London gets everything, moans the rest of the country. Mihir Bose explains why this has to be the Olympic case
The start of the Olympics, with the women’s football match between Great Britain and New Zealand at Cardiff’s Millennium stadium, has ignited the old controversy: why are the Games given to a city and not a country? Why does the International Olympic Committee not follow FIFA and take its events round the country?
When you put this argument to the IOC, their answer is always the same: the format works so why change it? That is exactly what Sir Craig Reedie, the Briton who sits on the executive of the IOC, said to me. I had prefaced my question by making the same point that quite a few critics have made: that the IOC format of one city takes all, devised back at the end of the 19th century, does not work for the 21st.
His answer was interesting, “I don’t think there’s a basic flaw at all. The IOC have an emphasis of awarding the Games to a city so that all of the sport takes place in that city, excluding sailing. That should be beside the sea so Sydney and Athens could do it, but Beijing and London could not.”
As it happened, for various reasons, Beijing could not cope with the equestrian events and they were held in Hong Kong.
Yes, he agreed, football moves around the country. “From the size of the football footprint in most countries, it’s wise from their development point of view to go around. But, if the IOC spread it around lots of cities, effectively you’re dissipating the enthusiasm of the athletes of the world to stay in the Olympic Village and to be all part of the same show. Until somebody proves to us that it is different, then I think that’s the way that we will stay. Mr Platini’s idea of running a European Championship all around the place doesn’t apply to the Olympics. He runs one sport and much of it is driven by television. The Olympic Games with 26 sports [it will be 28 in Rio], almost all in the same place, is a different animal. As far as the IOC are concerned, we have been delighted over the years that a number of cities are prepared to bid for the Games.”
Now you could say there is a touch of self satisfaction in the answer but I must say I agree with Reedie. What makes the Olympics unique is that it is a festival of sport, often sports that most people do not see, might never have seen and indeed, after the Olympics, might never see again. And festivals, by their nature, are held in one place. The fact that the athletes all live together in a Village gives the festival an extra touch. To distribute the sports round the country would destroy the very idea of the festival. It would be like saying the Edinburgh Festival is so big that it needs to be spread all over Scotland.
Now critics will argue that that is missing the point. The Olympics are costing the British taxpayers not far short of ten billion pounds. Yet all of it, or nearly all of it, is being lavished on London. So why should the rest of the country subsidise London which already has a lion’s share of almost everything?
One answer to that is before London won the bid to stage 2012, Manchester bid twice and Birmingham once and failed. The IOC made it clear that, if the British wanted to be considered serious bidders, they had better come with their capital city. London did and, prompted by Ken Livingstone, it has used the grant of the Games as a catalyst for regenerating a part of the east end of the city that had not seen any investment for a hundred years.
It does mean London is getting even more money and attention than it does already but that reflects the nature of this country. Unlike many other European countries where there are strong regional governments and thriving regional cities that almost rival their capital city, London is unique. No other British city can match it or even comes close. This is where the media is concentrated and all the government machinery that matters. That this should be the first city to ever host three Olympics is no surprise.
Let us celebrate that and stop moaning that London gets everything. London gets it because it deserves it.