So, the Olympic flame has arrived. And so, it seems, have the sceptics. Or at least they have crawled from out of their hiding places to appear in the columns of newspapers, on our TV screens & through our radios, on Twitter, Facebook and every other possible orifice of the digital age. I suppose if you market your Olympics as the first ‘truly digital’ ones, it is only to be expected. Sitting on the pinnacle of the pyramid of scepticism is Andrew Gilligan of The Daily Telegraph (closely pursued by Will Self, Kerry-Anne Mendoza & many, many others). I listened to Andrew Gilligan a couple of nights’ ago on Radio Five Live asking the same question, over and over again; “What are we going to get the Olympic Games?”. Few of the callers had a concrete answer to his question. He questions whether there will be long-term benefit to London & the rest of the UK once the Olympic circus has moved on and is already en route to Rio. He thinks there is nothing.
I disagree. The cost of the Olympics is generally stated at £11 billion although inevitably there will be disagreements as to how this is made up and what will eventually return to the taxpayer in the sale of land and premises after the games have finished. Let us, however, assume that the figure of £11 billion is correct. London found out it would be hosting the Olympics in July 6th 2005 and I suppose that is the date after which most of the money has been spent. For the sake of argument however, let’s assume that not a penny of it was spent until the end of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, almost four years ago. So, £11 billion has been spent in four years. That’s roughly £3 billion per year. UK government income is currently just under £600 billion per annum (expenditure is, of course, a little higher). This means that approximately half of one percent of government spending over the past four years has been allocated to paying for the Olympics. In the great scheme of things, for an event that realistically will only come around once in a lifetime from here onwards, that is not a great deal of money. And of course the money spent hasn’t just been poured down the drain like some of the sceptics would have us believe. A very large chunk is dedicated to security which is sad but inevitable in the times that we live. Security staff will need to be employed, equipment purchased & contractors contracted. But hang on, those people employed will benefit by, well, having more work and the companies that supply the equipment will benefit by having their equipment purchased. Then there is the cost of the land and the money needed to build the buildings but again, that money spent goes to the workers, the suppliers, the consultants, the engineers, the architects, the people who feed all the workers, the people who keep them safe… So far, it’s mainly employment which has benefitted from the London Olympics. There is also transport and as far as I am aware, there is no proposal to uproot the new railway lines that will take people to the east end of London after the games have finished. There is no plan to demolish the new stations that have been built or rip up the newly refurbished road infrastructure in that part of the city. And as for the people who did all the work. I have yet to find this big hole in the ground where the money is being hidden.
Then there are the sponsors; they come in for a fair bit of criticism don’t they? But what’s this? The running of the games themselves will be financed privately with no money from government? Ah yes, it comes from the sponsors… So on the one hand the critics say too much public money is being spent but when the private sector step in to finance what they can they are also in the firing line. Of course they expect some comeback in the form of tickets and publicity but surely the price is worth paying if it means that the taxpayer doesn’t have to fork out, no? Or would you prefer to add to the £11 billion already being spent? Thought not.
Going back to Andrew Gilligan’s question: “What will we get from the Olympic Games?”. Well, we can now have a short list of things; more employment, better transport, an area of London regenerated (& on the map!). What did you say? The majority of the buildings that have been constructed will actually remain in use after the Olympics? Even better!
But isn’t Andrew Gilligan just missing the point of the Olympics in the first place?
The Olympics is, before all else, an event. A public event and increasingly an enormous world-wide phenomenon. It has a starting point and a finishing point; the opening and closing ceremonies & during the intervening sixteen days of competition, Olympians from ever corner of the planet, from the vast majority of the countries on Earth will come together to compete. Most will not win, a few will get a medal, even fewer will win gold. So to answer Andrew Gilligan’s question directly, even the vast majority of the athletes themselves, the people at the very heart of the Olympic Games go home empty-handed. They get nothing from being there. Or do they?
I haven’t asked but I’m pretty sure that if I were to do so, most former Olympians would talk about the experience, the memories, the challenge, the fun, the encounters & the atmosphere of an Olympic Games. They may not have been able to take anything concrete away from the event but they probably wouldn’t have missed the opportunity of being there. I wonder if Andrew Gilligan ever gets invites to attend dinner parties. It seems likely that he does. Apart from a full stomach, he probably doesn’t get much from the event apart from the knowledge that he spent an enjoyable evening with like-minded people. Is it not the same for the Olympic Games?
My arguments above are probably riddled with contradictions & hypocrisies. Even perhaps inaccuracies. Just like the Olympic Games themselves. Well, if we were to stop doing anything because it had an element of those three things, what would we do apart from sit on our backsides and watch TV.
As a volunteer ‘Games Maker’ I’d like to think that over the summer I might bump into Andrew Gilligan at some point. He is, after all, London editor of The Daily Telegraph and it seems unlikely that he won’t take in some of what the games have to offer, probably for free as an accredited journalist. If I do see him, I’ll make a point of asking if he’s having a good time.