International Olympic Committee

Spare me the nationalistic glitz; these global Games should be more global

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 28 July, 2012, 12:00am

And the winner is... In 2008, the Beijing Olympics were China's splashy coming-out party, a dazzling, expensively choreographed event that may never be bettered. However, the long-term outcome is uncertain: is today's China a more international, more mature global player? Or does a dangerous chauvinism rule?

Britain has paid a hefty GBP11billion (HK$132 billion) price tag for bringing the Olympics to London, where the Games will open as this newspaper goes to press today.

Controversies are raging about the costs and benefits of hosting the Games: the hefty bill for taxpayers versus the dreams of an economic boost; the cost of the new stadiums and facilities versus the rejuvenation of previously depressed East London; the high-living of Olympics Inc and the disruption to ordinary Londoners versus a new enthusiasm for sport.

But the most important test is whether the Games give Britain a better appreciation of the world and the world a better appreciation of Britain. On this - as in Beijing - it is difficult to be sure of success.

It is hard to imagine that the London Games will turn a profit given the soaring costs. When London bid for the Games, the budget was GBP2.4billion. The official cost reached GBP9.3 billion in 2007 and the British House of Commons' public accounts committee disclosed recently that the bill was 'heading for around GBP11 billion'. Sky Sports estimated that the true cost, if all items were properly budgeted, would be GBP24 billion.

The athletes' village cost GBP1.1billion, but has already been sold, with taxpayers footing a GBP275million loss. Jeremy Hunt - the gaffe-prone culture secretary also responsible for the Games' private security fiasco - called the sale of the village 'a fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a great legacy from London's games'.

Like Soviet Moscow, where major roads were reserved for government officials' Zil limousines, London is experiencing its own 'Zil moment'. Some 48 kilometres of special lanes have been set aside for official Olympic bigwigs, while most Londoners fume in traffic.

Businesses are being badly disrupted by rules and regulations for the benefit of Olympics Inc. The government's surrender to the unaccountable International Olympic Committee (IOC) irks, not least because IOC members will not be running, swimming, wrestling or riding. Nor will they be staying in the Olympic Village or enjoying the jellied eel delights of the East End. Instead, they are staying miles away in the five-star London Hilton, all luxurious expenses paid by the British taxpayer.

The lasting legacy is more difficult to assess. London is probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The BBC claims that its inhabitants come from 200 countries and speak 300 languages.

But they are a highly mixed group. They include high-flying denizens of the City and rich business executives from places as diverse and far-flung as Russia, the Middle East and India. Together, the super-rich have helped to put London on the map as a rival to New York as the world's best business centre and driven prime London property prices to the highest in the world per square metre after Monaco.

But the cultural diversity of London comes from waves of much poorer immigrants, stretching from the French Protestant Huguenots 350 years ago to the Irish, Chinese, West Indians, Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Turks. More recently, free movement of labour in the European Union has led Poles and French, Spaniards and Italians to join London's throng.

London's - and Britain's - problem is that this wonderful cultural diversity is not mirrored in the rest of the country. There are pockets of immigrants in places like Glasgow, Leeds, Leicester, Southall, but Britain as a whole is hostile to immigrants and likes to pretend - a conceited pretence given the mongrel origins of the original British - to being a homogeneous Caucasian country.

The sporting lessons of the Games will be that being faster or stronger or flying higher is not the preserve of any one country and that sportsmen may achieve brilliance - or flop - whatever their racial or national origins. But the Olympics itself encourages chauvinism with the flags and anthems and league tables.

BBC World behaves as if the Olympics are the only show in the world, but to its credit recognises sporting achievements regardless of nationality or colour - more than can be said for most nationalistic media. The real test will come when the Games are over, the athletes have gone home and the British economy has failed to respond to the Olympic boost.

Will the blotchy pinky-grey David Cameron - you'd have to be colour-blind to call him 'white' - retreat to his blotchy pinky-grey constituency and man the barricades claiming the uniqueness of Britain? He does have a tendency, as the satirical magazine Private Eye mocked him, to be Lord Snooty with his gang of toffs.

Or will he seize the Olympic moment and understand that we are all on this fragile earth together? Multiracial, multicultural Britain could win its brightest gold medal by urging that in politics and economics, as in sports, chauvinism is the biggest potentially mortal sin.

We all, Britain, Europe, the United States, China, Asia and Africa, are in this together. Anyone's disaster hurts us all.

Kevin Rafferty will be staying away from his London home for the duration of the Olympics