Whatever happened to the bawling, brawling, sprawling world of Fleet Street? When Britain went to war, much of the press denounced the prime minister as a liar. Even if half the British papers reported that the world’s leaders had named Tony Blair as the messiah, the other half would say: “BLAIR IN SUMMIT SNUB”.
But on one issue all this has been suspended. The nation’s scribes have forgotten their differences to support a single patriotic endeavour. The great quest of being allowed to stage an overblown sporting event seven years from now has led almost everyone to call a truce, and give their critical faculties a holiday.
This astonishing display of unanimity is due to end, or at least enter a new phase, on July 6. That’s when the 115 voting members of the International Olympic Committee will decide the site for the 2012 Olympics: London, Paris, New York, Madrid or Moscow.
Since the IOC, like the College of Cardinals, goes in for pre-ballot inscrutability, predictions of the vote rely heavily on guesswork. The effect is that for nearly a year, the story has been stuck in a rut.
In Britain, pretty much every headline has been saying precisely the same thing throughout that time: “London catching up in race for games”; “Revitalised London neck and neck with Paris”; “London surges in race”. That’s a sample from this week, but it’s a pretty typical week. There’s always a surge.
There are two consequences of this. The first, and more trivial, is that the public are probably being misled about London’s prospects. As the FT quietly pointed out the other day, the bookmaker Ladbrokes had just shortened Paris to 6-1 on, which is moving close to dead-cert territory.
Dead certs can lose, of course. But let’s deal briefly with the IOC’s past record. Its members do not vote in geographical blocs; they understand that the games have to shift round the world. They also have a fairly good record of sending the Summer Olympics (if not the winter version) to the right place.
Usually, the logical choice gets it unless there is a strong reason to the contrary. Athens failed in 1996 because of concerns about its organisational capacity; Beijing was overlooked for 2000 because of China’s human rights record. Guilt and, in the Chinese case, fear ensured the IOC made amends quickly. Athens was given 2004, Beijing 2008.
Right from the start, Paris was the obvious choice for 2012, 88 years after the last French Olympics. Madrid, Moscow and New York were all close to non-starters because their countries had all had the games so recently. And the New York bid – bedevilled by security, logistics and local politics – is unattractive anyway.
The final evaluation report this week deemed the Paris bid close to flawless, and its release coincided with huge crowds taking to the streets to stage a photogenic mini-Olympics by the Arc de Triomphe. Paris has wanted the games for some time. The venue has only become an issue because London has fought such a spirited and well-judged counter-offensive.
But the spirit has come at the expense of debate. The government – those wonderful folks who brought us the Millennium Dome – wants the games for its own PR purposes and is happily going along with the notion that a London games would make £100m profit, a notional figure that could be blown away by a million variables over seven years. The record of both Britain and the Olympics in these areas is terrible; the cost of the Athens games came in double the original budget.
There has been much waffle about current IOC buzz words: regeneration, legacy, even green-ness. The relevant area of east London is heading for regeneration anyway because of population pressures. And the legacy of sporting facilities is traditionally illusory: the Sydney stadium is now known locally as the white elephant.
It would be absurd to say that an event on such a scale would be entirely without benefits. But Britain – a country incapable of seeing a school playing-field without sticking an executive housing development on it – would probably be better off funding the facilities it needs instead of trying to piggy-back the games for those it doesn’t.
A London Olympics also promises to be an absolute disaster in terms of national balance. It will divert yet more resources and wealth to the overcrowded south-east. If London wins, I fear that rational scepticism and criticism will be drowned out for years by all the ra-ra-ra, with disastrous results.
If it loses this time, Britain must have a real debate about the objects of the exercise before having another go for 2020 or 2024 when there could be a serious chance of victory. The question is “Why?” And the answer should not just be “Because”.