By Paul T Kavanagh
London’s big expensive party got off to an inauspicious start. Tory Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt suffered equipment failure which brought his bell ringing to signal the start of the Games to an abrupt end. The bell-end flew off the handle and an innocent by-stander got lamped. A bit like Tory government, come to think of it.
The very first contests in the Games had already taken place, the fitba kicked off in Cardiff and Glasgow. You’d have been hard pressed to notice however, if it wasn’t for the fact that they took Pointless off the telly.
In retrospect holding the first sporting events of the Games in a country which has been serially insulted by the Olympic organisers probably wasn’t such a good idea. After protests, the Scottish flag was allowed to fly in the national stadium after all, Olympic organisers had wanted to ban it saying Scotland isn’t a proper country. But a space was finally found for a small saltire sticker, hiding below the insignia of proper countries like Coca Cola and McDonalds, beneath an Olympics logo that looks like Lisa Simpson on acid.
Pursed lips were provoked by the refusal of a couple of Scottish competitors to sing God Save the Queen. Reminding Olympic organisers that many people in a part of the UK would prefer their own Olympic team didn’t go down well with the mandatory celebration of Britishness, which isn’t remotely political at all in the run up to a Scottish referendum on independence, oh no.
All the hoo-ha is theoretically in aid of sporting contests that few have ever heard of, and even fewer care about. There will be leaping about with a big ribbon, synchronised drowning, handball – which sadly isn’t a sexual practice – and the “modern” pentathlon, which thinks fencing and pistol duels are so 21st century. In the old pentathlon they just threw rocks and monkey poo at one another, which veteran Olympic watchers say was much more entertaining.
In the absence of officially sanctioned poo-throwing, Scots resolutely refuse to be enthused by London’s £13 billion corporate sponsorathon, which we’ll be paying off for years to come. According to a recent opinion poll, only 13% of UK residents will not be “engaging with the Games”, most of whom seemingly live in Scotland. Of the other 87%, the engagement of a large majority will be restricted to ogling at the women’s beach volleyball or the thighs on the men’s track and field teams.
The BBC covered every second of the Olympic flame’s 69 day journey, almost as long as taking the train, from the furthest corners of the UK to London. It was like Britain’s Got the X-Factor Talent on performance enhancing steroids, complete with crying participants doing it for their deaf granny in a wheelchair. Meanwhile Scots were engaged in an Olympic sport of their own, timing how long passes between BBC presenters mentioning the bleedin’ games. The current record for Olympic-free airtime is 8.5 seconds, easily beating Usain Bolt.
Just to ensure you don’t miss a vital moment of the crucial face-off between Belarus and Azerbaijan in the snatch and grab, which is apparently a sport and not a sex offence, the BBC has provided 24 extra HD channels of Olympicosity. Scotland had to wait several years for its Gaelic language channel to be given space on Freeview, but London’s jolly gets 24 at the drop of a TV remote control and the stamp of a corporate sponsor’s foot. At least we now know where Scottish culture sits in the medal rankings of UK broadcasting regulators, somewhere below porn channels and people flogging genuine solid gold plated sapphiresque earrings – just like Will gave Kate – and a very long way below the Swaziland netball squad.
A thinly attended Hampden Park made an early bid for Olympic prominence when the North Korean women’s fitba team walked off the pitch in protest as their match was about to begin. The North Koreans were expecting a packed out stadium where the massed ranks of the proletariat would wave bits of coloured cardboard to create a huge image of Dear Leader David Cameron, because that’s the sort of organised circus they get back home.
So when the comrades were confronted with half the members of the West Calder under-12s shinty club, huddled in front of the BBC cameras to make it look like Scots were interested in the proceedings, the North Koreans thought they’d got the wrong venue. Their suspicions were only confirmed when a pre-match video sent up by organisers from London displayed the South Korean flag.
