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Going for Gold : on the London Olympics

(S01E07, broadcast 16th and 18th March 2007)

"Going for gold"

After the success of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, the Australian media instantly forgot that they had spent four solid years predicting doom and disaster all the way up until the opening ceremony. The same scenario was played out in the prelude to the Athens Olympics in 2004, with the whole world’s media running unending stories about unfinished buildings, until finally it turned out that the same people who had built the Acropolis could still build a basketball stadium, even if they had to set the concrete with a hairdryer.

In both Sydney and Athens, the Olympics went off as well as the Olympics ever do. Not even Atlanta in 1996 was quite the shambles that the world’s press made out. Most of the facilities in Atlanta were actually finished, even if a few of the buses from the Olympic village delivered some of the athletes to the stadium after their event had started, or to Mexico after it was over. For reasons of newsworthiness the press would always prefer it if the Olympic Games collapsed in utter chaos, but with the understandable exception of Munich in 1972, they haven’t done so yet. Why is it that one feels that if they do, it will be in London in 2012?

Well, the chief reason one feels they might, is that they’re already facing the prospect of a gargantuan overspend. Let’s say, for purposes of illustration, that there is a sport called piano-lifting, and that the new Wembley piano-lifting theatre, to a design by the internationally famous maverick architect Nestroy Berserk, had an initial budget of ten million pounds. Now, with only a few stacks of bricks and a concrete mixer actually in evidence on the site where the magnificent building is destined to stand, it turns out that the cost has already gone up to twenty million pounds, because nobody had told Señor Berserk that the floor, which he had designed to be built out of Peruvian balsa, would be required to bear the impact of pianos dropping vertically when the piano-lifter failed to complete the required clean and jerk.

Offended by this philistine insult to his artistic vision, he resigned in a huff, to be replaced by the even more volatile post-modern, pre-sane architectural genius Whacko Rubric. Herr Rubric, having disdainfully scrapped everything that had already not been built, has started again, not building something even more expensive, a translucent carbon-fibre cube with a randomized laser-lit roofline that reflects the resonance of a Croatian piano-lifter’s bulging neck as he holds a Bechstein concert grand briefly aloft.

And the piano-lifting theatre is just a minor example. Don’t even ask about the synchronized underwater squash court, which, after three years of digging, is only six inches deep, and is costing a million pounds a week to keep free of water while scholars argue about whether the Roman ruins that have been uncovered were once a temple, a military brothel or, as the majority opinion now holds, a synchronized underwater squash court.

The second reason for the prevailing pessimism is closely related to the first. Ever since World War II, big British projects have acquired a reputation for not only going many times over budget, but for not actually getting done. Unless you’re my age or even older, you probably won’t remember Britain’s post-war ground-nut scheme. You certainly won’t remember the nuts, because hardly any nuts were produced. What was produced was a large deficit, thereby establishing the rule that a bad project takes longer to stop if the money being spent previously belonged to the taxpayer.

Private enterprises like giant aircraft went badly enough, however, and almost always there came a time when the government had to support them with public funds, pending the day that they could go into service and start losing money on a commercial basis. The Bristol Brabazon and the Saunders-Roe Princess double-decker flying boat — I can remember the names because even in faraway Australia I was collecting pictures of them — never got beyond the stage of being photographed. The prototypes would appear at Farnborough year after year, always in a different livery to suggest that all the world’s airlines were clamouring to buy them, while elsewhere the Americans were getting on with the business of dominating the sky. The biggest airliners in the world but also the slowest, the Brabazon and the Princess laid down the development pattern for the fastest airliner in the world but also the smallest. Concorde eventually got into service, but only after going monumentally over budget while failing ever to be a viable financial proposition for the luckless airlines that got involved with it.

As for the British weapons systems, if you regard war as a bad thing you should be pleased at how often the country’s defence contractors built weapons that didn’t work. Blue Streak, Blue Steel, Skybolt: always the impressive name, rarely the effective result, and never a prayer of being either on time or on budget. This was the culture that eventually led to the Millennium Dome. The soaring ambition and the technical expertise were always there. What was never there was the clear-sighted ability to put together a good committee. British committees had once successfully fought the German bombers, night-fighters and V1s by sheer analytical brainpower. But somehow, in the post-war era, that ability had been lost. Which makes it all the more remarkable that one of the Millennium Dome’s most stalwart apologists, the writer Simon Jenkins, has come up with the answer, or part of the answer, to the Olympics fiasco.

