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Cheerleader Coe outlines 2012 vision

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Matt Slater | 18:40 UK time, Thursday, 25 June 2009

It was Olympic Day on Tuesday.

What do you mean you missed it? It's a "unique, global event held every year" to commemorate the first time the International Olympic Committee (IOC) met for champagne and cigars. And it's "the most celebrated Olympic event after the Games".

It is also exactly the kind of self-reverential mythologizing the rest of the sporting universe finds so irritating about the Olympics. Does the IOC really need a next "most celebrated Olympic event"?

No, of course it doesn't. The Games are big enough to speak for themselves, which is why I went along to Waltham Forest Town Hall a couple of weeks ago to hear how London 2012's architects are selling the project to cynical Londoners. If it's possible to have a fascinating meeting on council premises this was it.

IOC HQ in Lausanne

The headline acts were London 2012 organising committee (Locog) chairman Sebastian Coe and London Mayor Boris Johnson, but they were supported by a starry cast that included Olympic Delivery Authority (ODA) chairman John Armitt, Paralympic legend Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson and 850 local residents.

The Q&A format seemed simple but was delicious in potential for embarrassment. The likes of Armitt and Coe are Federer-like when it comes to returning grenades from us hacks but I wondered how they would deal with curveballs from the public.

I also wanted to know what the humble tax-payer was most concerned about. Would it be the same list of grumbles that the professional moaners read from or would punters tap a new vein of negativity?

The answers to these questions - and many more - were illuminating and, by and large, heartening.

Cards on table time, I'm what Johnson would call an "Olympic maniac" (he admitted to becoming one himself) but I'm only too aware that many of you are less enamoured with London 2012 than me and some of you are downright hostile to the idea.

This upsets me and I can't help thinking far more people would see things my way if they stopped worrying about the price of the Games and started thinking about their value for money. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The mayor was the first to speak in Walthamstow and he did what he does best: a mildly amusing two-minute riff on why x is good/bad for London. In this case x was the Olympics and they are going to be great.

He likened the Games' potential for positive change to a "runaway horse that we must lasso", said London's Olympic Park would be the biggest urban park built in Europe for 150 years apart from an inferior one in "Dusseldorf or some such place", and managed to use the word "riparian" in context. Like I said, vintage Boris.

London Mayor Boris Johnson

He also said bidding for the Games was "absolutely the right thing to do" and he would the same thing "twice over".

Armitt followed the mayor, which was a hard on a man who would make Gordon Brown sound like Peter Kay, but 2012's foreman also did what he does best: dryly delivered good sense, which is, I suppose, what Gordon is aiming at too.

He left the grand claims to Boris but chipped in with solid supporting arguments about how 75p of every £1 spent on the site is going on "physical legacy" - bricks, mortar and riparian parks to you and me.

Tanni was next up and spoke eloquently about sport's ability to inspire, while Baroness Ford, the boss of the new Olympic Park Legacy Company, used her first public speech on the Olympics to assure everybody that unlike previous hosts we won't be leaving behind anything unloved and unused.

Mayor of Hackney Jules Pipe was the fifth speaker and he spoke on behalf of the Olympic boroughs (Greenwich, Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest) and their tax-payers. It was an interesting turn as he likened his role to being the annoying kid in class always asking teacher "why?"

Be it burying power lines, putting in sewerage for the thousands of homes that will be built in the Olympic Park or anything else to do with the construction of what is, in effect, a new mini London borough, Pipe is our man.

Worthy stuff addressed it was now time for Coe to give his 10,000th explanation of why hosting an Olympic Games is a pleasure not a chore. Practice clearly makes perfect as the double Olympic champion is by far the best advocate the London 2012 team possess. He might also be the most coherent spokesman for sport in general in this country.

Coe started his pitch by reminding the audience of his strong connections with the area through his time as captain of Haringey Athletic Club, whose colours he wore with distinction throughout his incredible career on the track.

During his 1980s pomp, 40% of his Haringey team-mates lived on the Broadwater Farm Estate, then a byword for crime and deprivation. The well-spoken, future Conservative MP fitted in just fine, though. Haringey Athletic Club was a "key anchor point" for that troubled community.

Locog chairman Sebastian Coe

These early experiences of sport's ability to refresh the parts other activities cannot reach made a profound impression on Coe. He now describes sport as Britain's "most extraordinary hidden social worker" and for him that is why we pitched for the Games.

I agree with him. The regeneration of a part of London that had become a toxic dump, the long overdue construction of some decent sporting infrastructure in the capital and the opportunity to showcase our country on the global stage are all well and good. But the real benefit of London 2012 is that sport will be driven higher up the agenda in this country, and that is a benefit for everybody, not just Londoners.

Because Coe is right. Sport can do things no other policy tool has proved capable of achieving.