It wasn’t the only national mix up made by Games Organisers. The UK squad is officially called Team GB, Northern Ireland being too small to notice from London. Then Welsh midfielder Joe Allen was described as English in the official Team GB programme. Since the Team GB football team is widely regarded as an England team anyway, no one objected too much, least of all Joe Allen, in case he attracts attention to himself when FIFA boots Wales out of international competitions.
Security will be tight despite the no-show by the promised 10,000 G4S security staff. G4S insist that they’ll still be claiming the full £57 million in management expenses, pointing out that everyone else in charge of the UK pays themselves millions for rank incompetence, so it’s only fair.
The army is making up the shortfall, so visitors and competitors from Afghanistan and Iraq will feel right at home as they wait in the queues at security checkpoints. Locals benefit too, East London residents can experience the thrill of rocket launchers on rooftops and armoured limos whizzing along the Olympic lanes while locals sit in traffic.
But the global economic meltdown has affected the Games. There are fewer competitors at London 2012 than there have been since the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where there were 31 fewer events. The recession has forced many countries to cut their team numbers as they can’t afford the expense.
Rumour has it that the Mexican team approached HSBC bank’s Latin American branch for sponsorship, but discovered that unless they wanted to launder the proceeds of taking a tonne of marihuana to London, the bank wasn’t interested. Cannabis is a banned substance for Olympic athletes. Organisers take a strict line against performance enhancing drugs, as they fear that all those late night dashes to stock up on ciggy papers and chocolate before the corner shop shuts might give stoned athletes a competitive edge.
Austerity also led to cuts in the Spanish team after the cash strapped Spanish government couldn’t find a bank to lend it the money and was forced to offer collateral instead. Spain will now be represented in the equestrian events by a half-built apartment block in Málaga. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy hopes the squad can bring back as many medals as possible, as he plans to melt them down and use them as currency.
Only Team GB is bigger than the squad which went to Beijing, there are almost twice as many British competitors this time round. So when the BBC starts to crow about Britain’s greater medal haul this time, you’ll know why – there’s double the number of British athletes up against fewer competitors. There has been speculation about the number of medals Team GB will win, but it’s already been decided that Chelsea’s John Terry will be collecting every one of them.
But austerity cuts have affected the UK’s contribution to the Games too. Last minute changes had to be made to the opening ceremony. David Beckham was ruled out from officially launching the Games after an incident at rehearsals. He began his speech saying Oh Oh Oh Oh Oh, and had to be told he was reading out the Olympic rings.
Danny Boyle, director of the proceedings, originally wanted the opening ceremony to feature 4,000 dancing nurses in celebration of the NHS, but the budget was slashed and he was only offered 1000 untrained private company careworkers on the minimum wage, half of whom didn’t show up.
A design rethink was prompted. It was rumoured that instead viewers would be treated to a confetti shower of PFI contracts while Alistair Darling and Gordon Brown flipped houses and former Cabinet ministers who are now directors of defence companies abseiled into a mountain of expensive soft furnishings that MPs claimed on expenses. Sadly it did not come to pass.
The Games have not succeeded in making Scots feel more British. The Games haven’t even achieved their stated goal of increasing public participation in sport in a nation of couch-potatoes. Originally it was claimed that 1 million people would be so inspired by the sight of someone they’ve never heard of winning a bronze medal in archery that they’d get up off their big fat behinds and jog down to the pub. But according to a survey by Sport England, there has been no increase in sports participation as a result of the Games. The only lasting benefits are for the private sponsors and contractors.
The Olympics are a temporary and expensive distraction from banking sleaze, media corruption, and self-congratulatory politicians who are never held accountable. This week we also got the depressing news that Tony Blair is itching to get back into government, a bit like herpes. It’s the Westminster way.
It feels like the last hurrah of a dying system. We’ve got a couple of weeks of wall-to-wall Limp Icks to get through, but as soon as the Games are over, we’ll go back to forgetting that most Olympic sports even exist. By the time Scotland’s independence referendum takes place, all we’ll remember is the debt.