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VICTORIES have many fathers, defeat is an orphan. Old Roman saying. So it is no surprise that few in Britain claim much responsibility for the three British Olympic bid defeats of the last 15 years: Birmingham to Barcelona for 1992, and Manchester twice, to Atlanta for 1996 and Sydney for 2000.

Yet one of the most important lessons of those failures, perhaps the crucial one, was learnt very early on in the planning for this London bid — that when Britain next bids for the Games it could not put forward a regional city as a candidate.

Sir Bob Scott led the two failed Manchester bids, but confesses that even as he tried to convince the world it should be Manchester he knew he was not putting forward Britain’s best city.

“I was aware that I was not leading the first XI,” he said. “The international world thinks London when they think Great Britain. If you put up Manchester or any other city other than London, however sound the bid, you cannot get over the fact that you are not London. The world then comes to the conclusion that Britain has decided to send out its second XI and is not taking the competition seriously. I found myself between a rock a hard place.

“Either Manchester or Birmingham would have been the better Olympic cities. The cities could provide better benefits and could close down for a month, give themselves over completely to the Olympics. Heartbeat capitals of the world like London, New York and Tokyo cannot do that. These cities have to keep going, they are not cities that can shut down for a month. But British regional cities have never been regional capitals. They have been commercial centres always acting as bridesmaid to the eternal bride that is London.”

There are other countries that do not face this problem. In the United States, Germany, Spain, or even Canada, the fact that a bidding city may not be a capital does not matter. Curiously, Britain shares this capital city bias with its great rival France. For 2004, which Athens won, Lille was the city the French put forward, but not being Paris it vanished without a trace.

So back in 1997, when preparations for this bid began, the British Olympic Association decided that the next bid would be London and London only. The BOA view, which they have held to since, is that no other city was big enough or impressive enough to attract and stage the Games.

From this flowed another very important difference that distinguished this bid from previous British attempts. They had been marked by an internal British competition to find a British city, and on each occasion London had been beaten by a provincial rival.

At that time, with Margaret Thatcher having abolished the Greater London Council, there was no London-wide authority and there were rival London groups seeking to mount a London bid. For the 1992 Games, there was an internal British competition between Birmingham, Manchester and London, with the London bid masterminded by Peter Lawson, then head of the Central Council for Physical Recreation, who was subsequently jailed for fraud. Dennis Howell, the former Labour sports minister, won that British race and Birmingham was chosen as the British city. London bid again for 1996 and 2000 and this time lost to Manchester — quite badly, as it happens.

In contrast, many of the cities challenging London will have emerged from internal competition: New York, Madrid, Leipzig and either Rio or Sao Paulo. This means that when London starts lobbying there will be internal material from these countries highlighting problems the cities may face.

The other major difference with previous bids is that they were in the great British tradition of freelance enterprise, a person getting an idea and suddenly deciding to take up the challenge. Scott recalls how in 1985, while shaving one morning, he heard on Radio 4’s Today programme Neil McFarland, then sports minister, saying Mrs Thatcher wanted the Games.

As it happens, McFarland got this wrong but Scott, who lived in Manchester then, was so enthused with the idea that he spent the next two hours organising a bid committee, roping in the editor of the Manchester Evening News and launching the bid. Scott had no previous role in the Olympics. In fact, he had to look up the number of the British Olympic Association. Initially, under the word Olympics, he found a laundry, but as Manchester bid twice he became for a time the worldwide Olympic face of Britain.

This time round the BOA have been in charge right from the beginning, building up partnerships with London, even before the London Mayor’s office was created, and the Government. This will be the most institutional Olympic bid this country has launched. Also, this time much time and effort has been put in making sure the figures are right. No British bid has come better prepared.

The other great lesson that has been learnt is that this bid must be more aware of the Olympic world and how it works. Mark Bostock, of Arup, who did the costings for this London bid, as well as the Birmingham one, recalls how on the day of the vote he was joined by a man he had never met before. As Juan Antonio Samaranch, then president of the IOC, got up on the podium to start the proceedings, the man turned to Bostock and said: “That little Spaniard will announce that Barcelona has won.”

Bostock laughed at him. This was his first exposure to the Olympics and like the rest of the Birmingham team, Bostock was supremely confident the Midland city would win. What hope did little Barcelona have? But Barcelona was the name Samaranch announced and Bostock learnt his first Olympic lesson.

The big question is whether the British have learnt the most important lesson: do not believe that because we are British we must win. Past failures hopefully have taught this very necessary humility.

© Mihir Bose

      

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