The Diary: Matthew Engel
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“I can never see the point of anniversary journalism,” an old editor of mine once sniffed. Those words have been ringing in my ears all week as Britain’s media relive the London Olympics, which began a year ago today, thus inaugurating the most inexplicable and evanescent moment in the nation’s cultural history in my lifetime – with the sole exception of the week after Princess Diana’s death.
Since the anniversary happens to coincide with a month of broader and once-unthinkable national sporting success – Andy Murray winning Wimbledon; Chris Froome the Tour de France; England not merely beating but massacring Australia at cricket – it has been more than normally impossible to avoid. And so again I have been working through my own memories of the fortnight: the glory, the fun and the scoreboard at the equestrian events in Greenwich. We will come back to that scoreboard.
I was from the start, not an Olympophobe, but an Olymposceptic. I enjoyed being allowed to report the event, and loved most of it. But I never saw the point of London bidding for the games, never saw it as a cost-effective means of delivering the alleged benefits. Still don’t. This was a lonely position for a correspondent during that weird couple of weeks, as even the most zealously sport-hating newspaper columnists began to recant. Since then, a certain what-was-all-that-about questioning has set in, which is entirely in line with the experience of other Olympic cities. But the essential economics have remained largely unexamined.
The novelist John Lanchester has established a very effective sideline as the explainer-in-chief of the global financial crisis to the literate but innumerate, and the other week he gave a masterclass in the London Review of Books on PPI, payment protection insurance, the great mis-selling scam perpetrated by Britain’s major retail banks. The latest “guesstimate” for the cost is around £16bn, he notes.
To put this in context, he uses as his benchmark the £9bn price tag of the 2012 Olympics. That figure has been used since soon after Britain was awarded the games when the government retreated from its initial made-up figure of £3bn. Lanchester did not query it. Very few people have. An investigation by Sky News early in 2012 came up with an estimated total of £24bn, including most associated costs, though not extra counter-terrorism funding. No one took much notice.
Major British public projects traditionally have massive cost overruns and delays, the planned HS2 railway being merely the latest example. And the Olympics had the extra complication of having to start on the date agreed seven years before. Delay was impossible.
Perhaps the £9bn is indeed the precise figure; I have no first-hand evidence to the contrary. What I do know is that everything in the British public sector is now cash-strapped unless there are overriding political imperatives involved. We see the effects everywhere. And yet at the Olympics there was no sign of skimping or corner-cutting. Everything I saw worked brilliantly – with the sole exception of that equestrian scoreboard, which was notably inadequate and invisible. The rest was indeed magic.
What I also know is that accountancy is an art, not a science. And that governmental accountancy is a very black art indeed.
I don’t necessarily enjoy being a contrarian, and I have been a voice in the wilderness for even longer on the question of technology in cricket. The first tentative experiments using TV replays to make umpiring decisions came more than 20 years ago. At that time they were solely to judge “line decisions”, involving batsmen being run out or stumped. In Wisden 1993 I called it “the first harmless-looking seed that could grow into something that could grow to be thoroughly pernicious”.
The game rushed to embrace the innovation until technological advance made it possible to use predictive and thermal-imaging techniques to cover just about every contentious aspect of this complicated sport. And the main story of the England-Australia Test at Lord’s – England’s superiority – was overshadowed, day after day, by the workings of the DRS, the review system that allows aggrieved bowlers or batsmen to appeal against the decisions of the on-field umpires.
Cricket’s culture was once unique: the umpire’s decision was final, and argument was unacceptable. Only golf, with its tradition of self-policing, could match it, and in golf the professionals have always been more honest than us hackers. In cricket, the rot has spread from the top down.
Spectators have watched the continual ritual humiliation of the world’s best umpires having their decisions overturned by endless replays picking up angles and nudges invisible and inaudible even to the keenest eyes and ears. And dissent and dispute have become endemic where the technology is unavailable, from English village greens to the dusty wastelands of the subcontinent, whence there come regular reports of mayhem and even murder. Far from quelling dissent, the technology has increased it. For two decades this was all accepted as an unmitigated good. The TV commentators who mediate cricket for the masses are now almost invariably retired cricketers who have led sheltered lives and believe, ex officio, that an incorrect umpiring decision is the world’s greatest iniquity. Who could argue that right is not better than wrong?
Well, let me try. Cricket’s great gift to the world was that it was a game based on fairness, trust and phlegmatic acceptance. “Not cricket” is understood in parts of the world where cricket is not understood at all. At the top level, the standard of umpiring has improved massively over the past two decades partly – I admit – because technology has enabled the accuracy of officials to be monitored. But the job has become intolerable and almost unnecessary. Most cricketing decisions are not just the in-out line calls of tennis: they are complex interpretations of the interaction of different variables. Yet the umpires have now become clothes-hangers: their only function that the computers cannot replicate is accepting sweaters to wrap round themselves when the bowlers get too hot.
As the Test match at Lord’s reached its climax last Sunday, both teams used their full allowance of reviews, and the umpires were largely out on their own. “They’re playing cricket!” exclaimed Henry Blofeld, now the doyen of radio commentary, “thank goodness for that!” Maybe I am not wholly alone any more.
Some home supporters have had trouble in dealing with the England team’s superiority. Some sections have felt pity for the benighted Australians, hoping that the team who have so often remorselessly beaten England would perk up and make the three remaining Tests (and the five to come to Australia this winter) more exciting.
Me, I keep thinking of Willie Whitelaw, the country squire who was Margaret Thatcher’s loyal deputy (as she famously remarked, “Every prime minister needs a Willie”). Once the Labour party got itself into a complete tangle over some issue or other. “Mustn’t gloat,” Whitelaw told a journalist. “Completely wrong to gloat.” Then he added sotto voce: “But I can tell you that I’m gloating like hell.”
Matthew Engel is an FT columnist
More columns at www.ft.com/engel
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