Roll up, roll up, for 'the greatest show on Earth'
What is the Cultural Olympiad? This is a question I am sometimes asked. It is often followed by "where?" or "why?" or "how?". It's an idea that so far appears to have failed to connect with most people. And even among those who are aware of its existence, there is a certain amount of confusion.
Here are the basics. The concept of a Cultural Olympiad is embedded in the founding principles of the modern Olympic Games as conceived by the Frenchman Pierre de Coubertin at the end of the 19th Century. For a city to be awarded the games it has to commit to provide a festival of arts and culture known as the Cultural Olympiad. The idea dates back to ancient Greece and Rome: mind and body in harmony.
The London bid team latched onto this aspect of the Olympic ideal, added some steroids to the idea, and promised to provide an epoch-defining, nation-changing, world-beating Cultural Olympiad. It would be a four-year festival starting the moment the Beijing Games finished lasting through to the culmination of the Games in London.
Since then there have been problems. Several of the original ideas have been dumped, money has been tight and the project leadership has not been at gold-medal standard. What started as an odd eyebrow raised in the corner of the room at the time of the announcement has developed into broad cynicism towards the project. Which is not unreasonable when the ambitions of the original Cultural Olympiad team can still be heard in some of the rhetoric on its website.
On one page, it claims that the Cultural Olympiad is "the greatest show on Earth". Really? This great show has been going on in the UK for the last 20 months and almost nobody knows about it. To even the most reasonable person, this immodest claim feels a bit Eddie the Eagle.
But today there was a new dawn. A new boss has been drafted in together with a team of arts heavyweights to help and advise. Ruth Mackenzie, the project's new boss, is a no-nonsense arts pro, whose experience at making festivals and playing politics should be a winning combination. She's made a good start.
While not publicly admitting that the words "Cultural Olympiad" are enough to turn the most ardent arts supporter off, she is quietly dispensing with them and the whole concept, instead focusing on an arts festival that will run from mid-June 2012 until the end of the Paralympics. This event will simply be called Festival 2012. Clarity at last.
The Cultural Olympiad will continue to exist - it has to - but as a sideshow and training camp for the main event. And as MacKenzie rightly points out, there have been many good and worthy projects already undertaken or shortly about to commence that are part of the Cultural Olympiad. It's just that individually or as a group, they have not amounted to even a quite good show on Earth.
Festival 2012 on the other hand, really could be something. But as with the athletes training for the Games themselves, there's a lot of hard work ahead.