A positive alternative to gang culture for disaffected teenagers? Check. An effective answer to obesity and other public health concerns? Yep. A recession-resistant industry that entertains and inspires millions? Absolutely.

This is the message the Olympic project's supporters should be repeating up and down the country (starting with the London 2012 Open Weekend that Coe announced for 24-26 July) because this is the stuff you cannot put a price on - £9.3bn to change Britain's attitude towards sport sounds like a bargain to me.

A lot of the questions from the floor in Walthamstow were about parochial issues, mainly to do with the area's patchy transport links, but by far the biggest cheers came when the focus shifted to sport.

That is why I am willing to forgive the IOC for its Olympic Days, pretentious rhetoric and shadowy politicking because it also puts on the most inspirational event on the global calendar. And we're hosting the next one, so let's not squander it.


  • Comment number 1.


    Don't believe all Londoners are cynical about the Games - there are plenty of other Olympic Nutters waiting to exalt the London Games from the corners of the riparian banks of the Olympic Park.

    This will be my only chance (and probably my children's only chance)to watch the Games on British soil. I have said it before, and it's worth repeating, the Olympics has the capacity to change the way others perceive us and the way we regard ourselves. If you don't believe it then ask the residents of Seoul, Barcelona and Sydney. The Olympics left a lasting impression on those cities - something more than the physical infrastructure. Hosting the Games may not be cheap - but what other event gives you the opportunity to regenerate a huge swathe of a great city and have a fantastic party at the same time. The World is watching and I believe that they will be impressed with the outcome.

  • Comment number 2.

    Good man, akabarrington, glad to hear we're marching together but it's not just the cynics in London that worry me, it's the knocking articles in the national press that get my goat. Here are just a couple that spring to mind:

    Great writers but I couldn't disagree with them more about London 2012.

  • Comment number 3.

    If London doesn't want to Olympics then we'll have them in Huddersfield.

  • Comment number 4.


    Paddy Barclay and Martin Samuel are paid to be cynical - it creates good and controversial copy to wind the rest of us up. It's the punters on the street we should be concerned about, so the more these issues are discussed the better informed (and enthusiastic) they will be.

    Andrewtheboom - you're very welcome to come and spend a couple of days in London in 2012.

  • Comment number 5.

    Whatever you try to do in life, there will be cynical people, especially in the media. They are paid to write opeds to order, so they do.

    What's really crucial about 2012 is to ensure that the important things are prioritised.

    Those are not Boris Johnson's popularity, nor that of Tony Blair or indeed Lord Coe.

    Those are not even how many medals the UK wins, although that is pretty important.

    What's actually important is that Britain sees this 2005-2020 period as the time when the nation embeds within its common psyche the point of sport in society and as a result, takes wise decisions to ensure that it happens sustainably.

    Too many people think you go from A to B just like that.

    You don't. You move forward, then there are some setbacks. There may be some crises too.

    And it is precisely then that leadership is called for.

    You don't need leadership when all are behind you. That's populism.

    Leadership is when you don't personally gain from taking the necessary stance, but you know that the long-term outcomes justify the stance.

    Britain's getting there in that regard. But still has some way to go.

    I think we'll get there.


  • Comment number 6.

    Great article Matt. Thanks for writting some positive news on our Olympics. Nearly had to stop reading Barclay's article as I could feel my blood pressure rising. I don't really think his article even contributes to the debate, esp as we have now won the games anyway. I really despair of the press when they they somehow want to moralise about the cost of the games. Truth be told I actually dread England winning the footy world cup bid. The crowing and fawning from journos like barclay will be too much to bear. No mention of costs from him and his ilk then i would imagine. Keep up the good work Matt, maybe it's time you got your voice heard on a TV or radio station or even newspaper soon to spread the word a little more and counter barclays tirade.....

  • Comment number 7.

    Nice to see some fellow enthusiasts on this blog.
    The arrogance of that article by Patrick Barclay makes me dispair. He seems to somehow attempt to wage a class warfare argument against the "elites" of rowing and cycling - conveniently forgetting that our best paid Olympians would struggle to earn in a year what Ronaldo does in a week. Just because a sport isn't lavished with 24/7 media attention and mega-rich oligarchs hardly means its not worthy of its time in the spotlight.
    He lambasts the disruption of parkland for a very short period to acommodate Equestrianism, conveniently ignoring the ruddy huge new park being created in East London for all the dog walking one could ever dream of.
    And he suggests that a World Cup is some sort of inspiring spectacle the Olympics could never aspire to. Are we watching the same thing? 50,000 rowdy fellas, blind drunk, hurling plastic chairs at each other, and abuse at a referee, while some carefully manicured 'superstars' jog around a pitch for 90 minutes? I think I'd take the passionately supported triumphs of ordinary folk like Redgrave, Holmes, Hoy and Adlington any day.
    But to end on a positive, anytime the cynics start to get you down, I'd reccommend a read of an article by another Times writer, Simon Barnes, two years ago:
    At the end of the day, you can't disguise that the British love an event - especially a sporting one. Just see the queues outside of the Wimbledon gates. Theres still 3 years of moaning to go, but come 2012 I'm confident us "Olympic maniacs" will be vindicated.