He loyally went on calling the Dome an exciting construction even as its empty interior resonated to the hollow whistle of a billion pounds being sucked into oblivion. But uniquely among his fraternity, he gained in wisdom from his discomfiture, and he now points out that the way to forestall disaster with the Olympics is to put up fewer new buildings and rely more on the fact that the television transmission is what counts. He’s almost right. He’d be completely right if he said that the trick is to put up no new buildings at all and think in television terms exclusively.

That last part is really what happened in Sydney. I was there to cover the Sydney Olympics, and I soon found out that for the city’s population the cool thing to do on a hot night was to watch the show on the giant screens in the streets. Apart from the tourists, nobody went out to the stadium except old-age pensioners and the unemployed, and really not even the opening ceremony needed a building that big. There was no reason why the whole thing couldn’t have been staged entirely to suit television, and there’s no reason why London shouldn’t think that way now. After all, London’s already got the games. The International Olympic Committee might threaten to take them back, but the International Olympic Committee could always be told to take a running triple jump. The only true internationalism of the Olympic Games, after all, lies in the beauty of human bodies. In 1936 in Berlin, Hitler got stuck with staging the Olympics, because the date had been set up before he came to power. He didn’t like internationalism. He liked nationalism, and the more racist the better, but for once he had the sense to soft-pedal the mania and let Leni Riefenstahl shoot whatever she liked. She paid particular attention to the supreme physical beauty of the American black athlete Jesse Owens. The enchanting spectacle of Owens on the move was the central motif of her film Olympia, and it’s still true today that the Olympic events that count are the ones that look good.

I invented the sport of piano-lifting because I didn’t want to insult people who are sincerely interested in weightlifting, but I’ve never met any except people who are weightlifters themselves, and you don’t have to be in the same building with many of them before you realize that there’s not much room for anybody else, and you don’t have to watch them in action for very long before you come to the conclusion that weightlifting is of interest only to weightlifters and the people who marry them. Nevertheless I’m sure that the weight-lifting venue for the London Olympics will be built on time, will be an inspiration to all the world’s weightlifters, and will come in useful in the future as a facility for turning young people away from knives and guns and towards lifting weights. But I’m equally sure that when you add up the cost of all the new Olympic facilities, it will turn out to be a very expensive way of regenerating the area they cover.

With the money you saved from not building hopelessly specialized facilities for sports more boring than a shopping channel for machine tools, you could actually regenerate an area on purpose instead of just incidentally, and you could also put on a really good-looking televised Olympics. I don’t mean with a lot of close-ups of girl gymnasts sticking their toes in their ears. I’m past all that, and the Russian girl gymnast I used to be crazy about is somebody’s grandmother by now. But I do mean that the Olympics have to be made less like the Academy Awards, where even the grace is ruined by the vulgarity, and money gets into everything like a drug. But we won’t even mention drugs.


This was a rather grudging piece, whose tone I now regret. As an Australian I might have been carried away by the universally acknowledged success of the Sydney Olympics in 2000, although I had not forgotten that they, too, had suffered from the kind of pre-emptive press reception that thrives on pessimism. Assigned to cover the Sydney event as a visiting fireman, I arrived from London just in time to witness how the massed ranks of the Australian press changed overnight from merchants of doom to celebrants of a national triumph. Not having forgotten that low moment, I did my best to allow for the possibility that London might come through with something like the goods. But below my opinion, and affecting my tone, was a more general pessimism arising from Britain’s poor performance in major projects since World War II. Sometimes it seemed as if no technical effort instigated by a British government had worked since the campaign against Hitler’s V-weapons. Would the London Olympics buildings be finished on time and within a reasonable multiple of the initial budget? When, later on, during early 2010, it emerged that they indeed might, some of the newspapers had to report, with barely controlled rage, that the London Olympics situation wasn’t as bad as had been feared, or hoped. I felt a twinge of guilt at having gone along with a manufactured mood, when the aim I had set myself for these broadcasts was to avoid any such servility — always the close consort of opportunism.