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Money talks in the London 2012 script

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Mihir Bose | 14:23 UK time, Friday, 16 January 2009

In sport, as in politics, the modern buzz word is the 'narrative'.

Chelsea have been struggling with theirs, while Manchester City look like they are ready to change the script. London 2012 has always been keen to get its narrative right.

In the week leading up to that magical moment in Singapore in July 2005 Sebastian Coe and his team hid themselves away from the bright lights of the Orient preparing the presentation.

It worked so well that after London surprised Paris, one International Olympic Committee member put it to me: "I never thought I would see this - the French behaving like the tight-lipped English while the English, in very Gallic style, showed flair, passion and vision."

As Friday marks the halfway point between winning the bid and the start of the Games themselves, this is a good time to take stock of what the organisers have achieved so far and how much work still remains to be done.

In winning the bid Britain finally laid to rest the tag of loser that had haunted it for years. Manchester twice and Birmingham failed with Olympic bids; the country was almost reduced to third-world status when London - having got the right to stage to the World Athletic Championships - said it couldn't manage it; and all this while the new Wembley was built horrendously over budget and horribly late.

Yet in a way that winning narrative has also burdened 2012 and how the Games is perceived. So in the run up to Singapore every time Paris stressed it already had a stadium and London's bid was a virtual bid, 2012 made much of how many of the facilities were ready.

The fact is that the Olympic Park was a computer design. The story so far is the success of the Olympic Development Authority in turning those computer graphics into hard reality on the ground.

Here, in contrast to the Wembley mess, London 2012 is ahead of target and nobody who has visited the site at Stratford in east London can be anything but impressed by how much has been achieved.

Olympic Stadium construction, Stratford

Every visit seems to open a window on what the park will look like in 2012. And recall that this was a site that required extensive decontamination and where a park had to be constructed from a diverse area spread over five boroughs, diverting rivers and burying pylons in the process.

But the narrative, meant to be the most beguiling and strongest part of the project, has proved the most problematic.

So the bid book had said the cost would be £2.4bn. This cost was arrived at after the government had looked at the figures estimates by Arup, the consulting firm used by the British Olympic Association to argue the case for the bid. The government increased its estimates of £1.8bn to arrive at the bid book figure.

The final budget figure of £9.3bn was not arrived at until March 2007, after 18 months and much government wrangling.

Now as Ken Livingstone, the then London mayor whose insistence made Stratford the venue, admits when the bid book figures were prepared in 2004, nobody expected London to win. Treasury insiders have told me that the government department did not give it much attention as they did not think London would win. In Ken's colourful phrase it was seen as Ken and Tessa's (Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister) little toy and in any case all bid books try to play down the costs.

It was only after the victory in Singapore that the Treasury had a hard look at the figures and insisted on having a big figure for contingency, other costs were added and we arrived at the final figure.

However all this hassle about costs could have been avoided had on the return from Singapore had the party-line been: "We did not expect to win but what a victory. But this victory comes at a price. There are also enormous regeneration costs and that means the Olympic budget is not what the bid book says but much more."

Yet for months afterwards even as the Olympic Bill was being piloted through parliament briefings given to MPs talked of the Olympic budget being £2.4bn. The government insist the final budget is robust.

However the £9.3bn assumed that there would be private sector funding of the Olympic village and other parts of the Olympic park, to the tune of £1bn.

With this money not available the contingency, set aside for cost overruns, is being used to make up the lack of this private money.

Before the downturn there was much confidence that the entire contingency of £2.7bn would not be used up, now it would be a surprise if it is not.

Of course this fits in with the new Olympic narrative. That in a time of bust the Olympics is the only good news story; the one place where Britain is booming and new houses are going up not being repossessed.

The irony here is the narrative is now being written by Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who as chancellor was most sceptical of the Olympics and required a lot of persuasion from Tessa Jowell to come on board.

What is more doubtful is whether the centre-piece of the Singapore narrative can be met - that London deserved to make history as the first city to stage the games for the third time because Britain would show how sports can be used to help the youth of the world.

All Olympic Games promise legacy and do not deliver.

London's legacy promises took it to a higher level but the jury is very much out as to whether they can be delivered.

Add to this the still open question of a security plan promised at the end of the year but still not forthcoming and this means that while the halfway house has success on the ground to celebrate there are still issues that need to be dealt with. And no certainty as to whether they can be dealt with successfully.


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