With the Jubilee over and the England football team unlikely to provide much of a lasting distraction at the Euros, the 50-day countdown to the London Olympics is now entering serious overdrive. Right from the start of the bidding competition back in 2005, hosting a ‘home’ Olympics was sold to the British public as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This was no idle boast: Along with football’s World Cup (which England can’t even think of hosting till at least 2026) the Olympics is undoubtedly the biggest show on earth. Spread across 26 different sports and with over 200 countries competing, its reach and appeal is enormous.
The sales pitch of the Olympic organisers was explicit: This was an opportunity to be there while history was being made, to witness something unforgettable first-hand, to bring the memories of past Games watched on TV to vivid life. The Games organisers did little or nothing to dampen expectation that tickets for the Games would be there for the taking.
Seasoned sports observers treated such inducements with scepticism. They knew from past experience, that demand for tickets would inevitably massively outstrip supply. Huge numbers of tickets would be reserved for sponsors and special guests, especially for the major events, and unavailable to the public. Despite pressure, the organisers have refused to release details until after the Games concerning how many tickets have been reserved in this fashion.
The organisers have sold the Games short by offering enormous quantities of tickets as part of sponsorship packages. Sponsors are involved in the Games primarily to promote their products - a reduction in the ticket concessions available would be unlikely to put them off. And those turning away would quickly be replaced by others queuing up for the commercial opportunities the Games present.
But making more of sponsors’ seats available to the public is only a start. A core organising principle of the Olympics should have been the direct involvement of the maximum number of people. With a Games comprising 26 different sports there are lots of possibilities for imaginative alternatives to the highly-centralised model that has been adopted.
Take hockey for example: Instead of being played as a mini-World Cup in a single stadium with a 15,000 capacity inside the Olympic Park, hockey could have been played across the West MIdlands. Stadiums there include two in Birmingham, one each in Wolverhampton, Coventry and Sandwell – all considerably larger than the specially built one in Stratford. The team GB squad could have been based in the area, combining their training and preparation with outreach work in schools and communities to promote the sport. A local opening ceremony for all the nations taking part would have helped to cement civic pride in hosting this part of the Olympics.
Or consider boxing. Manchester would have been an excellent host for this sport. The biggest crowd for Ricky Hatton’s fights was at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium when over 40,000 people turned up, many more than those who will get tickets to the Olympic boxing finals. Manchester could have combined the Etihad Stadium with Old Trafford, capacity 75,000, and the MEN arena too for the earlier rounds.
Volleyball? Yorkshire boasts large stadia in Leeds, two in Sheffield, Bradford, Huddersfield, Hull, and Doncaster. A regional host for this sport makes good sense and would increase the numbers who can watch. With a modest degree of reconfiguration and specially designed surfaces to lay on top of football pitches, the possibility for making a reality of an entirely different model for the Olympics is clearly evident.
Of course there will always be some events for which no stadia would be large enough to accommodate. But the spread of the programme should allow anyone who wants to come along to see at least some part of the Games. Sports such as rowing, taekwondo and swimming would, in this way, be put on the map in place of the usual roster of cricket, rugby and football.
Football is the one part of the Olympics programme which has been organised in the fashion I’m suggesting. But it hasn’t attracted the demand of tickets the organisers hoped for. I believe there are two reasons for this: Firstly, in Britain, the football tournament is regarded as not even third or fourth rate compared to the World Cup or European Championships. Secondly, people have been rightly indignant that the regionalisation of the tournament is little more than a sop to Scotland, Wales and the north, the one bit of the Games they can have. Giving the tournament a regional base, in the way that the North West was used for the 2005 Women’s European Football Championships, would have been more likely to create a popular connection to Olympic football.
So why the lack of ambition? Because the Games organisers have preferred a centralised, elitist model that combines relatively small venues and high ticket prices escalating steeply from a minimum of £20. The alternative arrangement, with the Games spread across the country, would have vastly increased spectator capacity and allowed for ticket prices that are substantially lower.
Does any of this matter? Yes, because any democratic project for sport should mean the involvement of as many people as possible. London 2012 actively prevents this. Instead of a People’s Games in which we can all be involved, it’s tickets for the lucky few, and the TV remote for the rest of us.
Mark Perryman is the author of Why The Olympics aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be, available at a 15% pre-publication discount from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/.