Evening Standard

Tony Blair in the Olympic stadium: 'Our presentation was not Britain seen as a sort of tourist guide book. It was really about London as a thriving metropolitan global city'. Image courtesy of Evening Standard

Tony Blair may not have been invited to William and Kate’s wedding but he is reasonably confident he will be in the Olympic stadium next July when the Games start.

In fact, he’s so confident that he did not even bother applying for tickets. “I guess,” he says, “there’s a chance I may get some. I would like to see some of the athletics, the 100 metres final obviously. And I hope that I will get invited at least to the Opening Ceremony.”

We are sitting in what will be the royal box of the Olympic stadium. The former Prime Minister, making his first visit to the stadium, has been shown round by Seb Coe, the chairman of 2012, and Blair has just told me: “This is much more intimate than a normal stadium, very cosy, don’t you think? When I compare it with the Beijing Olympic Stadium, here you can feel very close to the athletes.”

Then he reflects on the moment it all started.

“Looking around this stadium now, it is incredible to think that it began as a conversation between Tessa [Jowell] and myself. It was the summer of 2003, because we were outside in the Downing Street garden. Tessa was saying that we should bid and I was saying, ‘Well look, Tessa, it’s all very well but it’s going to be such a lot of work. What happens if we lose, we’re going to get slaughtered. I don’t want to be humiliated by the French.’ She said – and she knew exactly how to put this to me, ‘You know this is not the Tony Blair I know, cautious and timid’. So I said, ‘Oh all right, let’s give it a go then’.”

Blair now sees this as the sporting equivalent of his Clause Four moment. Then, after being elected Labour leader, he decided that its old socialist pledges should be changed to reflect New Labour. But whereas on Clause Four he had the full support of Gordon Brown, the then Chancellor was not an enthusiast for the Olympics, always keener to get the World Cup back to this country.

Not that Blair wants to get into Gordon- bashing. “Well, you want to get me on a Gordon thing do you? Come on be fair, he was fully behind it, once we decided we were going for the bid.”

He does agree that the Treasury, as Ken Livingstone, then London Mayor, put it, saw the bid as a special toy of Jowell and Livingstone. “There was a definite sense that those two were driving it. The Treasury was worried about the cost and they were putting in the pretty standard Treasury queries. But, in the end the Treasury paid the money and it has come in ahead of time and below budget so the Treasury should be pleased.”

The person Blair is keener to talk about is his wife Cherie and her part in 2012. “She was very passionate about the Olympic bid. When I discussed it with her before we agreed to go for the bid, she was wildly enthusiastic. She said, ‘Go for it, it’s the greatest sporting event in the world, why on earth not? If the people in London and the athletics people are prepared to get behind it, why should we not do it?’ I was frankly worried it was going to take up a lot of time and we’d fail. But she rightly said, ‘Well you don’t succeed unless you’re prepared to fail, so give it a go’.

Cherie Blair also expressed an interest in leading the bid. But Blair dismisses that: “I can’t remember her wanting to be bid leader. It would have been a bit tough actually for the PM’s wife to be bid leader. But she played a big part in winning the bid.”

Flying the flag: Cherie Blair meeting schoolchildren in Singapore in July 2005. Image courtesy of Evening Stanadard

And expanding on his wife’s role he reveals: “She worked out that in the Olympic Committee, there are obviously the great and the good and the princes and princesses and all that, but there are also – I don’t know quite how to put it – the less well known and less high-profile people. But they all have one vote and so she made friends with all those people. She would go out to their countries and see them and talk to them. She just kept up the contacts with them. So, when we got to Singapore, she was bumping into old friends. That was the reason why, when I was in Singapore, I thought, hey maybe we’ve got a chance of winning this.”

Blair himself had to squeeze in Singapore in July 2005 just before chairing a G8 summit in Gleneagles but managed to meet 40 IOC members. But he still cannot get over one meeting which nearly went horribly wrong.

“I met them in my hotel suite in Singapore. Just before each of them came, I got a sheet of paper about them. But this time I was handed the wrong sheet of paper. It said this guy who was the champion Czech javelin thrower or something like that. I didn’t know much about javelin throwing and I was surprised to see he was small and I was even more surprised when I said what’s the most important thing to you and he said the quality of the ice. I thought hmmm. It turned out he was a Norwegian ice skater.”

What helped Blair in wooing IOC members was that he saw them much like members of the general management committee in his Sedgefield constituency. “The IOC’s electorate is about 120 and every person has a one vote. That is really important thing to remember. When I was nominated to be the Labour candidate in 1983, the guy who later became my agent said to me, ‘You’ve got all these people and a lot of them do a lot of talking. But then there are these little old ladies and guys who don’t say much, but they’ve all got the same vote. So you go and see them’.”

Blair readily acknowledges that London won because Seb Coe and his team changed the perception of the country. “Our presentation was not Britain seen as a sort of tourist guide book. It was really about London as a thriving metropolitan global city where people of different races and cultures all mixed and mingled together and that spirit persuaded the Olympic people that we had something unique to offer.”

This was very different from the French presentation which had a lot of lovely Parisian scenery and the enchanting Catherine Deneuve.

“Yes, Paris is a fabulous city and I’m sure they would have done a great Games, but theirs was a somewhat more conventional bid. So I think we were quite clever in the way that we did that.”

But have we been a bit too clever and will the legacy promised in Singapore be delivered? Blair is certain there will be a legacy. “There will be an obvious visible legacy, in the world-class facilities. They will allow us to do all sorts of different events in the future, but I think the biggest legacy will be if we handle it right, that it will galvanise the country around sport, its possibilities, you know a whole generation of youngsters will get inspired.”

Blair agrees with Seb Coe that it will not take the country away from its football obsession. “Well, Britain is always going to be soccer mad. But this will be a big event about sport and we notice this in the work my sports foundation does with youngsters in the North-East. We have got 18,000 taking part in an indoor rowing competition. You put a rowing machine into these schools, what you find is a lot of these kids who would never have got on a rowing machine, get onto one. One of the kids who did that is, a year later, competing in championships.”

And, while Blair authorised the bid in the middle of a boom, he is convinced that, even in a recession, the Olympics will always be worth it.

“I hope we would still have had the nerve to bid for it in a recession. Of course, it costs money, but think of the amount of money that’s going to come in. The merchandising is going to be a billion pounds alone. Economically, it’s got to be a good thing. The reason why people compete so hard for the events like the Olympics and, to a lesser extent the World Cup, is because you’ve got the eyes of the world on you. It’s a fantastic showcase for the country.”

He admits that people get upset about special Olympic traffic lanes. “Yes they do. You’ve just got to put up with that I’m afraid. It’s a small price to pay.”

What he finds difficult to handle is that his own enjoyment of going to sporting events is ruined by politics. “People want to talk to me about everything other than sport. So they are saying, what about the Middle East Peace Process and I’m thinking, I just want to watch the sport.”


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