London Calling

Rain, recession, and another round of scandal in The City: Let the Games begin!

By John Lanchester

Cities of London’s stature don’t need the Olympics. Better to hold them in places that could do with a boost


People are supposed to be excited when the circus comes to town. In the case of the 30th Summer Olympics, however, which begin in London on July 27, the event has been shadowed by a striking ambivalence. The British don’t much like to complain, in the sense of directing their grievances toward a person able to do something to rectify them, but they do love moaning and grumbling, in the sense of voicing objections and complaints to each other. Any Londoner can testify that there has been a great deal of moaning and grumbling about the 2012 Olympics. A BBC-sponsored pop music festival in late June suffered an embarrassing leak when somebody posted a picture of a backstage notice to performers: “We please ask that you do not reference the Olympic games in a negative or derogatory way.” It’s extraordinary, really, that such a request should be necessary in a host city with a month to go before the start of the Games.

The ambivalence probably has several sources. The world is set to descend on London at a dreary time. The U.K.’s economy has slipped back into recession. Britain’s ability to influence events in Europe is waning. Each day brings fresh revelations of malfeasance committed by members of the financial establishment and their government enablers — the latest involving the manipulation of interest rates by traders at Barclays. As if that weren’t enough, we’ve just endured the rainiest June in the nation’s history.

Perhaps London 2012 was jinxed from the start. London won the Olympics, beating its nearest rival, Paris, on July 6, 2005. The next day four bombs were set off on the city’s buses and subway, killing 56 people (including the bombers) — not a big attack by the standard of September 11, but an unsettling one for Londoners, especially for two reasons: The suicide bombers targeted the public transport facilities without which the city cannot function; and the bombers were British-born Muslims who had been radicalized at home. No further attacks followed, but the link between the Olympics and the events of what came to be called 7/7 did not fully go away, and left a strong sense that in the modern world it’s not entirely a good thing to be a center of global attention.

The cost of hosting the Games has further dampened enthusiasm. It is a problem with all Olympics, and everyone who lives in a host or candidate city has heard the horror stories — the classic example being Montreal, which paid off the last of its debt for the 1976 Olympics just in time for Christmas in 2006. (“The Montreal Olympics can no more have a deficit than a man can have a baby,” the city’s mayor had said after it was awarded the Games.)

The initial cost of the London Olympics was projected at £2.375 billion ($3.7 billion) for construction and another £1 billion for “regeneration” — London’s long-term development potential having supposedly been the decisive reason why the International Olympic Committee (IOC) chose London over Paris. Another £700 million was to come from the private sector. The current estimate of the cost to the U.K. public is about £11 billion, partly reflecting dramatically increased spending on security. The higher price tag is not out of line with historic Olympic overspends — they always cost more than budgeted — but £3 billion during a boom looks a lot different from £11 billion during the second leg of a double-dip recession.

Other factors have served to sour the public mood. There has been no shortage of negative publicity caused by things such as the ticket application process (70 percent of applicants came up blank in the first round); rigid copyright rules governing use of the Olympics logo (example: An 81-year-old grandmother was banned from selling a £1 knitted doll at a church fundraiser); the enforcement of restrictions imposed by sponsors (example: Only Visa cards can be used to pay for Olympics tickets, and only Visa cards will be accepted at any Olympics venue or ATM machine); and the inevitable rows about architecture and access (example: A new shopping mall has been built at the entrance to the main venue, and it’s estimated that 70 percent of visitors to the Games will have to pass through the mall to gain access).

Some of the legacy effects of the Games appear to have been oversold, too. One of the most important of them was supposed to be increased participation in sports, but according to House of Commons data, only 109,000 more people have taken up exercise, compared with an initial target of 1,000,000. That’s a lot of missing public health benefits.

A few of these grumbles have the feel of routine moaning, but others seem more valid: Is it really necessary for all Olympics venues to copy airline restrictions and ban liquid containers larger than 100 ml? The professed reason for the ban is security, but a cynic might note that it’s a helpful policy for sponsors keen on excluding competitors’ products.

For Londoners, the scale of prospective disruption to the transport systems is alarming. Users of the Underground are being encouraged to work from home if possible, and have been told to expect to wait more than 30 minutes to get on a train at the busiest times. It’s not clear what that means in practice — will people turn up and stand on a packed subway platform for more than half an hour before catching a train with enough room to get on? What if they can’t even get into the subway station? What would that look like? The transport network is projected to see an extra 20 million journeys during the Games, with 3 million of them on its -busiest day. Londoners, who know the network is already creaking at the seams, are apprehensive about those numbers. They resent the VIP-only car lanes — dubbed by some the “Zil lanes” after the apparatchik-only routes of the old Soviet Union — which will close many miles of roads in the capital. Signs around London warn that the disruption to the road network will last from July 25 until Sept. 11, two days after the end of the Paralympics. To locals that date seems a very long way away.

As for the Games themselves, their main locus is far out in the East London suburb of Stratford, and perhaps their regenerative effects will be, too. (Some wags are calling them the “Stratford Olympics.”) That highlights something the IOC might keep in mind as it selects future host cities. London is unmistakably a world city, just as, say, New York and Paris are. Cities of that size and scale and dense historic mass don’t need the Olympic Games. They might like to have them, and they might host them very well if their candidacy succeeds, but they don’t need them. These cities’ fully developed infrastructures are difficult to retrofit with the elaborate apparatus of a modern Olympiad.

When you don’t need the Games, the immense disruption and expense they entail is bound to be thrown into sharper relief. That suggests that the most appropriate host cities are thriving regional centers which could do with a little boost to attain global status: places not regarded as world cities before the Games, but which in their aftermath now seem so. I’m thinking of great cities such as Barcelona (1996), Sydney (2000), or Beijing (2008). When the Games left town, they were all left in a different place, with a different story to tell. Not coincidentally, these are cities where ambivalence about hosting the event was hard to detect. They were, in every sense, promoted by the Olympics.

All that said, the mood music in London is starting to change, as the opening of the Games looms. People may be calculating that the buildup contained most of the downside, and now it’s time to shift gears. The refuseniks have all made their plans, and the ones who can arrange to are leaving town; the Londoners who are remaining are, by definition, more positive. Half a billion pounds has been returned to Her Majesty’s Treasury, a much-publicized “underspend” in the context of the wider overspend. Leaked details of the opening ceremony being orchestrated by the Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle have generated excitement. (The theme: the British countryside.) Most important of all, perhaps, is a feeling that the moment for grumbling is past and since the show is coming to town, we might as well enjoy it.

Lanchester’s latest book is Capital, a novel.


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