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A home Games - but for whom?

With the start of the London 2012 Games upon us, Mark Perryman questions the over-centralisation of the games and their 'Olympic mismanagement'. 

This piece is part of our debate 'The Great British Summer?'.

Just one click, and the Olympic tickets are mine. I’ve plumped for a Bronze Medal men’s hockey match, leaving me treacherously hoping Team GB will be battling it out for third place rather than going for Gold. I also have an early round of the water polo; quite an Olympian bargain at £20 each for two adults while our three-year-old has a pay-your-age ticket, only £3.

So what could there possibly be to complain about? Plenty - take Wednesday afternoon’s opening game of the Olympic Women’s Football: Great Britain versus New Zealand, played in a half-empty Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. This is just another example of the spectacular mismanagement of the Olympics, ensuring that this is a Games for the few and not for the money. Never mind the idea of Team GB playing in Wales, where almost every football fan will be used to shouting for Wales – never England, and often not Great Britain either; these divisions run deeply in our fan culture, and a smart new Union Jack kit is not going to transform this overnight. Both the women’s and men’s football teams are effectively ‘England’, plus a handful of other home nations’ useful additions to the squad.

So, the location wasn’t ideal. Neither was the kick-off time. By choosing 4pm, this effectively means that anyone attending has to take at least the afternoon off work, if not the whole day, adding to the cost and the inconvenience for ticket-holders. The price was also less-than-ideal; for well-paid LOCOG executives, £20 may seem reasonable for the lowest-price ticket, but it’s not so cheap for a branch of football that has little or no record of attracting the kind of crowd to fill the Millennium’s 75,000 seats. For goodness sake, the men’s Welsh national team have struggled to fill the stadium on more than one occasion.

The Millennium Stadium in Cardiff was only one-third full for Team GB's women's football team's opening game against New Zealand. 

It is a fairly reliable law of marketing that to halve the price is to double the crowd. With an evening kick-off, £10 for the cheapest ticket and, facing the reality of the squad selection, in an English football stadium, Wednesday afternoon might well have been a capacity crowd, giving tens of thousands more people the chance to be part of the 2012 Olympics.

A combination of regional games and high ticket sales for all matches would have turned the Olympics into a festival of sporting internationalism, rather than just a matter of how many gold medals Team GB can win. The challenge is to sell tickets, not just for the Team GB games, which have generally been popular, but for the other countries’ games too, which have not been so popular. The Olympic football tournaments, both the men’s and the women’s, are effectively mini-World Cups, with group stages and knock-out rounds - basing these tournaments in each region, with their own opening and closing ceremonies and free-to-watch warm-up games, could have contributed to the sense of the Olympics being an accessible national event, rather than just something happening in London. This is not without precendent; in 2005, the North-West of England successfully hosted the Women’s European Football Championship; Blackpool, Blackburn, Warrington and Manchester all hosted matches. 

What about my tickets? The 16-team hockey tournament all played in one 15,000 capacity stadium within the Olympic Park, resulting in a squeezed programme, with some matches kicking off at eight thirty in the morning. The water polo tournament is also squeezed into the single Olympic Park pool, meaning that some games don’t finish until quarter to eleven at night. This is crazy, and a consequence of the Olympic model of centralisation. As with the football tournaments, these group and knock-out stage contests could have been hosted in a city or a region, providing many more early evening and weekend games. This would be an Olympics that, in large part, would belong to Glasgow and Edinburgh, Cardiff and Swansea, Yorkshire, the Midlands, and the North-West and the North-East of England. Also resulting in a vast increase in the number of tickets and a massive reduction in prices, would this not be a better model for the Olympics?

Before, this kind of programming madness could have been justified by television schedules, an attempt to reduce the risk of clashes. Not any more; with the aid of the famous red button, I’ve lost count of how many Olympic channels the BBC are promising – I think twenty-four was the latest figure. With this problem neutralised, the bulk of the programme could easily have been shifted to weekday evenings and weekends, in order to maximise accessibility and create a Games for the many to go and watch in person. Instead, except for the lucky few (amongst whom I now number myself) it will be the sofa and the remote.

A year ago, 22 million people applied for tickets; the demand was there. A relatively small country with the basis of a half-decent transport infrastructure could have facilitated the idea that what makes a ‘home’ Games so special is the provision of a format which maximises the numbers taking part.

As the Games begin – for those like me who love their sport – it will be a feast. However, this is no reason not to imagine how much better they could have been. After all, for most of us, we won’t see it again on these shores in our lifetimes.

Mark Perryman is the author of 'Why The Olympics Aren't Good For Us, And How They Can Be', available from http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/olympics/.

About the author

Mark Perryman is a member of both the Labour party and Momentum. Co-founder of the self-styled ‘sporting outfitters of intellectual distinction’ aka Philosophy Football he has also edited numerous books on the politics of the Left. The latest, The Corbyn Effect, is published by Lawrence & Wishart, available here.

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