Boris’s booming voice and ebullient charging about can’t hide the reality of what could so easily go wrong.
I’ve been in London talking to medical consultants and generally checking out what’s going on behind the scenes of the Olympic build-up. I’ve received several tips in recent weeks about widespread evidence of shambolic organisation and general loss of plot when it comes to the Games, so I thought I’d take a look for myself, and make some enquiries.
Although it’s being billed as a Best of British opportunity, at just about every main arrivals point, EDF has bought dominant outdoor sites affirming its goal to make the London Games more brilliantly lit than any other. EDF is a French company, so it must be doing very well out of the venue if it can afford this kind of spend. It’s quite hard to spot truly British companies anywhere in the list of sponsors; but then I suppose if you sell off the family silver, that’s what happens. In a decade or so, London will be chosen as the site for a global medical exhibition, and no doubt at that time the sponsors will mainly be American insurance groups.
As it is, I met some medics who will be on call for neurological injuries to competitors in the various events. A couple told me that the folks asking for help seemed “rather hysterical” and “a bit headless”.
In the area of transport to the Olympics – that’s about the only really British bit – the overall impression given to somebody landing from abroad is of an infrastructure that is woefully insufficient to cope with a huge expected increase in visitors. In trying to renew and enlarge all the signage to do with the games, what the organisers have set off is a desire by all visitors even now to follow these routes and take a look at the Village. The result is that the Tubes, trains and buses are already packed to a degree at least 20% above normal. But all the posters and pa announcements consist of headlines (and the ubiquitous Boris himself) politely suggesting that, as it’s going to be a horrendous nightmare for Londoners, why don’t you, um, walk or, er, not come in at all? Not exactly practical or encouraging advice. “Don’t get caught out,” burbles the ebullient Mayor, as if the tube system might be about to freeze up completely.
In turn, road routes are being designated and tested to allow for unhindered VIP movement (“Boris’s mates” as some cynical observers suggest) and these activities too are already causing backlogs or backups around the South Circular in general, and throughout Blackheath in particular.
But much of the roads stuff is anecdotal: the hard evidence of running late (and headless chicken patch-and-make-do) is to be had among those professions temporarily benefiting from it. This is especially true of my old profession, media communications.
As a culture, four of our most pressing contemporary weaknesses are poor deadline discipline, an obsession with process, a fear of great big ideas, and poor interpretation of such data as might be collected. In the work now being done at the last minute by designers, copywriters, promotional experts, digital agencies, marketing advisers, and advertising suppliers, examples of all four syndromes abound.
“It’s a bit like the last weeks before the Millennium Dome opened,” said one senior agency manager, “in that there is panic and daft ideas, but no sense of direction or coordination. The satire about all this on the telly is, sadly, an understatement of the anarchic reality.”
“Everything is last-minute, half-baked and having money thrown at it,” said another, “As with most things like this, 90% of the overspend occurs in the last 10% of the build-up. It has more than a slight whiff of disaster about it.”
“Not much evidence of thought in the brief we were given,” said a design supplier, “and the more you thought about it, the more obvious it became it was a waste of time and money. They are spending and wasting money like water.”
I am told that Roddy Doyle (handling the filmic recording and direction side) is at the end of his tether trying to deal with ignorant ‘management’ described as “far more interested in copyright and money deals than they are with documentary quality”. The whole idea of a documentary about the preparations has been ditched because of endless legal wrangles about who would own it, and fears among the more assiduous arse-coverers that such a record will merely present, for posterity and post mortems, clear evidence of the level of shambles involved.
The rehearsals for the opening theme – ‘Green and pleasant land’ – have been hampered by committee changes, poor audio, and the largely unpaid, amateur nature of the volunteers taking part. Tuesday night (10th July) saw another run-through; it didn’t allay many fears.
In May 2005, my previous site Notbornyesterday made itself very unpopular by saying no Olympic venue had ever really made money or obtained measurable investment benefit from hosting the Games; and I predicted that the then £4.8bn would rapidly get out of control…especially as its patron was the financially incontinent boozer’s friend, Tessa Jowell. So it has proved. Later I suggested that the sailing Olympics off the south and south-west coasts would create chaos for anyone going by car. I still think this will be the case, given that Nimby has, predictably, diluted most of the upgrading plans. The ‘train alternative’ route to the coasts is nowhere near capable of taking up the demand that will be created once the roads seize up.
It would be nice to think that Britain might turn a corner as a result of organising the Olympic Games. But far more likely is an acceleration of our slide into insolvency…and a concerted effort by the political class to hide the real coast of putting on the event. My hunch is that it will be very wet, millions of visitors will go back with the impression of an overcrowded and disorganised Britain, but that it might be a blip of concocted pride for a few idiots to get a warm feeling about…untila few weeks later, when the tidal wave of euromeltdown rolls in. We shall see.