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Over the past few days I’ve lost count of the number of politicians decrying critics of the Olympics. Labour’s newly appointed ‘Olympic Legacy Adviser’ Tony Blair has returned to one of his favourite themes, declaring war on cynicism. Boris Johnson joins the chorus of boasts that the Games proves London to be the world’s greatest city. And in the press Jonathan Freedland has been amongst those demanding that enthusiasm for the Games must trump any tendency towards critique.
What none of these, and plenty of others, appear capable of recognising is that it is perfectly possible to be both a fan of the Olympics and a critic. When I passed through the Olympic Park turnstiles I was both looking forward to the event we had tickets to see, but also entirely aware of the limitations of the Games model as insisted upon by the IOC and dutifully followed by Seb Coe and LOCOG.
After our day out, here are my Olympic Park pluses…
Firstly, the Olympic Park itself is a magnificent jumble of world-class sporting facilities with plenty of open space in-between. Quite what it will look like a few years after the Olympics are over, who knows, but right now it is something Britain has never seen before and is to be enjoyed.
Secondly, the sport we went to watch, the Women’s Water Polo, had attracted a near capacity crowd, and I would guess like me most had never paid to watch this sport before, let alone knew the rules. Yet we were transfixed – it was fast, immensely skilful, occasionally brutal. The crowd were enthusiastic, non-partisan, and clearly enjoying themselves as part of the Games.
Thirdly, inside the stadiums there are no adverts, no corporate branding at all, just the Olympian five rings and London 2012. The commercialisation stops once the sport begins, so why on earth do the IOC permit the 5 Rings to become a logo for sponsors rather than a symbol of sport in every other available space?
But there were minuses too…
First, the now notorious empty seats. The Water Polo arena was almost full, 90% I would reckon, yet for the past week the London 2012 website had the sold out sign up. A few hundred empty seats, mainly in the National Olympic Committee, VIPS and Sponsors areas plus some in the public sale areas. Clearly this should have been anticipated, and an easy-to-operate returns arrangement made. But the problem is systemic. The magnificence of the Olympic Park is prioritised over decentralisation, using much larger venues, the Water Polo arena could have easily accommodated twice the number of seats, at much reduced prices. The VIP tickets aren’t a side issue, but the numbers that could have attended a home Games if the vision was maximum participation, is what should be key.
Second, the disconnection with East London. Fans arrive by underground and Javelin train. Straight into the Olympic Park, spend the day there, out via the Westfield Shopping centre and back on the train home. Overseas visitors are doing likewise, straight back to their hotels, very few of which are in East London. At the epicentre of three of Britain’s most multicultural boroughs, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney, the Olympic Park is full of those travelling in from the Home Counties, precious few locals are there. The Olympic Park is an expensive bubble, almost entirely divorced from the locality.
Third. the much mentioned issue of security. The process of getting in is pretty basic, not much more than what anybody would be used to at any modern sporting event of any size. So quite why thousands of trained soldiers still in their Afghanistan issue camouflage are doing here isn’t immediately obvious. Those I saw yesterday were from our elite fighting forces, the Paras and Commandos. Is checking bags really what they’re best equipped to be doing? Was it really so difficult to find those who could have done these jobs? It is a strange image for these Games to project thousands of uniformed soldiers, andd heavily armed policemen filling the public areas, a scene that for many is anything but reassuring.
I went away from the Olympic Park feeling privileged to have been there, lucky to have applied in time to get a ticket. But at the same time regretful that a Games that so many more could have been part of wasn’t what London 2012 ever became. It’s a balance neither uncritical enthusiasm nor outright opposition accommodates but after a day in the Olympic Park I was more convinced than ever before that the Olympics are both a good thing, but could be so much better too.
Mark Perryman is the author of the newly published Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be. Just £8, Now available direct from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/