London 2012 equestrian: did Greenwich Park cost us Olympic gold?


I was intrigued by what the BBC’s horse sport expert Clare Balding had to say about Britain’s team silver medal in the equestrianism at Greenwich Park today:

“If the cross-country course was as big as a Badminton or Burghley, Britain would have been favourites as they are a better cross-country nation.”

I’ve long opposed holding this event at Greenwich. It’s closed the park for months (and parts of it for years) for a few days of elite sport from which the vast majority of people are excluded. The park will not be fully restored to its pre-Olympic state until 2015. It’s been damaging for the local economy – visitor numbers this summer have fallen because so much of the area is shut. It will leave no legacy whatever, either for the sport or for the area – indeed there is an increasing risk of permanent damage to this priceless park. Because of all the wet weather, they’ve been piling more concrete on what used to be the lawn in front of the Maritime Museum to hold the showjumping arena up. Let’s hope they can get it out again, shall we?

None of that matters, of course, so long as the TV pictures are pretty and there are plenty of junkets for the local councillors. But there were always major concerns in the equestrian world – including by one of the competitors today, Zara Phillips – about the wisdom of fitting a cross-country course into the tight little spaces of an urban park. It was indeed a very challenging course. To be fair, Britain did well in the cross-country – but the medal placings were so tight that it would have helped us to do even better. And if Greenwich has cost us our first gold medal of the Games, maybe that might be enough to puncture the hype around this deeply unwise decision.

 

London 2012: how the Olympics could have been worth having

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After Story A (traffic fears/ security chaos) and Story B (opening ceremony WOWS WORLD!) of the usual Olympic media cycle, we are now on Story C – the empty seats row. The fact that this comes up every four years doesn’t make it any less troubling, particularly since London 2012 promised it wouldn’t happen. As we report today, 12,000 seats were unoccupied on Sunday while many athletes couldn’t even get tickets for their own families.

It’s essentially due to the core problem of the whole event – the corporate and IOC tail is wagging the dog. The emptiest seats are those allocated to sponsors and the “Olympic Family” – the IOC and national athletic committee bureaucrats, plus the media. Foreign Olympic committee allocations are often also not taken up.

Lord Coe claimed last week that sponsors need special consideration because they have contributed a “mountainous amount of money” to the Games. In fact, only around 7 to 8 per cent of the money being spent on the London Olympics is coming from private sponsors. But they get a lot more than 7 per cent of the seats – around 13 per cent in total, 20 per cent if the Olympic Family are included, and up to 50 per cent at the most desirable events. The seats they get also tend to be the best ones, with the paying punters disproportionately confined to binocular-view accommodation in the rafters.

No other major sporting event gives so low a proportion of its space to ordinary people. Yet at the same time no other sporting event takes so much from the taxpayer and ordinary people, or imposes so much inconvenience on them.

The core budget of £9.3 billion for security, construction of the venues and so forth is all coming from the public. So is a further £3.5 billion or so outside this, including £1.15bn on purchasing the Stratford site, subsidies for the Olympic Village, Olympic-specific spending by TfL and Network Rail, and so forth. And so is a further £500 million or so of ticket-sale revenue. Total: £13.3 billion. Sponsorship, by contrast, amounts to only around £1.1 billion (£700 million or so raised domestically by Locog and £380 million from the IOC’s international sponsors and broadcasting rights, according to Locog’s last annual report. Some of this is in kind, not cash.) Merchandising income of about £50-80m completes the picture.

My dream for 2012 was that Britain, one of the birthplaces of democracy, could break the Games mould, smash the IOC and have the first genuinely democratic Olympics. That would have been a more lasting statement to the world than dancing nurses. We would have made do without the sponsors’ 7 per cent and instead used our 93 per cent to have a non-corporate Games. Yes, we’d probably have had to can the handball arena or something, but I think we could have lived with that. And instead of the British public being largely locked out of their own Games, we could have thrown them open to a lot more people. You could have turned up and queued on the day. Foreign Olympic committees who didn’t use their allocations would lose them – with priority given instead to those, British or foreign, who wanted to make the trip to London and wait in line.

We could have selected the Olympic food outlets on the basis of quality, not McMoney. We could have had British beer and British-made cars ferrying people around. We could have let our sponsors – that is, the citizens of Britain – display the rings and the word Olympics wherever they liked without the brand police (or the real police) swooping in. We wouldn’t have had any Zil lanes. The athletes don’t need them, they’re already in the Olympic village. It’s only the 20 per cent – the corporations and the “Olympic Family” – who demanded them.

