global wealth rather than the strangely divisive, money vacuum it has become.
As the next hosts (Beijing’s already a write-off), we should take the first steps towards changing the Olympic paradigm for good and for the better. Let’s go back to the IOC and to (gulp as pride is swallowed and nearly choked upon) France, as host runners-up, and suggest that 2012 becomes a joint Anglo-French affair, sharing the glory but also the costs and the organisation. And with our two nation’s poorest regions or cities included in the reconfigured bids.
After it is all over, the UK can then lead the expansion of this new model for the Games into a multi-hosted, worldwide event that leaves in its wake more than some unused buildings and a slightly heightened interest in archery.