The Olympics : a Year to Go

July 27, 2011, 11:06 PM UTC

In one year from now the Olympic flame will be lit in the East of London and the capital’s third Olympic Games in just over a century will be underway. Already the celebrations are beginning. The sixth and final permanent venue, the Aquatics Centre, has been handed over to the Games’ organisers and Trafalgar Square has hosted a ceremony to mark the final countdown to the Games themselves. But should we really be celebrating, or has the cost already far outstripped the benefit?

What no one denies is the success of the Olympic Development Authority in getting the venues actually built. Not for London the nerve-wracking experience of other Olympic cities, like Athens, where it was touch and go until the last minute as to whether there would actually be anywhere for the athletes to compete. Most of the sites in London are almost ready for use.

The success is being hailed as a tribute to the British construction industry. John Armitt, chairman of the ODA, said: 'It’s very satisfying to be handing it over on time and keeping within the budget. It’s a great tribute to everybody that has played a part in this. It is something that as a country and an industry we should be proud of and we should try to maximise opportunities in other parts of the world while memories are still fresh about what the industry can do.'

That it should all be 'on budget', however, is something that raises hollow laughs among Olympic sceptics. The budget has turned out to be £9.3bn. That’s not exactly in the same Olympic park, so to speak, as the original budget of £3bn on which the bid was won. Mr Armitt claims the difference is explained by the fact that International Olympic Committee rules required the original budget to exclude factors like VAT and inflation but concedes that the earlier hopes that the private sector would contribute to the building costs of the Olympic park fell by the wayside after the credit crunch. It’s the taxpayer who is footing the bill.

It is an absurd bill, say the critics, for just seventeen days of fun and games. But supporters say we shouldn’t think about it in these terms. In the first place, the Games have already produced tens of thousands of jobs over the last four years and will continue to do so in future. Secondly, the Games themselves will bring enormous prestige to London as well as millions of visitors spending their foreign currency in the capital. But most of all, they say, the cost is only partly about those seventeen days: 75% of the money spent is related to the so-called ‘legacy’. The benefits of that legacy could be felt for a hundred years, they claim.

But will they? In the nature of things, that’s something we shall have to wait and see. But the sceptics say that the experience of previous host cities is far from encouraging. Beijing, Athens and Sydney (to name but three) have all enjoyed a legacy consisting of financial fiasco and urban blight. In many cases the stadiums and sports arenas that briefly attracted the eyes of the world are now concrete wildernesses for which no one has a use. But taxpayers in the countries that hosted those Games are still having to pay the bill.

Backers of the London Olympics say it will be different this time. Half the park has already been sold to a housing association planning to build 11,000 homes. West Ham and Spurs are at each other’s throats to get their hands on the main Olympic stadium as permanent home for their teams. The other venues are out to tender. In short, the money being spent on the Olympics is really a massive regeneration scheme, perhaps the biggest since the Second World War.

Maybe, reply the sceptics, but did we really need the Olympics to bring it about? Of course the East End of London needs regeneration but a proper planning approach to the task would have come up with something tailor-made. Instead, the legacy is a sort of hand-me-down in which something made for one purpose is going to have to be adapted to something else. That cannot be ideal, say the sceptics, who add that in this period of austerity in public spending, nine billion quid is hardly peanuts and could have been better spent in other ways.

It’s not only the long-term legacy that makes the sceptics sceptical. It’s also the way the Games themselves will be run. Top of the list of complaints is what is going to happen to London’s already over-stretched transport system. Sixty miles of inner London’s road network is going to be laned off for exclusive use for the Olympics. What sticks most in the sceptics’ craw is that, for the most part, this is not to allow competitors to move freely about the capital, but to make life easier for the vast contingent of officials and bigwigs from the world of international sport. In the view of the commentator Simon Jenkins, 'the impression of a Games organised exclusively for VIPs is now overwhelming'.

Critics such as Jenkins argue too that the vast budget being spent on security serves largely to pay the inflated fees of the security industry rather than actually protect the capital from a terrorist threat, which the ubiquitous sight of heavily-armed police can do little to prevent. Instead, the security presence just raises fears of terrorist atrocity and deters foreign visitors from coming here.

Even the most cherished Olympic ideal, that it inspires the young to engage in sport, is a target for the critics. They say that there’s no evidence that the coming of the Olympics is stimulating sporting enthusiasm among the young off the East End, whose lives are being disrupted by the preparation for the Games. Indeed there is some evidence that they are turned off by it. In any case, say the critics, Olympic glory is a bad ideal to place before young people. It can be achieved only by the sort of sacrifice and dedication which it is unhealthy to encourage in the young who should be brought up to lead balanced lives, not ones devoted to some probably unattainable end.

But is this all far too curmudgeonly? Supporters of the Games say it is typically British only to look on the bleak side. These objections may or may not have been worth airing when we were deciding whether or not to bid for the Games, but now we have got them, the planning for them has gone better than anyone could have hoped, and we should now just concentrate on making them a huge success and enjoying them.

What’s your view?

  • Are you looking forward to the Games?
  • Are you pleased that London is hosting them?
  • Do you think the organisers are right to be congratulating themselves on the progress that has been made in building the stadium and the other arenas?
  • What do you make of the argument that we are spending far too much on the Games? Should the money have been spent on something else?
  • Do you think that the legacy will be long-term regeneration, or do think we shall end up with a very expensive white elephant?
  • Should London’s roads partly be closed off for Olympic VIPs?
  • Do you think security has got out of hand or do you think it is justified?
  • And do you think the Olympics provide a good or bad ideal to set before the young?