x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Britain's Olympic ambitions set sail against common sense

Future Olympics should be awarded not to individual cities but, like the World Cup, to entire countries – spreading the responsibility, the cost and the opportunity to participate.

'If anything can go wrong, it will" runs the old showbiz maxim. And in keeping with this venerable tradition of live theatre, last Thursday morning in Greece, fate decreed that seconds after the Olympic flame was lit during a sombre ceremony mixing classical mythology with Olympian pomp, it was blown out by a rogue gust of wind.

Luckily for the organisers, a backup lighter was on hand to reignite the torch and to ensure that the journey of transporting it 2,400 kilometres to London in time for the curtain-raiser on July 27 could commence. But for the Games themselves, there will be no second chances.

It may be a mere coincidence that the proud city of Athens, which hosted the games only eight years ago, should now be the epicentre of bankruptcy and political meltdown. What is beyond doubt is that the once-gleaming venues of those 2004 games - the stadiums, the velodromes, the swimming pools - are now falling into disrepair, the victims of the desperate economic malaise gripping the country.

Without the money to keep them open or even adequately maintained, the sporting venues are a mute testimony to the dangers of unbridled spending.

For any capital city staging a modern Olympic Games, the prospect is not so much mouth-watering as eye-watering. Where once the event was a festival of running, jumping and leaping, it has now become a huge, overfed colossus of physical and economic excess, particularly as each city is condemned to try to outdo its predecessor for spectacle and glamour.

The London organisers, who four years ago declared their iron resolve to keep the Games within initial spending budgets, have been forced to rip up their accounting ledgers and start again.

But just how bloated the whole enterprise has become was graphically illustrated this week by an event that took place in the UK. A boat was launched on the south coast to commemorate what is described as "the cultural Olympiad", a series of specially funded events designed to provide an artistic counterpoint to all the sporting fervour.

The 30-foot yacht, named Collective Spirit, is made of what its proponents describe as a "floating collage of memories"; in more Chaucerian language, my old mum would have described it as "old tut" (her parlance for the discarded detritus of daily life that has no place except on the nearest rubbish heap).

The craft, which took a year to build, is made of more than 1,200 odds and ends designed to represent a cross section of daily life in Britain over the years. The hull is made of fragments of the old Tudor warship the Mary Rose, a toy bunny, shards from a Jimi Hendrix guitar, a plank from the 2012 Olympic velodrome, some assorted hockey sticks, a Victorian police truncheon, crates used to transport gold to Canada during the Second World War and a hairbrush used at Pinewood Studios in the 1960s.

The effect is of a giant varnished jigsaw puzzle. Few would deny that it is an elegant and beautifully designed vessel, but what on Earth does it have to do with the Olympic Games? This floating folly cost the taxpayer nearly £500,000 (Dh3 million). Indeed, the "boat project", as it's known, is just one of a number of regional commissions that are taking place to commemorate the arrival of the torch, ranging from art installations and dance festivals to a scheme in which a full-sized football pitch is hidden in a Scottish forest.

It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that this cultural brouhaha is an attempt to engender an air of national inclusivity for a main event that is essentially for Londoners.

Indeed, while visiting family and friends in the north this week, I couldn't find anyone who had managed to obtain tickets for the Games, or who felt anything other than a profound lack of connection. Is it any surprise, when the majority of the events are shoehorned into just a few square kilometres of the city? Football pitches in forests and boats made of discarded junk may engender community spirit, but most people would probably rather watch Usain Bolt fly down the track.

Surely, future Olympics should be awarded not to cities but, in keeping with the World Cup traditions, to entire countries, spreading the responsibility, the cost and, more importantly, the opportunity to participate.

In the meantime, of course, the show must go on. And to borrow another tortured showbiz motto, in the case of London 2012, we hope it will be all right on the night. The torch won't go out, the sun will shine, the train drivers won't go on strike and the entire nation will be entranced by the greatest show on Earth.


Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London