Legacy and money take back seat as big party begins
For just GBP6 (HK$72), it was a bargain. The hot weather and an urge to feel more streamlined like an athlete led me into an old-style barber shop near my hotel. It felt as if I had stepped into a Godfather movie.
The chairs were all old-fashioned with comfortable reclining leather backs. There was no modern hairdressers of indeterminate sex, just Franco and a couple of old stooges, who looked and sounded as Italian as the mafioso. I expected any moment for the door to burst open and a gunman to walk in and shoot the customer behind the white sheet: me.
Thankfully, the only victim was my wallet, which was GBP6 lighter after Franco's dexterous snips. It was money well spent. And for the first time since I arrived in London, I didn't feel as if I was being robbed. This is the most expensive city in the world and a recent survey backs my early experience. The Tripindex, a study carried out by travel websites, has revealed an evening out in London for two - hotel room, dinner, drinks and taxis - would set one back an average of GBP330.
Hong Kong is not cheap but the British capital is on another level. Four-star accommodation this summer costs an arm and a leg. The taxi ride from Heathrow to Eastleigh in Southampton on my arrival set me back GBP85. I gave the guy five 20s and he gave change of a fiver. Without even asking he has helped himself to a GBP10 tip. The journey into London by train - after staying overnight at a friend's - from Eastleigh cost me GBP32.
Money seems to be haemorrhaging. Yet, these are supposed to be the austerity Games, aptly named for most visitors. It has hardly been the case as far as staging the event is concerned.
Austerity has been cast to the wind by Locog, the Games' organising committee, which has spent more than GBP9 billion to put on the show. When compared with what Beijing threw at the Games four years ago - it is estimated GBP20 billion was spent not only on sports facilities like the Bird's Nest but also infrastructure including subway lines and a new airport terminal - it's insignificant.
Yet, coming at a time of economic recession, when the government is trying to cut costs and reduce the budget deficit, it seems excessive. But everyone, from Prime Minister David Cameron to London mayor Boris Johnson, believes it is money well spent. Cameron said he expected a ripple effect that would bring in revenue of GBP13 billion over the next four years. More immediately, it is estimated businesses will gain GBP1 billion. Just what the doctor ordered in these hard times.
But it's not all about money, as the International Olympic Committee takes a lot of pain to stress. A word the IOC loves to throw around is 'legacy'. And par for the course, IOC boss Jacques Rogge trotted it out when talking about what London would leave behind for future generations. Rogge pointed out that Sebastian Coe and his team had put legacy at the heart of their bid. 'They spoke of inspiring a generation, of revitalising long-depressed areas of London, of providing Londoners with improved infrastructure, employment opportunities, and access to sports facilities,' he said.
Barcelona, he said, regenerated neglected parts of the city, including industrial land along its shoreline, leading to a boom in tourism from fewer than two million visitors before the 1992 Games to 7.4 million last year. He said Sydney 2000 created one of the largest urban parklands in Australia, Beijing 2008 resulted in 400 million children learning about the Olympics, and mentioned the benefits Lillehammer (1994) and Vancouver (2006) gained from the Winter Games. One notable omission was Athens 2004. Its legacy has been the ruin of the economy, and chaos and riots on the streets.
Visiting the Olympic Park, the site of the stadium where the opening and closing ceremonies will take place, gives weight to Rogge's belief the Games are a harbinger of good. The Olympic Park, the size of 357 football fields, was formerly decrepit wasteland - as Coe described it a '50-foot pile of rotting fridge' - in the east end of London. Today it has been transformed.
But legacy is not only about behemoth structures or a profit-and-loss column. It is more importantly about inspiring future generations to follow in the footsteps of a Bradley Wiggins. Johnson felt the young people in Britain, who in the next two weeks will witness the world's best athletes demonstrate their prowess on the grandest possible stage and in the most vivid and exciting ways (his words), would be compelled to take up the oar or don a cycling helmet in a bid to follow in the wake of their heroes.
This concept, however, is not Hong Kong's cup of tea, as proven when our legislators knocked back the idea of bidding for the 2023 Asian Games. Perhaps it is time for a rethink. Our former colonial masters are leading the way and maybe we should take a leaf out of their book and have another look at the possibility of a bid.
As the world watches London for the next two weeks from afar - it is too expensive to turn up in most cases - be certain of one thing. All the Olympian gripes and all the Olympic grinches will be forgotten. Whether a legacy is left behind is another matter, because for now, all that matters is the biggest party in the world.