London’s Olympic attitude will determine the altitude of the 2012 Games

November 29, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Olympic Games 

LOS ANGELES, Nov. 29, 2011 – As the public face of London’s Olympic organizing committee for the 2012 Games, Sebastian Coe (pictured) sits in an astonishingly difficult position.

On the one hand, he is the head of a vast organization that will stage to one of the most complex regularly-scheduled events in the world: the Olympic Games. But at the same time, he is also a hostage to LOCOG’s thousands of employees, contractors and volunteer staff who will actually put on the event and whose actions could result in glory or disaster for the Games, and for Coe.

In this context, Coe’s public persona and those of both organizing committee and British government officials, may well be the difference between adulation and scorn next summer. It will be their attitude which will determine the altitude to which the London Games will reach.

The most dramatic contrast in approach is showcased by comparing the approaches of Billy Payne and Peter Ueberroth, the chief executives of the Olympic organizing committees of Atlanta (1996) and Los Angeles (1984), respectively:

• Payne’s approach was summed up in a 25 February 1996 story by Allan Myerson in the New York Times:


FORGET about the Renaissance. Never mind the Industrial Revolution or the founding of the world’s great religions. “The Atlanta Olympic Games,” Billy Payne booms out to his Chamber of Commerce dinner audience in Charlotte, N.C., “will be the greatest peacetime event in history.”

That comment has been widely repeated in stories about the Atlanta Games and has become an albatross around the neck of both Payne and the post-1996 reputation of those Games. When much is promised, much is expected.

• Ueberroth took almost exactly the opposite approach. In speech after speech to audiences large and small, he continuously preached that his organizing committee “are the stagehands; the athletes are the show.” This was no act; Ueberroth repeatedly insisted that accommodations for the participating athletes – in every area – be as good as possible. He upbraided his highly-respected ticketing department at a 1982 meeting for proposing that athlete seating at the to-be-built swim stadium would be in the “end zone.” He noted “that’s not where they sit at every other major competition and they’re not going to like it there.” The seating location was changed.

As Dick Yarbrough, the vice president of communications for the Atlanta organizing committee, noted in his post-Games reflection, And They Call Them Games (published in 2000), “I have taken a fair amount of criticism from the [Atlanta Journal-Constitution] newspaper for the image that we projected to the world. I have thought long and hard about that in the perspective of time that has passed. I should have toned down Billy’s rhetoric. The Peter Ueberroth model was to keep expectations low and then when things went well, he looked like a hero. But that’s not Billy.”

It had best not be Coe, who has thus far done a highly-credible job of promoting how special the opportunity to host the Games is while emphasizing the difficulties in organizing such a massive event. But unlike in Los Angeles – and more like Atlanta – there are other voices who need to heed the same lessons.

There is no shortage of comments – generally positive and respectful of the challenges ahead – about the Games from London Mayor Boris Johnson, but of more concern, from out-of-power Labour Party politicians like ex-Olympics minister Tessa Jowell and former London mayor Ken Livingstone.

Their most recent “contribution” to the Olympic conversation worldwide is to vigorously criticize Dow Chemical’s multi-million-pound donation to fund a specially-designed “wrap” for the Olympic Stadium. Despite the fact that the giant panels will carry no branding for Dow whatsoever, Jowell and Livingstone posit that Dow’s sponsorship will somehow “taint” the Games since the chemical giant now owns Union Carbide, whose Indian subsidiary was responsible for the Bhophal chemical disaster in 1984. That toxic gas release is reported to have caused more than 550,000 injuries and resulted in many deaths, variously estimated from about 4,000 to more than 12,000. Union Carbide reached a $470 million settlement with the Indian government to settle all claims relating to the incident in 1989.

Jowell and Livingston’s “argument” against Dow is quite self-righteous, given that Dow Chemical:

• Purchased Union Carbide in 2001 and had nothing to do with the Bhophal events of 1984;

• That neither the London organizers or the British government lodged a protest when Dow became an International Olympic Committee sponsor in July 2010, and

• That if Dow is to be held responsible for an event that took place a decade and a half before their acquisition of Union Carbide, the hands of current British politicians can hardly be considered clean, given the country’s militarily-won dominion over India from the beginning of the 19th Century (through the British East India Company) and then its formal annexation as a Crown colony from 1858 to 1947. Historians of that period can recount in detail the British-inflicted carnage at events such as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, the Amritsar Massare of 1919 (pictured in the 1982 film “Gandhi”), the Qissa Khwani Bazaar massacre in Peshwar in 1930 and others. Reparations, anyone?

If the Indian Olympic Association wishes to protest – and they have said that they would – that is a different matter. But the IOA, already dealing with an in-country revolt against India’s poor showings in recent Games and the fallout of the poorly-organized 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, has announced that it will not even consider boycotting the 2012 Games in London.

Livingstone (as Mayor of London) and Jowell (as Olympics Minister for the Labour Party) made major contributions to winning the Games for London and developing its publicly-funded support program of £9.3 billion (about $14.5 billion U.S. at today’s exchange rates). It will be too bad if their public whining now – when they are out of the government – becomes the taint which becomes attached to the 2012 Games.

Billy Payne found out the hard way; Coe appears to have learned that lesson. But how many English politicians have their ears shut and their mouths open as the Games approach?

(You can stay current with Rich’s technology, sports and Olympic commentaries by following him at www.twitter.com/RichPerelman.)