Olympics in Greenwich: what a triumph it all was. Oh, hold on a minute…


Back from a week’s break today to enjoy a spot of gloating on Twitter by supporters of holding the Olympic equestrian events in Greenwich Park. According to ITN’s Alastair Stewart and my Telegraph colleague Dan Hodges it was “fantastic,” whatever poor old me may have thought. Another slightly less well-known local media personality, Darryl Chamberlain, proclaimed that “across south-east London, thousands of people felt their hearts swell with pride as our park…took on a new identity, and was showed (sic) off to the world.” How could Darryl know what thousands of people were feeling, I wonder? Did he ask them? How on earth did he find the time?

In the face of this sort of faith-based reporting, I thought it was time for some, well, reporting-based reporting – so this afternoon I did ask dozens of south-east Londoners, specifically the traders of Greenwich, what had been their experience of the Games, and specifically the effects on their businesses. The words “fantastic” and “swelling with pride” didn’t come up much. Here’s what they said:

Phadi Bhattarai, owner, Monsoon Café, Turnpin Lane: “It was bad for us – we are 50 per cent down on a normal summer. It’s been bad the whole summer, not just the Games period, because the park is closed. We had to throw away a lot of food and my business is at risk.”

Malia Nilsson and Holly Gould, Red Door Café, Turnpin Lane: “It’s been quite dead here, to be honest. We’re down about half. The whole summer has been bad due to the park closing. It’s the summer attraction of Greenwich and it’s not here. The council made us take in our outside tables and they even made the house opposite take in its flowerpots.”

Volkan Besler and Helena Bloomer, Bar du Musee, Nelson Road: “It’s affected us really badly. We bought barbecues, extra food, we had to throw a lot of stuff away. [On the barbecue] we made more food for ourselves than we managed to sell. You could see thousands of people marching past, but they herded them straight from the station to the park. There were signs on the approach roads saying ‘Greenwich – avoid area.’”

Angela and David Fireman, owners of Mr Humbug sweetshop, Greenwich Market: “It’s been awful. It’s normally quite busy in the summer, but the families have stayed away. We are edging towards 20 per cent down. Quite a few tourists have been very disgruntled that the park and the observatory are closed. The objectives of the Olympic visitors are completely different – you’re sitting in a stream and they’re not going to stop. I opened longer on Saturday after the end of the modern pentathlon and I took £6 in an hour.”

Morad Benotmane, manager, Nauticalia, Nelson Road: “It’s not been great, to be honest, not what we expected. For the first two weeks we were down by about 40 per cent, but we climbed back a little last week. This is normally our Christmas, this is when we make our money for the year.”

Kane Goddard, co-owner Goddards Pie Shop, King William Walk: “It’s been at least 50 per cent down. I loved the Olympics but it’s had a very big detrimental effect on our business. I have a major issue with the emphasis on keeping people away from London – it’s been too one-sided and it’s really had a dramatic effect. The market is suffering unbelievably.”

Isaac Lilos, co-owner, Arty Globe, Greenwich Market: “Compared to a normal summer we are 30% down. It is heartbreaking – we had thousands of people walking past who couldn’t get to us [because Locog erected barricades to funnel people to the park.] It felt like somebody has organised a party in your house, then locked you in a room. I specifically raised this with Paul Deighton [chief executive of Locog] and I was assured by everybody that it would not happen. They’ve not really given anything back to the community and it’s very annoying.”

In almost 35 interviews, I found only one trader – Julie Bates of Arc Angel – who said that the Olympics had benefited her business, and even then only fractionally. The story everywhere else was the same – non-Olympic tourists and regulars scared away; Olympic visitors either not interested in anything but the sport, or corralled away by barricades from the independent shops into Locog’s corporate bubble. The barricades were slightly relaxed after what one trader described as a “near-riot” by the shopkeepers – but not by nearly enough to rescue their summer.

It isn’t over, either. There’s another six weeks until the town centre returns to normal. And we won’t know the final cost of the Olympics until we know whether we’re getting our precious park back in the same condition we left it. Locog have been doing a lot of extra concrete piling in there to anchor the arena in the wet weather. Let’s hope they can get it all out again, shall we? They’ve promised a complete restoration – but this is an organisation that has broken almost every previous promise to the community that it has ever made.

I’m sure a lot of people will say that none of this matters because we had a great party. We did have a great party. But it does matter. Greenwich Park, and the small shops which give our World Heritage site its character, are of more lasting value to London than the feelgood factor generated by the Olympics. In any case, we could have had just as good a party at Windsor Great Park – if not a better one. As equestrian experts have written, having the cross-country in the cramped confines of Greenwich may have cost us our first gold medal of the Games, in the eventing (which for the benefit of some of my critics is a different discipline from the ones in which we did win gold medals.) There would also have been a rather better TV backdrop – that little shack called Windsor Castle – and a permanent legacy for the sport.

Perhaps the most depressing pop at the Games’ detractors came from Nigel Fletcher, the deputy leader of the opposition on Greenwich council, director of the Centre for Opposition Studies no less, and the local opposition spokesman on the Olympics. He is symbolic of the way that the people supposed to be scrutineers have turned into cheerleaders, and may help explain why the council and Locog were allowed to get away with screwing the local traders so badly.

Mr Fletcher, Alastair Stewart, Dan Hodges, and I may be lucky enough to have secure, well-paid jobs. But my neighbours’ jobs, businesses and livelihoods have been put at risk for something that simply didn’t need to happen in Greenwich. In the end, that too is more important than some nice TV pictures.



London 2012: a tiny moment of democracy


I went to watch the men’s Olympic time trial today – partly because it ran down the road where I grew up and partly to see how great the whole Games could have been.

This was one of the very few genuinely democratic events of the Olympics, where anybody could just turn up without needing to play the website ticket lottery. There were no empty sponsors’ spaces here – almost every inch of the route was lined with sponsors (ie us) who actually wanted to be there.

There were no fences or soldiers. There was nobody hectoring us through loudhailers, no signs ordering us around. There were no restrictions on bringing food, no banned corporate logos. Unlike Central London, or poor old Greenwich, the local area was busy and the local shops were doing good business – because Locog and the IOC  weren’t there to lock everyone inside their ghastly enclosures. It showed clearly what the Games could have done for London if they’d been spread out over the city.

The time trial is, bluntly, not the world’s most interesting spectacle – one cyclist flashes past every minute and a half or so. They are racing the clock, not each other, so you can’t tell who’s winning unless you have a smartphone or radio. It’s all over in about half an hour.

But we did get to see Bradley Wiggins about five minutes before he became the greatest Olympian in British history. The famous sideburns were, alas, covered by one of those red space-helmets, but I can only imagine what it must have been like for him being roared and cheered for 27 miles through the roads of his own country. On parts of the course, you could stand within a few inches of the riders with no barrier between you. There was no need for security – people were trusted to behave themselves, which of course they did. I hate to imagine the fate which would have befallen any Trenton Oldfield-style idiot who tried to disrupt the race.

And the streets were I was, in Twickenham, were rammed four or five deep – which tells me how keen people are to experience the Games, if only they are allowed to. I’ve been to the Olympic Park this week, too – and I know which I prefer.

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


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


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


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.