Making an impression

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 29 May, 2011, 12:00am


What a difference four years make in the life cycle of the Olympics.

In May 2007, with just over a year to go until the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the Spiritual Civilisation Steering Committee, the official etiquette watchdog, dispatched patrols around the capital to stamp out spitting, swearing and smoking ahead of New China's debutante ball.

That same month, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) was under mounting pressure to censure the Chinese government over its human rights abuses following a damming report from Amnesty International.

And this journalist was putting in yet another futile request to interview the elusive president of the Beijing Organising Committee of the Olympic Games ( Bocog), Liu Qi, and/or his executive vice-president and secretary general, Wang Wei.

Here in London, a year out from the 2012 Olympics, the contrast could not be sharper. Say what you like about cash-strapped liberal democracies, you can at least speak to the Olympic Big Wig direct.

And, oh what joy - you do not have to fax questions in advance.

'How would Thursday morning, 11am, do?' came the reply from Locog (London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games) on the first time of asking for a meeting with the chief executive of the London Olympics, Paul Deighton.

This 2008 Beijing Olympics veteran reporter pinched himself.

'Fire away,' says a chipper Deighton from the 23rd floor of Churchill Place, Locog's headquarters, situated in the Canary Wharf financial centre in East London.

The Olympic Park and main stadium, located a javelin's throw or two away, looms through the picture windows.

Despite the efforts of Britain's finest mud-raking journalists to carry out their noble duty to bash Locog, the Olympics preparations are on track, Deighton says somewhat defensively, when I refer to reports about that cyclical Olympic bugbear, ticket sales.

As the archives recall, Beijing's organising committee was swamped with aggravation about ticket sales, including brawls at ticket outlets and computer crashes.

'The tickets here are going brilliantly. We have massive demand,' says the 55-year-old former senior partner at Goldman Sachs.

'One newspaper implied there was a problem with the tickets and others picked up on it. We are ahead of schedule. Tickets are going like a dream,' says the unfazed Deighton, who told reporters last year the many empty seats in Beijing were a travesty, and would not be repeated in London.

He shows remarkable calm and confidence considering the demanding diary - and the fact that his beloved Arsenal had, only days previously, yet again blown their chances of winning the Premiership.

Deighton reportedly receives a salary of about GBP440,000 (HK$5.59 million) a year to make a success of the London Olympics. When he took the job in 2005, he dropped not only his salary but also down the Sunday Times Rich List, which in 2009 had him ranked 694th.

Olympic folklore has it that the headhunter charged with finding the talent to organise the London Games 'reacted with contempt' when Deighton, a high-flying investment banker for 22 years, showed an interest in taking responsibility for the budgeting, vision and organisation, saying the last thing the organising committee needed 'is some testosterone-crazed investment banker'.

But Locog chairman and Olympic champion Seb Coe reportedly said: 'That's exactly what we need - call him back.'

So, with 15 months to go, has Deighton, like his counterparts in Beijing in May 2007, rolled out the Spiritual Civilisation squads?

Will he be recruiting, like Beijing, groups of housewives in colour co-ordinated T-shirts to fill empty seats? Has St James' Park near Buckingham Palace been earmarked for a protest pen, perhaps?

What other leads has he taken from Bocog's executive board about how to run a hugely successful Games and to get things done?

'We did have a lot of conversation with Bocog during the lead-up and through the Games, and the relationship dissolved once the Olympics were over,' says Deighton.

He displays flashes of impish humour but remains doggedly diplomatic, as one would expect of an Olympic tsar, especially on that much discussed, much derided and debated, always controversial Olympic idealism - legacies.

'I think every city has a different approach to legacy and gets different things from the Games,' he says.

Barcelona, he says, put itself on the map as a serious tourist destination after its 1992 Games.

'That's not an objective for London because it already is one,' he says.

And the 2004 Athens Games, heavily criticised for allowing the Olympic stadiums to fall into disrepair after the event, did, in Deighton's view, 'completely modernise the city from a public infrastructure point of view'.

'In our case, we have been building in legacy from the very beginning, which isn't saying we think we are better than anybody else. It's just the Olympics have reached a stage of evolution, where to justify the expenditure you need to have a great legacy plan,' he says.

The transformation of the iconic but depressed part of East London is the major benefit - but sport will be the main winner, Deighton asserts.

'Our legacy is extremely focused on what we can do to inspire young people both in the UK and around the world, particularly the developing world, to get them to play more sport, and the role it plays in their personal development,' he says with missionary-like zeal.

'And it is extremely important for us to leverage off the Paralympics, and to give it a much bigger place for Paralympics sports and disabled peoples' access to it.'

And what of Beijing's legacy - the 'One World, One Dream' slogan, et al, in light of recent security crackdowns and detentions, including one celebrated artist who helped made the 2008 Olympics a resounding success?

Deighton shuffles awkwardly in his chair, and repeats aloud the name 'Ai Weiwei', the co-designer of the Bird's Nest Olympic Stadium.

'I know, I know...' he says with the heavy air of a disappointed parent receiving a less-than-promising report card.

'I feel I have to be like [IOC president] Jacques Rogge in answering these questions,' he says, and pauses as he adjusts his Jacques Rogge thinking cap.

'Do I think China will be the more open, progressive place everybody would like to see it become in the next 50 years as a result of having the Games in 2008, or would it be less so?' he asks, searching for an answer as he looks out over the London skyline.

'I would have to say that because of the way the Games open things up, it has to have been a positive factor, you know ... the Games is a force for good. You have only got to be there and be a part of it and see how it affects people.'

But is he disappointed with the erosion of the Beijing Olympic legacies in recent months - human rights, a roll back of reporting restrictions and increased internet censorship?

'I mean, what can you say? That's not really a point for me to comment on, and the specific legacies I think about.'

This reporter interviewed in 2007 the then 2012 Olympics minister Tessa Jowell, who joked how a 'what we say goes' communist-styled government would be a dream to help deliver the London Games.

At the time, she said her biggest headache was a pride of feral cats on the wasteland earmarked for the Olympic site, and which had come under the protection of a local animal rights group. Can the London Olympics chief offer a wildlife well-being update?

Deighton and his PR officer laugh, relieved that the sticky Beijing questions are over.

'The cats have been rehoused. The care we took is quite impressive. The most difficult thing is how you relocate wildlife, including rare newts that have grown in a supermarket trolley that has been dumped in a dirty river on the site' says Deighton.

A knock at the door signals our time is up. Deighton says he is off to meet Britain's prime minister and deputy prime minister to officially open the handball arena. The media quickly turned their meeting into a political debate about cracks in the troubled coalition government - proving politics and the Olympics live cheek by jowl despite the best efforts to divorce them.

And erstwhile Bocog officials may find solace in the smog alert issued for London last month, due to the unseasonably warm weather - raising in some quarters sensationalist fears about air quality next summer.

To borrow crudely from Mark Twain, Games' history does not repeat itself, but it does occasionally rhyme.


is the estimated cost of staging the 2012 London Olympics.

When London won the bid for the Games, it estimated the cost at GBP2.4b