London's Olympic regrets
Why did London want the Games?
For the same reasons most major cities compete to be selected as Olympic hosts: to attract billions in tourist dollars, to stimulate urban redevelopment, and to bask in the prestige of three weeks in the international spotlight. In 2005, when the International Olympic Committee chose Britain’s capital over Paris to host the 2012 Games, London was jubilant. “Many reckon it is the greatest capital city in the world,” then Prime Minister Tony Blair said, “and the Olympics will help keep it that way.” But with the Games now just days away, many Londoners are feeling anxiety and regret. A recent poll found that half the city’s residents are not interested in the Olympics at all, and 42 percent think the city should never have bid for them. “It’s a major disaster,” said documentary filmmaker Iain Sinclair. “You don’t need this vast, top-down structure spending billions of pounds to obliterate a landscape.”
Why are Londoners grumbling?
They’ve become acutely conscious of the high cost and monumental inconvenience of hosting a global spectacle. London, a sprawling city of nearly 8 million people, already suffers from congested streets and chronically packed trains and subways, and there’s little doubt that extra security measures and a flood of 1 million tourists will tie the city in knots. A recent test on the London Underground and rail lines led to hour-long delays and infuriated passengers. “It’s going to be like this every bloody day during the Olympics,” said one transport worker. “The tourists are okay; they’re patient. But the commuters aren’t.” Londoners are also rankled that the Games’ organizers have designated 250 exclusive traffic lanes on some of London’s busiest roads for the use of Olympic VIPs, including executives of sponsors such as Dow Chemical, Coca-Cola, and BP—who also get dibs on all the best seats. But they’re particularly worried about the enormous cost of staging the Games.
How much will it cost?
The budget has grown from $3.9 billion when London was selected to $15 billion now—grim news for a British economy in recession. Every London taxpayer has to pay an annual “Olympic levy” of $30, and may have to keep paying it for years to cover predicted final expenditures of $19 billion. Late last year, Prime Minister David Cameron doubled the budget for the opening and closing ceremonies to about $125 million, fearing they would otherwise pale in comparison with the extravaganzas produced by Beijing in 2008. And in recent weeks the costs of keeping the London Games safe have soared.
Why is that?
G4S, the private contractor hired to oversee security at the Olympic Games, admitted earlier this month that it couldn’t hire enough personnel to do the job, even though its contract has expanded from an initial $156 million to $442 million. The government has been forced to mobilize 17,000 army troops to the capital’s streets—more than the U.K. currently has deployed in Afghanistan—to deal with the possibility of terrorism. With as many as 50,000 policemen, soldiers, and private security guards swarming the city, Londoners grouse that their city has become a virtual fortress. Warships patrol the Thames, gun-toting soldiers roam train stations and airports, and surface-to-air missile batteries have been installed on the rooftops of residential towers. “As a tourist destination,” said journalist Simon Jenkins, “the place is being put on a par with Baghdad or Kabul.”
Won’t London benefit from the Olympics?
The projections say it will. Tourists are expected to spend $3 billion during the event, and the organizing committee says the Olympics are already spurring the redevelopment of East London, and will end up creating 11,000 new homes and 8,000 jobs there. A recent study by Lloyds TSB estimated that hosting the Olympics could add $24 billion to the U.K.’s gross domestic product. The Games will be a great advertisement for British industry, said Tony Travers, an urban economist at the London School of Economics. “This will undoubtedly send a message that Britain is good at delivering big projects on time.”
What will bring Londoners around?
The Games themselves, most likely. The British Olympic team has greatly improved in recent years, rising from 36th place in the medal count in 1996’s Summer Games to fourth place in 2008, behind China, the U.S., and Russia. This year, it hopes to take fourth place again. Partly for that reason, Joe Twyman of the polling firm YouGov predicts that Londoners will warm to the Olympics once they get started. The city’s residents carped about last year’s royal wedding, he says, but now they look on it as a huge success. Complaining during the buildup to large events, he suggests, is a national pastime in a country where world-weary cynicism is the norm and earnest enthusiasm is dismissed as naïveté. “It’s one of those things that you would describe as ‘being British,’” Twyman said.
The last time London was host...
Britain is spending less than half as much as China did in 2008 to stage the Olympics, but this year’s outlay is lavish compared with the last time London hosted the Games. The entire bill for the 1948 Olympics came to $1.1 million, or around $37 million in today’s money. Most events were held in pre-existing facilities such as Wembley Stadium, and German prisoners-of-war were pressed into action to build new roads and bridges. The Olympic “village” consisted of temporary huts, tents, and borrowed schoolrooms. Athletes were even asked to bring their own towels. The 1948 London Games actually turned a profit of just under $50,000—the equivalent of over $1 million today. Janie Hampton, author of The Austerity Olympics, says they were “probably the most inexpensive, unpretentious, and successful Games of the 20th century,” setting a challenging precedent for London in the 21st.