It will be objected that the IOC owns the rights to the Games, and the broadcasting, and the rings, and forced us to sign a contract agreeing all the corporate rubbish before we even won the thing. But if we’d turned round in, say, 2010 and told them we were doing things differently, what could they possibly have done? Taken the Olympics away? It would have been much too late by then.

It was never, of course, going to happen. We don’t have political leaders of that calibre. Instead, this proud and independent-minded country has found itself following the IOC template more slavishly than almost any of its predecessors. Hence the Zil lanes, the empty seats, and the white-elephant sports stadia we have no idea what to do with.

But at least they let us put on a little pageant of Britishness at the beginning.

London 2012: how the Olympics suckered the Left

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The London Olympics are the most Right-wing major event in Britain’s modern history. Billions of pounds are taken from poor and middle-income taxpayers and service users to build temples to a corporate and sporting elite. Democratic, grassroots sport is stripped of money to fund the most rarefied sport imaginable. The police and the state are turned into the enforcement arm of Coca-Cola. How did this event suddenly become the toast of the Left?

Corporations who make people fat and sick – or, in one case, actually maimed and killed them – are allowed to launder their images; the London Paralympics, in a detail you simply could not make up, are sponsored by Atos, the firm repeatedly accused of bullying disabled people off benefits. Meanwhile, the main sponsors – the people of Britain – are largely excluded from the event they paid for.

Not just the Games itself, but many other parts of their own city, are sealed off from them. Some of them are evicted and their houses destroyed; others find overnight and without warning that their homes are to be converted into military missile sites, so terrorist planes can be made to kill ordinary Londoners instead of Olympic luminaries. Protestors against any of this are arrested and detained on the flimsiest of pretexts. Almost every promise ever made by the organisers – from the budget to the ‘greenest games ever,’ from the number of jobs that will be created to the number of new houses that will be built – turns out to be false.

The Left should be up in arms about the Olympics, as should any democrat. But as it turns out, all it takes is a few nurses dancing round beds, some coloured lights spelling out the words NHS and we all go weak at the knees and collapse into the IOC’s embrace. Worse, actually: any criticism of the opening ceremony was described by one left-wing newspaper today as “extremist!

My favourite line was from the Guardian columnist Richard Williams who wrote: “Cameron and his gang will surely not dare to continue the dismemberment of the NHS after this.” Hmm. If dismemberment is indeed their intention, are they really going to be stopped by a sound and light show? This isn’t a new dawn for Britain. It’s a night’s entertainment.

I can’t quite decide whether this is a genuine Diana moment – when the public hysteria is real – or whether it is confined largely to the media. I’ve been there myself – I covered the Beijing Olympics and I know how contagious and seductive the cossetted, enclosed media atmosphere can be. That’s how you get reality drifts like Williams’. I’ve been out and about today outside the Olympic bubble and most people I’ve been talking to seem to be taking it a lot more calmly than the papers.

I’ve also had disappointingly few hate emails and tweets after my mixed review yesterday of the great event. One person objected to my gentle mockery of Shami Chakrabarti’s participation. I like Shami a lot, but someone who campaigns for human rights should never have allowed herself to be used to polish the image of an event with such a long record of trampling on human rights. The abuses in London, of course, are comparatively small – but only four years ago in Beijing, thousands of people were made homeless and entire areas starved of water for the duration of the Games so that the Olympic areas could look fresh and green.

Whatever the truth about the mood is, it will pass. I attended the Beijing opening ceremony, as it happens. I wrote some of the same sort of faintly overawed copy that we’re seeing in this weekend’s newspapers. I can’t remember very much about that night now.

 

Olympics opening ceremony: great in parts, but surprisingly parochial


The opening ceremony was a bit of a grab-bag, wasn’t it? I thought some of it was great, some was rather bad and quite a lot of it will mystify the foreign TV viewers (95 per cent of the audience) who it was supposed to dazzle.

Things I liked: Thomas Heatherwick’s Olympic cauldron, a brilliantly imaginative reworking of the old flame. The Queen allegedly parachuting from a helicopter. The Mr Bean turn in the Chariots of Fire sequence – nicely self-mocking and also very translatable. The forging and coming together of the Olympic rings.

Some of the rest was bitty and disjointed; the sub-mobile-phone advert style of the digital section was particularly weak. It was more political than I expected. Voldemort loomed over the NHS. Tonight marked perhaps its final transformation from a healthcare system into a religion. Dancers made up the CND symbol. The Royal Family looked bored, but the new Right-On Royal Family – Doreen Lawrence and Shami Chakrabarti – got to carry the Olympic flag.

