Mark Perryman spent a day at the Olympic Park in East London and concludes that the Games are a good thing - but could be so much better.
This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.
Over the past few days, I have lost count of the number of politicians decrying critics of the Olympics. The newly appointed ‘Olympic Legacy Adviser’, Tony Blair, has returned to one of his favourite themes: declaring war on cynicism. Boris Johnson joins the chorus of boasts that the Games proves London to be the world’s greatest city and, in the press, Jonathan Freedland has been amongst those demanding that enthusiasm for the Games must trump any tendency towards critique.
What none of these, and plenty of others, appear capable of recognising is that it is perfectly possible to be both a fan of the Olympics and a critic of them, too. When I passed through the Olympic Park turnstiles, I was both looking forward to the event we had tickets to see, but also entirely aware of the limitations of the Games model as insisted upon by the IOC and dutifully followed by Seb Coe and LOCOG.
Olympic Park Positives
Firstly, the Olympic Park itself is a magnificent jumble of world-class sporting facilities, with plenty of open space in-between. Quite what it will look like a few years after the Olympics are over, who knows - but right now it is something Britain has never seen before and is to be enjoyed.
Secondly, the sport we went to watch, the Women’s Water Polo, had attracted a near capacity crowd. This is especially notable when you consider most (including myself) had never paid to watch this sport before, let alone knew the rules. Yet we were transfixed at this fast, immensely skillful, and occasionally brutal sport. The crowd were enthusiastic, non-partisan, and clearly enjoying themselves as a part of the Games.
Thirdly, inside the stadiums there are no adverts and no corporate branding at all - just the Olympian five rings and the London 2012 logo. The commercialisation stops once the sport begins; as such, why on earth do the IOC permit the Five Rings to become a logo for sponsors rather than a symbol of sport in every other available space?
Olympic Park Negatives
Firstly, there was the now notorious problem of the empty seats. The water polo arena was almost full - 90%, I would reckon - yet for the past week the London 2012 website has been displaying its 'sold out' notice. There were a few hundred empty seats, mainly in the National Olympic Committee, VIP and sponsor areas, plus some in the public sale areas. Clearly, this should have been anticipated, and an easy-to-operate returns arrangement made. However, the problem is systemic; the magnificence of the Olympic Park has been prioritised over decentralisation, which would allow the use of much larger venues. At a different venue, the water polo arena could have easily accommodated twice the number of seats, at much reduced prices. The unused VIP tickets are not a side issue, but the numbers who could have attended a home games, but couldn't, is key; the vision should have been maximum participation.
Secondly, there is a significant disconnection with East London, the home of the Olympic Park. Fans arrive by underground and Javelin train, go straight into the Olympic Park to spend the day within its confines, leave via the new Westfield Shopping Centre, and are back on the train home. Overseas visitors are doing likewise - going straight from the park to their hotels, very few of which are in East London. Even though the Olympic Park is at the epicentre of three of Britain’s most multicultural boroughs - Newham, Tower Hamlets and Hackney - it is full of those travelling in from the Home Counties; precious few locals are there. The Olympic Park is an expensive bubble, almost entirely divorced from the locality.
Thirdly, there is the much-mentioned issue of security. The process of getting in is pretty basic - not much more than what anybody would be used to at any modern sporting event of any size. So quite why thousands of trained soldiers, still in their Afghanistan-issue camouflage, are in such an extensive security role isn’t immediately obvious. Those I saw yesterday were from our elite fighting forces, the Paras and Commandos - is checking bags really what they’re best equipped to be doing? Was it really so difficult to find those who could have done these jobs? It is a strange image for these Games to project: thousands of uniformed soldiers and heavily armed policemen filling the public areas - a scene that, for many, is anything but reassuring.
I went away from the Olympic Park feeling privileged to have been there, and lucky to have applied in time to get a ticket. However, at the same time, feeling regret that a Games that so many more could have been part of wasn’t what London 2012 ever became. It's a balance neither uncritical enthusiasm nor outright opposition accomodates but, after a day in the Olympic Park, I was more convinced than ever before that the Olympics are both a good thing, but could be so much better too.
Mark Perryman is the author of 'Why The Olympics Aren’t Good For Us, And How They Can Be'. It costs £8 (£6 kindle edition) and is exclusively available from www.orbooks.com.