LOS ANGELES, Dec. 23, 2011 – Canadian Dick Pound, one of the International Olympic Committee’s most respected members, famously said in the 1990s that some of the best fiction he’d ever read was in the bid books submitted by would-be organizers of the Olympic Games.
He didn’t mean to make fun of any specific bid, but that the wildly-inflated claims of civilization-changing Olympic celebrations must be seen for what they are: hyperbole.
Eventually, reality creeps in as the British government, British taxpayers and the London organizers have found out:
• The government’s proposed £2.4 billion (~ $3.75 billion U.S.) budget in 2005 quickly ballooned to £9.3 billion (~ $14.55 billion U.S.), nearly four times the originally-expected cost and recent reports indicate that might not be enough.
• The London Olympic and Paralympic organizing committee (LOCOG) has a budget of £2.15 billion (~ $3.36 billion) from its share of television rights sales, tickets, sponsorships and licensing, worryingly augmented by the recent £41 million (~ $64 million U.S.) addition from the government to bolster the opening and closing ceremonies.
So, the total cost is around £11.45 billion (~ $17.91 billion U.S.) as of now, compared with a bid projection of around £4.5 billion (~ $7 .0 billion U.S.). Pound was right.
So the budget exploded, there are reports that surface-to-air missiles will be stationed in Hyde Park during the Games as protection against terrorist threats, and LOCOG chair Sebastian Coe’s hope that more Britishers will add 30 minutes of exercise three times per week has foundered as noted in Ashling O’Connor’s December 2 story in The Times of London entitled “2012 legacy plan for a fitter Britain is quietly scrapped” in which it is noted:
One of the key promises which helped London win the right to host the 2012 Olympics is being quietly scrapped by ministers because Britons are stubbornly resisting efforts to get them playing more sport.
So what about London’s legacy? Actually, the opportunities are still there, but not those originally expected:
• Achievement: Assuming the Games come off reasonably well, the Brits can celebrate the fact in the midst of a worldwide recession and in one of the most densely-populated cities in the world, they put on a memorable show, becoming the first-ever city to host a third Olympic Games.
The value of this is not to be under-appreciated. Unlike a World Cup, which is spread all over a country, the Olympic Games soaks up all the resources even a city like London has and then much more. Where the U.S., China and Russia are seen as the world’s power leaders, Britain can say it stepped up when it came forward to organize one of the world’s largest peacetime events.
The local, regional and national momentum for this can be considerable, especially in attracting capital for new industry and jobs. If Britain can handle the Olympics in the middle of London, it can handle new factories, technologies and so on and needs to say so. Los Angeles benefitted mightily from this “era of good feeling” for eight years after the 1984 Games.
• Enthusiasm: LOCOG is on pace to sell out its public ticket allocations for both the Olympic Games and the Paralympics, an unheard-of achievement. That should translate well for the future for shared public experiences of all kinds: civic, cultural and sporting. Clever companies and institutions with an eye to get people involved could profit by this in future years.
• Health: Coe’s idea that hosting the Games would lead to more people participating in exercise might not be dead yet. But the onus will be on the organizers and especially the health sector to step up after the Games.
Forget about fitness clubs, pick-up soccer matches and swimming lessons; the simple activity of walking is perhaps the best exercise of all and this can be promoted by maintaining some of the Olympic landmarks that will otherwise be forgotten soon after next summer’s events are completed:
=> Maintain a visible marking of the Torch Relay route throughout the country and mark off one-mile (or one-kilometer, if you must be metric) segments so that people can simply walk along the route for exercise. Mark the route with permanent signage featuring the Olympic Torch design.
=> Use British Olympians (who are mostly supported at taxpayer expense) or other stars of the Games on similar routes in other parts of London and in other parts of Britain. People can walk the “Dai Greene mile” named after the 400 m Hurdles world champion, the “Mo Farah 5k” after the famed distance runner or the “Jessica Ennis Half Hour” after the heptathlon star. Put up signs with their faces on it and words of encouragement. This will cost a lot less than a national ad campaign trying to get people to exercise for the next several years.
=> Mark off lanes for walking around some of the Olympic venues with signage indicating how far a “lap” around the facility is. Organize road races themed around and held at the Olympic venues, which will help to keep them in the public eye.
• Tourism: Olympic host cities always talk about tourism to the Olympic venues, but the actual impacts are rare. By creating some of the locally-based attractions noted above to promote exercise, the possibility of “running tourism” to London can be significantly expanded, well beyond the current interest in the famed London Marathon.
Since the Olympic track is planned to be preserved, hold a regularly-scheduled, weekly all-comers meet where people of all ages can sign up to actually run on the track and receive a certificate of achievement and finish-line photograph. Create a lasting tourism impact from hosting the Games, long after the 2012 event ends.
And, of course, keep bidding for major events; the 2017 IAAF World Championships are a good start, but there are 25 other sports on the 2012 program that have events as well.
• Academics and Television: London’s newspapers, radio and television channels are bursting at the seams with Olympic programming . . . which will all end as soon as the Olympic flame is extinguished. Keep it going.
London could easily start, in concert with one or more universities and its home-grown sponsors, an annual Olympic symposium, perhaps around the time of its annual Diamond League track & field meet. For all of the effort that goes into the Olympic Movement, there is precious little study of major events and their impacts, and the impact of the I.O.C. on the world today. Britain and talking heads? A perfect match!
There are many more ideas, of course, but you get the idea. The real legacy of a successful Games is that people continue to share in that success, long after the costs are forgotten. Despite the cost explosion, the million-and-one details and the organizational headaches still ahead, the opportunity for a successful London legacy is still there for the taking.
(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)