The NHS segment in particular underlined how surprisingly parochial this ceremony was. The idea of the Health Service as a beacon for the world is, bluntly, a national self-delusion. Most other Western European countries have better state healthcare systems – and healthier people – than we do. Does the average Chinese person even know what the letters stand for?

But I suppose the whole Olympics is in a broader sense parochial. Three weeks ago, I was in Libya witnessing that country’s first free election in sixty years: an end, or at least a beginning of the end, to decades of madness and tyranny which killed tens of thousands and blighted the lives of millions. To borrow the words of tonight’s over-excited TV commentators, that really was an inspirational and historic moment. Tonight, by contrast, was just a show.

London: not alive with the spirit of the Olympics

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In a story on its website, the BBC proclaims that “the capital has come alive with the spirit of the Olympics.” Apart from reading like it was copied from a London 2012 press release, it’s just not true.

Small parts of the capital have come alive with the spirit of the Olympics. Crowds turned out today in parts of central London to greet the torch. I passed the South Bank yesterday – and there were, as the BBC journalist says, plenty of people having themselves photographed with the mutant Olympic mascots, Wenlock and Mandeville.

But the truth is that across most of the capital, you’d hardly know the Games existed. I cycled to Marlow yesterday – including 20 miles through a very wide cross-section of London – keeping a careful eye out for Olympic bunting and suchlike. Apart from the South Bank, all I saw were some banners on lamp-posts. There were no amateur efforts at all. During the Jubilee, and for weeks afterwards, it seemed like every third or fourth house or shop was decorated in some way. For the Olympics, they just aren’t.

Even where I live, in Greenwich – with one Olympic venue 300 yards from my door and a second only a mile away – there is virtually nothing: lamp-post banners again, another big one on some railings and some traffic restrictions. Two or three houses in my neighbourhood have Union Jacks on them. But that is it. And at 8pm today, the centre of Greenwich was far, far quieter than on any normal hot and sunny Thursday evening.

The beautiful irony for us Olympisceptics is that the Games themselves have done far more to stamp on people’s enthusiasm than we ever could. There’s always been a substantial minority – around 42 per cent according to recent polling – which is excited by London 2012. But the organisers have created a sealed corporate garden from which even the vast majority of these people are excluded. For the last month, the message going out from the authorities to all would-be visitors has been: stay away! It’ll be a transport nightmare! The reason there are so few banners in windows is that shopkeepers and householders fear being zapped by the Olympic brand cops.

The emperor’s-new-clothes brigade is out in force tonight – the Guardian newspaper, for instance, has excoriated Olympisceptics as “at the margins, out of touch and just plain wrong,” claiming that “87 per cent are to one degree or another up for the festival.” The evidence for this turns out to be a poll which finds that 87 per cent of will watch the Olympics on TV at some point. Given that it will take over the BBC’s main channel, BBC1, almost 24/7 for the next fortnight, it would be hard not to see the Olympics on TV. Alas, the Guardian forgot to report that, according to the same poll, only 26 per cent intend to watch every day and a total of 45 per cent intend to watch only once, twice or not at all. (Interestingly, for all its bullishness, the newspaper’s website front page has a button allowing readers to hide all Olympic coverage – perhaps a sign that they’re not quite as confident as they claim?)

In any argument, getting called names is always the clearest possible sign that your opponents have no real facts to back up their case. The facts are simple enough to establish. Go into the streets, look around and tell me whether this is a city and a country alive with the spirit of the Games.

London Olympics: full list of closures

I’ve spent the last few weeks in Libya, a country long subject to the absurd whims of a megalomaniac, so what a relief it was to return to a land where pointless and dictatorial behaviour has no place. Oh, hold on a minute…

As the great London 2012 festival of policing and burgers looms,it has been fascinating to watch some people’s generally lukewarm attitude harden into active antagonism. I found one of my local shopkeepers in Blackheath, previously a fan, puffing furiously on a cigarette and cursing the five-ring circus outside his business at 12.45am yesterday, almost two hours after he normally closes. One of the lesser Olympic venues is down the road, so his deliveries have been rescheduled for between midnight and 6am and he was forced to wait up all night – even though the thing doesn’t even start in our area until next week. I expect the motorists caught in two-hour delays this morning feel the same way.

