Have you heard, there are only three days to go until the start of the Olympics? Three days until — hopefully — all the brouhaha of the past few weeks, months and years evaporates in the sunshine, and our collective mind turns towards sporting excellence and national pride. I’m excited, and millions of other people will be too. Those three days cannot pass quickly enough.
But, in the meantime, please forgive me for a little bout of curmudgeonry. I’ve heard all the arguments against being excessively sour about the Olympics process so far: that we should just enjoy London’s triumph in securing the Games; that such a huge event was always going to be difficult to organise; that the massive costs will be outweighed by the ginormous benefits, etc, etc. And yet being uncritical still seems like form of surrender. Surely the end result could have been a little less expensive, less corporatist and more inclusive.
To my eyes, many of the problems seem to have come about for a single reason: that the government has basically — perhaps unavoidably — outsourced Olympics policy to supranational interests ranging from the International Olympic Committee to McDonalds. At the very least, so much of what we’re seeing runs counter to the ‘no barriers to entry’-ness that the Coalition normally espouses. When it came to the Jubilee, David Cameron was warning local councils ‘not to interfere’, via ‘petty bureaucracy’, with people’s street parties. When it comes to the Olympics, we have we have the grim circus of image rights and trading regulations that Nick Cohen detailed in his recent cover story for the Spectator. Want to bake a cake with the Olympic rings on it? Brace yourself for a visit from The Bureaucracy.
It is always easy to say that lessons should be learnt — but they should be, and not just for the specific possibility that Britain hosts another sporting event in future. No, the more general lesson for the Coalition, and particularly for the Conservatives, is that they should not allow their vision for the country to be so easily usurped and subverted. Otherwise, what’s the point? I’m not normally one for suggesting that the government takes a tighter grip on proceedings, but when the alternative is more directives from the desk of Jacques Rogge (described as a ‘Belgian sports bureaucrat’ on Wikipedia), then that is exactly what is needed. Bring on the Big Society, please, until our spines crack from the weight of it.
The situation is not irretrievable, however, even now. The Olympic Games themselves may be over after two weeks, but then there’s the question of what imprint they will leave on both the country and London’s six host boroughs, which happen to be among the most deprived in the capital. This is the truly Olympian challenge; improving areas such as Tower Hamlets that have suffered acutely from a range of societal ills — illiteracy, unemployment, homelessness and more — for decades. And this challenge is too important for the government to put its brain and principles in stasis and leave things to Coca-Cola.
Thankfully, there are signs that the pledge David Cameron made in his first proper speech as Prime Minister — ‘let’s make sure the Olympics legacy lifts East London from being one of the poorest parts of the country to one that shares fully in the capital’s growth and prosperity’ — is being catered for. There are the happy products of fate, such as the development of a new shopping centre near the main Olympics site, which has already resulted in thousands of jobs. And there are those things that the government has been more closely involved with. The Olympics village, for instance, is wired to function as a town once the Games are over. Some of the athletes’ accommodation will be sold on as affordable housing, some will add to the social stock. The glassy building is already in place for Chobham Academy, a new school to be run by one of the most successful Academy providers, opening next year.
This is what is most encouraging about the government’s approach to the regeneration of East London so far: that it is not just about new buildings, but also about the uses those new buildings will find. A school, a good school, is more helpful to the prospects of an area and its people than almost anything else. A shop is more relevant to employment prospects than any amount of ministerial speeches. But let these ideals be applied more generously outside the main Olympics site. If it is not too late, talk the Olympics sponsors, currently luxuriating in the contracts they received, into putting some money towards anything — textbooks, uniforms, business advice, anything — that might help. Ministers ought to squeeze every advantage and innovation that they can from this sporting jamboree.
And then, the future. It is sometimes said that the government should establish a Ministry of Social Justice, working to tackle poverty across areas currently associated with several other departments. But, strangely enough, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport could fulfil a similar function now. Securing a proper Olympics legacy, and corralling other ministries to that end, should be the main priority of Jeremy Hunt’s team over the next few years. It is more urgent than quasi-judicialising over any media takeovers, and a strong reason to keep the minister in place — or at least replace him with someone especially effective — in the forthcoming reshuffle. The work that is done could be a lodestar for improvement elsewhere, be it Tottenham, Merthyr Tydfil, Glasgow, wherever.
Of course, London’s Olympic boroughs are a special case, in that they have enjoyed £millions worth of inward investment, as well as the world’s attention, over the past few years — but that is the point. If David Cameron cannot visit Newham or Tower Hamlets during the next election campaign, as he should, and think ‘this place is better now, for all time,’ then he will have missed the chance of a premiership. It all starts in three days plus two weeks.