London Calling - But who will heed the sirens?
With less than a month now to the start of the London Olympics, many are openly wondering if the British capital can possibly hope to compete with its predecessor, Beijing. Even now, four years on, the Beijing Olympics is widely regarded as setting a new benchmark among Olympic venues of recent years.
It's estimated that between July and September 2012, the UK will be the focus of world attention, with some 4 billion people around the globe likely to be watching the Games. More than 10,000 athletes are participating, 8.6 million tickets will be available (or not, as the case may be!), with another 1.5 million for the Paralympic Games. And 300,000 tourists are expected to travel to the Games from outside the UK.
What a great shop window for Great Britain plc! Or is it?
The contrast between the two capital cities in the way they prepared for the off could not be more stark. OK, the Brits are always predisposed to moan and gripe, particularly on big occasions. But everywhere in doom-laden Britain, where whingeing appears to be a national pastime, the howls of complaints seem to grow louder every day.
The long-held perception by many people abroad, is that London is rainy and overpriced, with dreadful food. In fact, it rains less in London than in either Paris or New York. But the Olympic organizers appear to be doing little not to confirm other stereotypes.
Even the Deputy Mayor of London, Kit Malthouse, got in on the act when he surprisingly declared that London's image could suffer from hosting the Olympics if visitors leave believing the city is poor value for money. "We are conscious some cities have made a mess of it," he said. "There have been notable problems with the Games. Atlanta never really recovered. We are determined to get it right."
Brave words indeed, when many travel operators are warning that inflated prices of hotel rooms in the capital during July and August have led to reported bookings being as much as 30% down year on year and show no sign of picking up. Malthouse said the recent furore over border queues at Heathrow airport had not helped either. "The stories about Heathrow are a massive deterrent," he added.
Many Londoners feel disconnected and even excluded from the Olympics, an event which is right on their doorstep but mostly inaccessible to them. The brand new stadia are fenced off behind barbed wire, with anti-aircraft gun emplacements positioned on tower blocks. And though no one knows right now what the legacy of these sporting facilities will be for urban regeneration, it has all massively contributed to the Olympics unpopularity, and people's loss of interest.
Ticketing has been the most contentious issue in the run-up to the Games. The ticketing process was criticized after a catalogue of failures, which meant many people could not buy tickets online, or purchased them only to be told later that their seats no longer existed. And then, as if to add insult to injury, more than 43,000 Olympics tickets – some for the most-coveted events such as athletics, swimming and the opening ceremony – were suddenly added to the pool available after many people had blown their budgets on lesser-known sports in the belief that the most popular events had already sold out.
Fans were not slow to voice their frustrations on Twitter. One wrote: 'Patience exhausted by initial failures to buy tickets. Bored now, have lost interest completely.' Another insisted the whole ticketing process had been a total disgrace "…right from the poorly managed ballot last year to the last minute selling now. When the Olympics is coming to your own country, one would expect that the majority of tickets should be available to the common person, easily accessible and priced fairly. Instead a ridiculous amount of high quality event tickets were given away to sponsors or priced so outrageously (£1000 for the ceremonies) that the vast majority of people were excluded from buying any. Any tickets that were priced fairly were dogged by systematic failures such as website crashes that prevented me from securing any even today. The taxpayer has already paid once for the Olympics; only idiots would pay for a ticket."
Others have chosen the issue of food to vent their pent up ire. McDonald's is reported to have paid upwards of $100 million to be the 'Official Sponsor, Retail Food Services' at the Games leading some to point out that as a result it is now forbidden by law (the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006) to bring in even a Burger King to the venue. "Burger me" said one netizen. "So it's to be the McOlympics? Doesn't it seem hugely ironic that a company famed for creating wildly unhealthy food has the contract for a sporting event? McDonalds sponsoring a sports event is in pretty poor taste (in more ways than one) but if they can get them to fork out $100 million - which is $100 million less for the taxpayer I assume - then great."
But once again, it is the issue of poor value for money that has everyone champing at the bit to add their comments to the blogosphere. 500ml bottle of water for £1.60 – yes, that's really RMB16! Small glass of wine – £5.20; Fresh orange juice – £2.80; Cup of coffee - £2.40; Hot dog - £5.90; 660ml Heineken - £6.80; 568ml draft British Bitter- £6.20; Crisps - £1.50 – not forgetting a McDonalds "Meal" for £7.40. Spectators will be charged more than twice the national average price for a beer and the only acceptable credit card will be VISA – another one of the sponsors.
In many ways, one of the saddest aspects of the Olympics is that they were supposed to be about showcasing the best of British. I'm not sure how McDonalds being the preferred "food" supplier backs up that premise; and the truth is that British food is actually not at all bad these days - a far cry from the well deserved dreadful reputation it had half a century ago.
With 31 competition venues, 955 sessions, 24,000 athletes and team officials, 21,000 media flunkies, and a workforce of 160,000, it is estimated that some 14 million meals will be prepared for those present during the Games. Someone has even calculated that they will need to ship in 25,000 loaves of bread, 232 tons of potatoes, 82 tons of seafood, 31 tons of poultry and a further 100 tons of meat, 75,000 liters of milk, 19 tons of eggs, 21 tons of cheese and more than 330 tons of fruit and vegetables. No wonder McDonalds was so happy to splurge out on winning its franchise!
But I wonder if that same someone realized that the 2012 London Olympics will clash with Ramadan, the holy month in the Islamic calendar? An anticipated 3,000 Muslim competitors are expected to fast from sunrise to sunset for the entire duration of the Games, not to mention the sizeable Muslim population that lives in England. Or will they? One Muslim cleric advised that "they don't have to observe Ramadan if they are doing sport and travelling but they will have to decide whether it is important to them." In other words, they apparently don't need to follow their religious strictures if it is inconvenient for them!
I have to wonder, however, why anyone should even think it preferable to bother going to the Games rather than watching wall-to-wall coverage on the TV. You'll see much, much more on TV, you'll be able to swig back a bottle of Tsingtao, or whatever your favorite tipple is, for a reasonable price; and you won't have to suffer rip-off Britain – let alone its quirky weather.
Or you could do like me – try and ignore it altogether on the basis that you just know that however much you bury your head in the sand, it will be very difficult to escape from endless reruns of the best bits for many weeks afterwards – and who wants to watch the boring bits anyway?
Now where did I put my copy of War and Peace?