The mood might well swing back – in previous Games, barring a total disaster, the media forgets everything but the sport as soon as the first trainer touches tarmac. But even now, I’m not sure people know quite how much disruption this will cause to the normal life of London. Even places you never imagined would be touched, miles from any venue, turn out not to be immune. Here is my list of the things that will close: not just roads, but parks, museums, galleries and tourist attractions, in some cases until September. What fun it’s going to be!

Closures  

Central London

Hyde Park (about a third of park)

St James’s Park (about half of park)

Kensington Gardens (about a fifth of park; you will be able to buy admission to ‘Russia House’)

The Mall (total closure)

Horse Guards Parade (total closure)

Clarence House (total closure)

Somerset House (part)

Inner Temple (gardens, some other areas)

Tower of London and Tower Wharf (closures have already occurred)

Banqueting House (some days)

National Portrait Gallery (one gallery)

21 London theatres will close for at least part of Games because of collapse in tourist numbers

Hamilton Place and side streets in Mayfair (total closure)

Westminster Bridge (one way only)

Constitution Hill (no motors)

Birdcage Walk (no motors)

Park Lane (Zil lane)

Marble Arch (Zil lane)

Victoria Embankment (Zil lane)

Upper Thames Street (Zil lane)

Lower Thames Street (Zil lane)

Tower Hill (Zil lane)

Euston Road (Zil lane)

Marylebone Road (Zil lane)

Westway Flyover (Zil lane)

Knightsbridge (Zil lane)

Brompton Road (Zil lane)

Cromwell Road (Zil lane)

Cumberland Gate (Zil lane)

Park Road (Zil lane)

Gloucester Place (Zil lane)

Baker Street (Zil lane)

Millbank (Zil lane)

Vauxhall Bridge (Zil lane)

Kingsway (Zil lane)

Great George Street (no motors)

Horse Guards Road

Arundel Street (no motors)

Temple Place (no motors)

Russell Square

Woburn Place (Zil lane)

Southampton Row (Zil lane)

Bedford Place

Malet Street

Montague Place

Montague Street

 

East London

River Lea Towpath (Hackney Wick to Bow)  (total closure)

Greenway (Hackney Wick to Stratford High St)  (total closure)

Museum in Docklands (total closure)

Pudding Mill Lane DLR station (total closure)

East Marsh (total closure)

Wanstead Flats (part closure for police base)

Victoria Park (part closure for ‘cycling hub,’ live site)

Westfield Stratford (car parks and bus station; whole centre will close at 3pm on 27 July)

The Highway (Zil lane)

Limehouse Link (Zil lane)

Butcher Row (Zil lane)

East India Dock Road (Zil lane)

Blackwall Tunnel northern approach (Zil lane)

East Cross Route/ Lea Interchange/ A12 (Zil lane)

Stratford High Street (Zil lane)

Leyton Road (no motors)

 

South London

Greenwich Park (near-total closure)

Royal Observatory (total closure)

Greenwich Planetarium (total closure)

Blackheath (part closure)

The O2 (largely closed)

Woolwich Common (largely closed)

Oxleas Meadows (missile site)

National Maritime Museum (reduced hours; Queen’s House and some galleries totally closed)

Royal Naval College (reduced hours; Painted Hall closed some days)

Cutty Sark (reduced hours)

Cutty Sark DLR station (closed on some dates)

Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Museum (total closure)

Blackwall Tunnel southern approach (Zil lane)

Shooters Hill Road (Zil lane)

Charlton Way (no motors)

Greenwich Town Centre (Creek Road and Greenwich High Road one-way)

Ha Ha Road (total closure)

Repository Road (total daytime closure)

 

North London

North Circular Road (Zil lanes Hangar Lane- Stonebridge Park and around Neasden)

Alexandra Palace (building, ice rink, Palm Court, terraces all closed, but public will be able to buy admission to Dutch Olympic house)

 

West London

Talgarth Road (Zil lane)

Hammersmith Flyover (Zil lane)

A4/ M4 (Zil lane)

A40 (Zil lane)

Various road closures throughout SW London on days of cycle races

 

Bale Baleiwai: 13 years in the British Army and given three weeks to leave Britain

Lance Corporal Bale Baleiwai has spent his whole adult life in the British Army. He has a glowing service record, a row of medals and a starring role in Army recruitment advertising.

His reward is a deportation notice. After 13 years fighting for Britain, it has given him three weeks to leave the country. “When I had the uniform on, I was a British soldier,” he says.

“Now I have taken it off, I’m just a problem they want to get rid of.”

Read the full, extraordinary story of Isimeli “Bale” Baleiwai here.

Sign the petition against his removal here.

Our report on the broader plight of Commonwealth Army veterans facing deportation is here.