Commercial meddling, avarice have Brits grumbling prior to Olympics
Thirty-eight days before Games, U.K. has come down with a case of the grumbles
And they’re justified: Organizers are policing all things related to the Olympics ...
… and displaying blatant greed amid an Olympics funded largely by public funds
Long before KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON made its way on to every trinket and tote bag, there was "Mustn't grumble, carry on." It's a summons to dogged forbearance that could be Great Britain's national credo. And while the motto's spirit has prevailed for most of the run-up to these Games, the U.K. has recently come down with a countrywide case of the grumbles -- the Olympic grumbles.
The backlash over the Games, which start in 38 days, involves more than the reflexive complaints of Negative Nigels who would rain on any parade (as if Mother Nature needs any help in that regard so far this English summer). Rather it stems from examples of commercial bullying, unvarnished avarice and tone-deaf decision-making emerging as the Olympics come into sharper focus.
And, frankly, it's hard not to find sympathy for the critics.
First there's the policing of the name, rings and anything within a rhetorical shot-put throw of the idiom and iconography of the Olympics. The inevitable kebab shop in East London has been among the victims, coerced into altering its name. (In solidarity, please seek out the rechristened Lympic Cafe if you're coming for the Games and find yourself hungry.) But there's been much more than that. Schools have had to take down anodyne banners that say things like SUPPORTING THE LONDON OLYMPICS. The British bakers' guild is advising members not to inscribe cakes with the O-word, a customer's desires be damned. A doll, knitted by an octogenarian woman in Norfolk, had to be withdrawn from a church craft sale because its jersey featured the sacred rings. A choreographer wanted to call his new work for the Birmingham Royal Ballet Faster, Higher, Stronger; with commerce shouting down art, he has been left to calling it, well, Faster.
Organizers are even targeting instances in which "2012" finds itself adjacent to "London." Which makes me wonder if we'll all have to disable both the calendar and GPS functions on our smartphones come July 27. Unless, of course, our smartphones are from Samsung.
Do multibillion-dollar, multinational corporations really believe that an Olympic connection is diluted by the slightest unsanctioned passing mention? Isn't their sponsorship, rather, amplified the more thoroughly the Games get embedded in the zeitgeist? British companies, recruited as cheerleaders for the Olympics because of the boom the Games would presumably provide for the economy, bear a particular burden. If they haven't paid millions to be an official sponsor, thousands of them, local businesses that helped build venues or provision supplies, are subject to Draconian rules: no public mention of their involvement in the Games for 12 years; no employee job titles like "Director of Olympic Fulfillment"; no visible brand marks in their deliverables, right down to the CORUS logo embossed on the steel girders of the Olympic Stadium which has had to to be covered up.
Last week British Olympic Minister Hugh Robertson crowed that the Games would come in $762 million under budget. We've known all along that the Games would cost billions. (Some $14.9 billion, to be precise, all but $3.2 billion of it public money.) But it's a bit rich to call them "under budget" when that figure was revised breathtakingly upwards, from an initial estimate of $3.8 billion, two years after London landed the Games in 2005. More recently the forecast price tag for security alone has nearly doubled; those additional costs haven't technically broken the bank only because the revised budget included so many Styrofoam pellets of contingency.
With sports governing bodies like GB Taekwondo drawing on public funds, and then implicating themselves in selection shenanigans like those detailed in last week's Postcard, anyone is entitled to be cynical about accounting legerdemain. Much of the public portion of the budget comes from the National Lottery, money that would otherwise be appropriated to localities in a Britain mired in fiscal distress. Will some of that $762 million surplus get funneled back there -- back, say, into grassroots sports, one of the most ballyhooed parts of a supposed Olympic "legacy," but which, because of austerity, has been woefully underfunded so far? Not gonna happen, Robertson says, even if a chunk of National Lottery money diverted to the Olympics is ordinarily earmarked for grassroots sports. Instead the surplus will go to the general treasury. In this instance, the grumblers' charge of "money laundering" stands up. That it's taking place during an economic crisis is an aggravating circumstance.
There's plenty more to kvetch about. A range of worthies have been passed over as Olympic torch relay carriers, and despite inspirational connections to previous Olympics or volunteer work as mentors for children, they've been squeezed out in favor of marketing executives with sponsoring corporations. Bus drivers, seeking bonuses comparable to those that tube and rail workers will get for Olympics-related overtime, will strike on Friday to make clear that they're capable of doing the same after the cauldron is lit. Workaday Londoners are peeved at the presumption of officials who, in trying to reduce routine evening rush-hour traffic when fans will be leaving Olympic events, have urged commuters to delay their trips home by, among other things, swinging by the pub for a few pops. Better well-oiled, happy commuters than too many sober but grumpy ones.
But people are already grumpy, and nothing is more responsible than tickets. Let's start with the oversubscribed initial offering, which came with the sound of Web sites crashing, and left the vast majority of applicants from the U.K. empty-handed. Now new allocations, returned to the British pool after going unsold in other countries, have suddenly come available to prestige events like track, swimming and the opening and closing ceremonies -- but that's no consolation to average Brits who shot their budgets months ago on less desirable sports, believing that's all they'd have a prayer to get. When the latest block of "last-chance" tickets went on sale, people here were too exasperated even to sputter "so now you tell us."
No one's mood will be improved by yesterday's report in The Sunday Times implicating 27 Olympic officials and ticket agents, including executives with the national Olympic committees of Bosnia, Greece, Malta, Saudi Arabia and Serbia, with attempting to scalp the most sought-after seats in their allotments for up to 10 times face value. The exposé took two months and more than two broadsheet pages to report, and puts some 54 countries -- more than half the IOC membership -- under suspicion. And it has the feel of an investigation that, if allowed to go on for an Olympic quadrennium, could have ensnared every last apparatchik in a blazer. The IOC can vow volubly to get to the bottom of it all, and London organizers can keen their indignation from Eton Dorney to Olympic Park, but cynicism will remain at large in the land.
The only balm for all this, during a summer marked by over-the-top monarchy worship, seems to be anything royal. Last week Zara Phillips MBE, the Queen's granddaughter and No. 14 in the queue for the throne, became the latest royal to capture the public's attention. After having missed out on the previous two Olympics because of injuries to her mount, she qualified for the equestrian competition on a horse called High Kingdom. The public seems not to begrudge her this, and the rider she narrowly beat out has bucked the vogue and -- so far -- declined to appeal.
Then again, where might an appeal end up? In the lap of her mum, Princess Anne, president of the British Olympic Association.
But, mustn't grumble.