London 2012: how the Olympics could have been worth having

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.

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