x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Anger over the route of London Olympic marathon

Games organisers face fury as 2012 run is slated to start and finish in the shadow of Buckingham Palace rather than in the stadium.

Ian Thorpe, right, the five-time Olympic gold medallist, with Lord Sebastian Coe, the head of the UK Olympics organising committee, at the London Aquatic Centre in east London.
Ian Thorpe, right, the five-time Olympic gold medallist, with Lord Sebastian Coe, the head of the UK Olympics organising committee, at the London Aquatic Centre in east London.

LONDON // The organisers of a major international sporting event have found themselves under fire. And, for once, those organisers were not the ones behind the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.

This time, the fury was being directed at the people behind the 2012 Olympics in London.

The subject of their anger - the route that the marathon will take through London - was probably not as serious as the unfinished athletes' accommodation, collapsing bridge, sparse crowds, corruption claims, ticketing and computer problems, venomous snakes, blocked drains and upset stomachs that have bedevilled the Commonwealth Games.

But the anger in London over having the marathon start and finish in the shadow of Buckingham Palace, rather than in the Olympic Stadium in London's East End, shows how difficult it is to please all the people, all of the time when planning such events as the Olympics.

In fact, in comparison with the Commonwealth Games, which ended in India on Thursday, the preparations for the Olympics in London appear to be going smoothly.

The main stadium itself is about three-quarters complete and should be ready months before the Games' opening on July 27, 2012. The swimming pool, cycle arena and all the other sport venues are at least on schedule, if not ahead of it.

And an appeal in September for 70,000 Britons to volunteer to help out at the Olympics prompted more than 100,000 people to put their names forward in less than a month.

But if the preparations in London appear in stark contrast to what has happened in Delhi, Lord Sebastian Coe, the former Olympic middle distance runner who heads the UK Olympics organising committee, says this is no reason why developing or Third World countries should not be encouraged to stage similar, prestigious international sporting events in the future.

"It's really important that countries which have not traditionally staged major sporting events should be encouraged to do so, and you have to recognise that there are going to be challenges if you want to truly globalise sport," he says.

In fact, London's organisers are learning lessons from what is happening in New Delhi in at least one crucial area: security.

Gopal Krishna Pillai, India's home secretary, confirmed this week that a team from London 2012, including Scotland Yard officers, has been in the capital to see how New Delhi has gone into a security lockdown with an estimated 100,000 police and military personnel in the city.

Fears over security have led to a massive £600 million budget, plus a £238 million contingency fund, being earmarked for the Olympics, and even this figure would have to be increased were the security services to detect a viable terrorist threat to the Games.

And it is money - and, particularly the chancellor of the exchequer's public spending review on Wednesday - that is causing most jitters among the London organisers.

Massive cuts in government spending are inevitable next week but Lord Coe and company are hoping that the Olympics' £9.28 billion (Dh54.7bn) budget - well under half what is estimated to have been spent on the Beijing Games - will be spared.

The Olympic Delivery Authority, the body responsible for the Games' buildings and infrastructure, has already been told to shave a fairly modest £27 million from its budget since the new Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government came to power in May.

But Hugh Robertson, the recently installed minister for the Olympics, has promised that the government will do nothing to jeopardise the delivery of the world's premier sporting event.

Lord Coe admits that cost has been a concern since the moment London was awarded the Games five years ago - and that at a time when the UK economy, unlike now, was flourishing.

"We wake up every morning trying to figure out how we can deliver this in a more cost effective and efficient way," he says.

"We have to recognise that the world has changed. We are in an economic climate where we have to continue to make very strong arguments for why this is a project of national and natural interest."

Encouragingly for the organisers, Jeremy Hunt, the minister of culture and sports, has said that he believes the London Games will provide a "huge stimulus" to the economy.

During a trip to India in the summer, Mr Hunt described the awarding of the Olympics to London as "a huge stroke of luck".

Asked if he had advice for other cities thinking of bidding for the Olympics, Mr Hunt replied: "First, get the sums right. Two years after Britain won the bidding for the Olympics, we had to triple the budget.

"Second, give some thought to the eventual dip in public support. London hasn't seen as much of a dip as expected because of the message of the Games - that this as much about the legacy of transforming east London as it is about the glory of the event."