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The London 2012 Olympic bid was formally launched on Friday with due ceremony, though this process already seems to have been going on forever.
Lord Coe has been ubiquitous for ages; on the Underground there are window stickers inviting us to "Back the Bid" by sending a text, though it is not clear to whom or why; and last week the campaign was a centrepiece of the Lord Mayor's Show. We do, however, know what comes after the Lord Mayor's Show, and I believe the dustcart will arrive in July when the 2012 Olympics will be awarded to Paris. I also think Britain should greet that moment with a sigh of relief.
A great deal of propaganda will be dumped on us making people believe that London can and will win. Much the same occurred when England was aiming to stage the 2006 World Cup, which was awarded to Germany.
The International Olympic Committee which decides the destination of each games is an unelected and inscrutable body, an ungodly version of the College of Cardinals (though maybe less ungodly since the clampdown on corruption). It often makes unexpected decisions in these matters, yet they do tend to have a discernible logic. Atlanta won the 1996 Olympics over Athens because of money; Sydney got 2000 over Beijing because it just seemed more attractive; Athens got 2004 ahead of Rome because the IOC felt guilty about 1996; and Beijing was awarded 2008 because by then it was politically unavoidable.
Paris is perceived as a beautiful, exciting, expensive, historic, rude city that works. London is seen as exciting, expensive, historic and rude all right, but somewhat less beautiful and it doesn't work. Furthermore, the plan for a Paris Olympics looks more robust, partly because people trust the French to make the trains run on time, whereas no one trusts the British to make the trains run at all.
Nor do they trust us to build the stadiums and this vote will be nicely timed to remind delegates of the Picketts Lock fiasco. The 2005 World Athletics Championships were supposed to be held at a super new stadium in Enfield. This was a vote Britain actually won. Three years ago the government pulled the plug. Welcome to Helsinki instead, everybody.
The London Olympics is not the most stupid idea of all time: that's the New York bid. (The other two contenders are pretty dire too: Moscow and Madrid, where the black athletes will be serenaded by monkey noises.) It is perfectly possible to imagine a gallant failure ending in a silver medal, a pat on the head and decent positioning for about 2024. Britain is talking victory, of course. "It has to be grabbed and it has to be won," said Coe on Friday. But exactly why, Seb?
Profit? Coe claimed on Friday that London 2012 would make £100m. That's not much on about £10bn turnover. Anyway, it's a guess. Sydney 2000 hardly made any money; Montreal is still paying for 1976. The budgeting for London is described as "prudent" (now where did that word come from?). Experience suggests that if you take the worst-case guesstimate of costs, doubling it gets close to the right answer. Trust me.
Infrastructure? If the government wants to regenerate east London, fine. Trying to ride on the back of the Olympics produces the wrong results: things built for a fortnight rather than the future. Of course, London would benefit from more sporting facilities. But is a 25,000-seat athletics stadium and a 3,000-seat velodrome really what are wanted?
Glory? Here's the nub. China is holding the 2008 games; the other three permanent members of the UN security council are vying for 2012. A century ago Britain's national machismo had to be bolstered by new battleships. Now we have to hold the Olympics. It's an improvement, for sure, but it's still pretty stupid.
If Britain did get the games, it would become the centrepiece of British policy for seven years. It will be impossible to invade faraway countries on flimsy pretexts because to do so would jeopardise the Olympics. This might also be an improvement: fear of alienating the world pre-2008 certainly inhibits China from repeating some of its more flagrant human rights abuses.
For Britain, though, this feels like a diversion and a distortion. Some countries in search of respect or respectability (Japan 1964, South Korea 1988) have benefited enormously from an Olympics; so have some cities in search of expansion and recognition (Barcelona 1992, Sydney 2000). But what's in it for Britain and London?
The old fantasy of a Birmingham or Manchester Olympics would have helped a sensible, and otherwise unattainable, policy goal by reversing the drain of resources to the south-east. A London Olympics would accentuate it. We can look forward to seven years of construction in which everything else would be subordinated to the Olympics, followed by two weeks of excitement (if taekwondo and Greco-Roman wrestling fit that bill) and an eternity of well, what, exactly?
Let the French do it.