  • Comment number 8.

    Notice one is the "Chief Football Commentator" of that paper so no wonder he'd want a World cup to England and well it would be good but I just think he isn't interested in Olympics sports.

    Have to admit the increasing cost is a worry but then Wembley was over-priced and late...for what?

    Another expensive plastic bowl

  • Comment number 9.

    Great article Matt, and it's great to read some positive comments about the Olympics. I've commented on your Olympic-based articles before, think starting one with "Only in the UK could we find so much wrong with hosting the most exciting sporting event in the world".

    It depresses me to read articles like Barclay's that rubbish the whole idea. There can be no doubt that London will be better off in the long term as a result of hosting the Olympics. Not only will it inspire future sportsmen and women, but it will unite the country, and yes by that I mean all four nations.

    We will all see in 2012 how people suddenly become proud to be hosting the games when they see the positive effects that it will have. Then, we that have supported it from the start will be able to look justifiably smug...and the rest will be warming up their humble pie.

    Keep up the great blogging.

  • Comment number 10.

    And let's not forget that Beijing was Team GB's best performance for a 100 years. Not only do we have a well run Games to look forward to but there'll be plenty of British success to celebrate as well.

    Success that's being achieved across 26 Olympic sports by individuals who are doing it for the sport rather than the money. If success is followed by a short timeframe of opportunity to benefit financially - great. Wouldn't we all agree that the time, effort and performances of the Chris Hoys and Rebecca Adlingtons deserve far greater recognition than the column inches afforded many a mediocre footballer in our national press.

  • Comment number 11.


    Have to disagree with you about Wembley, I was there for the England vs Andorra match and it is fantastic, I was right up in the cheap seats near the back yet the view of the pitch was amazing. I live near Wembley and can see the arch clearly from my house, it looks increadible. The only downside is that the food there is very expensive, £7 for a burger and chips and £3 for a flat (and room temperature) Pepsi. Describing Wembley as a cheap plastic bowl is unfair, that would be like describing Buckingham Palace as a big council flat or Harrods as a large corner shop

  • Comment number 12.

    True it does look impressuve and you get decetn views from all the seats.

    More annoyed about the prices and the fact so many fans lose out (not all are drunk and cause trouble btw..) due to the VIPs having to take up a third of seats.

  • Comment number 13.

    Completely agree with the article.

    I am a Brit currently living in Asia, but I believe that the chance to host something like the Olympics is such a special opportunity that the negativity that it still gets is frankly quite shocking - especially from people like Patrick Barclay who really ought to know better.

    As a soccer writer, if he doesn't understand the power of sport to boost the otherwise drab and mundane lives that most people lead, then what in God's name does he see week in, week out?

    When I lived in the UK (which I have done for most of my 57 years), I helped to run my local cricket club (I was Treasurer for 15 years). Cricket largely has been abandoned by the schools, so if it wasn't for the likes of my club (run without any state funding) the game would die.

    I can still vividly remember when we started our Colts section - we had more than 40 youngsters turning up for each practice session, and that is from a small village club deep in the Essex countryside.

    The Colts league that we helped to found went from one league of 8 teams to multiple leagues in a very short period of time.

    That is the power of sport, and it should be pursued at all levels, and as much as is possible.

    I just hope that, despite the negativity, London puts on a show in 2012 that we can all be truly proud of - regardless of how many medals we win - although of course it would be even better to see a great level of British success to go with the good show.

  • Comment number 14.

    #7 - Many thanks for the Simon Barnes reference. After reading the Martin Samuel and Patrick Barclay pieces, I was starting to despair. I understand that The Times publishes their prurience in the belief it increases their readership, but I can't help feeling that they have a higher duty to their readers - they are not, after all, the Sun or the News of the World. Can't help feeling that Samuel and Barclay would be a better match at either of the rags.

    Matt - An excellent article. Like #13 I'm an expatriate - I'm already trying to work out who I'm going to beg for lodgings for the Summer of 2012. I can't imagine missing out on the experience. For the cynics, if you can't see the value of the intangibles of hosting the games, perhaps the contribution of the construction phase to economic stimulation provides some justification. (From an economic viewpoint, this type of project is almost the perfect vehicle for stimulative investment.) Of course, that type of cynic probably doesn't see the value of that either. What an awful existence - to have no soul.


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