London Notebook: The 2012 Olympic Games, smaller, greater, braver

July 10 2005 / The Observer

There is a tradition, at the closing ceremony of each Olympics, for the president of the International Olympic Committee to acclaim the Games that have just ended as the greatest ever. The then president Juan Samaranch certainly said as much of Sydney 2000. His successor, Jacques Rogge, perhaps recalling the empty venues and absent spectators in the opening week, was more circumspect about Athens 2004: the Games, he said, ‘were unforgettable, a dream’.

But what exactly does the IOC mean by ‘greatest’? The most profitable? The largest and most expensive to produce? (The cost of the Athens Games, for instance, is estimated at more than £6 billion.)

One is never quite sure. What is certain is that the Olympic rings are the most recognised symbol on the planet, yet what exactly are they meant to symbolise? ‘Take away sponsorship and commercialism from sport today,’ IOC member Dick Pound has said, ‘and what is left? A large, sophisticated engine developed over 100 years - with no fuel.’

That may be too cynical; but there is no doubt that the Olympic movement, riven by factionalism and tarnished by its relentless, devouring pursuit of profit and maximum exposure, has lost sight of its founding spirit.

This is why it is so encouraging that London won the bid to host the 2012 Games: Sebastian Coe, and his team, in their final presentation in Singapore and throughout the later stages of their triumphant campaign, offered an alternative vision of what the Games might once more become - something smaller and more modest in scale, less concerned with bombast and nationalistic posturing, than with a desire to unite all communities and, most importantly, to inspire the young, liberating them into a life of sport and activity.

Coe arrived at Raffles Hotel on Wednesday morning to deliver his final speech accompanied by a group of animated children representing the cultural and ethnic mosaic of London’s East End. These children may have been from one of the most depressed and neglected parts of Britain, but they were full of hope for the future regeneration of their city. What a bright difference they made from all the other assembled sombre-suited delegates and host city bidders!

Coe spoke, again and again, of his desire to inspire these children and hundreds of thousands like them just as he, as a 12-year-old watching on television in Sheffield, had been inspired by David Hemery winning gold in the 400m hurdles in Mexico in 1968. These were good words, good because sincere.

The 2008 Games, in Beijing, will be a huge engine of efficiency: Chinese authoritarianism will ensure that everything is completed before time and that nothing will go wrong or be left to chance. The Games will be a demonstration of Chinese power: They will be truly gigantic in scale and ambition as befits a nation where the power of the state is omnipresent. Nothing will be spared to ensure that Chinese athletes - so often disgraced by the scandal of experimenting with performance enhancing drugs - are the outstanding performers.

The London Games should not be like that. They should be true to the modesty and spirit of the original bid and to the progressive, porous city that London has become, a model of multiracial integration, of cultural tolerance and diversity. These Games should be organised and run with the quiet, understated efficiency of, say, Wimbledon, arguably the best organised sporting event in the world.

If the London Games are to be true to their desire to inspire the young, then tickets must be reasonably priced and available to all throughout the country. Coe and his team must resist the embrace of the corporate sponsors. Or at least, their wealth and power should be used to the advantage of all. And the volunteers should be drawn from all ethnic groups and across all age ranges.

Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor of Paris, suggested in the aftermath of defeat that London succeeded not because of the quality of its bid but because of the intensity of its lobbying. IOC executive board member Gerhard Heiberg offered another perspective. ‘London,’ he said, ‘gave a great presentation and Coe was excellent. It was an emotional vote in there, and people went with their hearts and not their heads.’

Why did they do this? Perhaps because the august and pampered members of the IOC have, like so many of us, grown weary of what the Games have become while still believing in their undoubted transformative and life-affirming potential. People no longer wish to be present at a carnival of corporate excess: you need only visit a top Premiership football match, with its prohibitively expensive ticket prices and rhetoric of greed, to understand how starkly sport is becoming separated from its founding ethos. No, what people want is to be inspired, uplifted and reminded all over again of the dignity of this sporting life. London 2012 can help achieve that.