Ditch corporate excess for the democratic Games

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 01 August, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 August, 2012, 10:42pm

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Before its start, the London Olympics was billed as the Austerity Games, given the scraping together of coppers from the UK's collective piggy bank to stage the 30th Olympiad during the global recession.

But as the row over the corporates' hold over the Games rages, the claim that this is the Spartan Olympics is wearing increasingly thin.

The sponsors and the IOC are coming in for particular flak, especially over the empty VIP seats, the special lanes and the monopoly over food and drink on offer in the Olympic Park. The brand police who have swooped on anyone daring to use the Olympics rings are also a target.

Forced to defend the 'Olympic Family' and all those who hang onto its coat tails, Locog chief Sebastian Coe and IOC deputy chairman Mike Creedy have been doing the media rounds, pointing out that without the sponsors' money, there would be no London Games, or any Olympics, ever.

It's a strong argument. Without the dreaded, hated sponsors - whose brands are so imposed upon us they haunt us in our sleep - there would be few international sporting events. Tennis, golf, F1, basketball and football would all disappear in a puff of dust if the corporate limo sped off into the sunset, so the defence goes. Thus, Coe said, the sponsors deserved special attention in London, such as VIP seats and their own traffic lanes.

If truth be told, only around 7 to 8 per cent of the money spent on the London Olympics has come from private sponsors. And here's the rub that so riles the British public. The sponsors have been handed much more than 7 per cent of the seats - around 13 per cent in total. If you include the rest of the Olympic Family afforded VIP treatment, that's come to 20 per cent of seating.

Moreover, the sponsors and VIPS get up to 50 per cent of the seats at the marquee events, such as the 100m final in athletics. Naturally, they get the best ones with the best views, too.

If you punch the numbers into your Olympic branded calculator, the results are disconcerting. Going on empty seats at the last few Olympics, no other major sporting event gives so low a proportion of its space to ordinary people. Yet it is the hoi polloi who are paying through the nose in taxes to stage the London event - and we are the ones inconvenienced by the Olympic lanes and other transport woes.

To stage these so-called Austerity Games, GBP9.3 billion (HK$113.3 billion) has been spent on security and construction of the venues, cash grabbed from the public purse. A further GBP3.5 billion has come from subsidies to the private sector, including GBP1.15 billion on buying the Olympic site and Olympic-specific transport. Ticket sales revenues add up to GBP500 million, bringing the total to GBP13.3 billion.

So how much is gathered from sponsorship? Well, by contrast, the amount poured in the Olympic coffers from the likes of official sponsors McDonalds, Coca-Cola and Visa, amount to GBP1.1 billion.

Hang on, though. Some GBP700 million of this is raised domestically by Locog via local sponsors. I am no mathematician - but this means only GBP380 million of the Olympic budget has come from the IOC's international sponsors and from payments for broadcasting rights, with merchandising topping off the pile with GBP50 million to GBP80 million.

All told, that's a lot of money in these apparently recession-hit Games - but who said piles of Olympic cash can make you happy? Not the British, who are questioning the way the Games has been handed lock, stock and barrel to the IOC circus via a couple of signatures on the five-ringed contract.

Many feel locked out of the Games and are calling for end to the IOC's hold on the Olympics and the power of their corporate sponsoring friends - the 7 per cent who have a privileged, Olympic Lane and VIP seating hold over the masses.

In keeping with the mood of the recession-hit world, there are rumblings afoot that the Games should be retaken by the people - a peaceful Olympic revolution to bring it back to common earth, and next time ensure the IOC stages the first genuinely 'democratic Olympics', a non-corporate Games - a truly austere international sporting event.

Many are looking at the 1948 Olympics, held among the bomb sites and rubble-strewn streets of a post-war London, the last time when Britain was flat broke, as a comparison to 2012.

The event was organised on a 'make do and mend' strategy with a total budget of GBP750,000. It made do without an Olympic Village. Female athletes slept in college dorms and the men bedded down in an RAF camp.

There was strict food rationing in force. Athletes were assigned a meagre weekly basket of 13 ounces of meat, 6 ounces of butter and 8 ounces of sugar, a diet which saw some competitors pass out during training. Some bulked up on whale meat. France, upset over the lack of decent grub for its stars, sent hampers of steaks - and Mouton Rothschild wine - in refrigerated trains. Denmark sent 160,000 eggs, the Americans flew in white flour and fresh fruit. Kidney beans, liver and tripe were sent by the Mexicans.

There was no cash for purpose-built stadiums. Instead, German POWs helped convert the old Wembley Stadium into an athletics arena by collecting 800,000 cinder blocks from around London and smashing them into dust to make a running track.

But the sparse environment produced some great champions during a time when sportsmen and women were true amateurs, and the Olympics gave a massive morale boast to a world broken, financially and spiritually, from conflict.

Amid the blinding corporate adverts, heated rows over the VIPs and Olympic lanes, and IOC and Locog officials telling us we have never had it so good, who can blame the nostalgic British for looking back at the past - and wondering if it is from those dark times that the Olympic future can be forged?

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The amount of meat, in ounces, supplied to athletes as part of a weekly food ration at the 1948 Games