It is exactly one hundred days until the opening ceremony of the London Olympic games when, under Danny Boyle‘s direction, thousands of British volunteers will show the world that the UK can match anything China did four years ago. Well maybe the budget for fireworks will be less than China managed, but at least we won’t stoop to lip-syncing children because the singers are not pretty enough.
Seven years ago I was working in Pall Mall for the Commonwealth Business Council and I took a walk to Trafalgar Square at lunchtime on the day of the 2012 bid announcement. I don’t think that any British person who was there that day will ever forget the mass joy when we heard that the 2012 games were going to London. Victory was even sweeter because the pundits all expected Paris to win – the French cried into their vin rouge as we all lifted pints of warm beer and celebrated with Dame Kelly Holmes as our leader.
Since then the same narrative that seems to afflict every Olympic games has unfolded. The budget is now £9.3bn for the games, which is almost four times the initial estimates. Some howling blunders were made in the bidding process, like forgetting to include VAT, and security costs are now soaring, as the threat of a terrorist event has to be contained.
The UK is a different place to what it was back in 2005. That was an era of never-ending economic growth. The City was the financial engine-room of the world, cocking a snook at New York and Frankfurt. Tony Blair’s Britain had yet to face the lines of savers outside the Northern Rock, desperate to retrieve their savings before the bank collapsed.
In the present-day, after the financial meltdown of 2007/08, enormous public events can easily be presented as a great folly. Which government can afford to keep spending on sport when there are shantytowns springing up in the UK?
But to reduce the effect of the Olympic games to a mere accounting exercise is to miss the point. This event may have cost more than the projected budgets. It may cause traffic chaos during the time the games are actually taking place, and it may annoy those who don’t like wall-to-wall sport on the TV, but this event will form the opinion of a generation.
This is the first ever truly social Olympic games. It is true that tools like Facebook and Twitter were around for Beijing 2008, but they had not reached the ubiquity of today and tools like the iPhone were still in their infancy. Right now you can use Twitter to follow the chairman of the London 2012 Organising Committee. You can follow the athletes as they train for the games and even ask how it is going. You can ask the pundits for their predictions and get involved in planning how you are going to watch the games – whether it is the big screen in Hyde Park or down the pub.
Can you just imagine how many smart phone photographs are going to be uploaded on the 3G network around the London Olympic stadium in the seconds and minutes following the 100m sprint final? I guess there will be at least a million photos of that single event uploaded – how many more photos and video from London can we expect during the games itself?
London is going to be special for this reason. It is going to be the first truly interactive games where the people will broadcast the event – not just a presenter in a TV studio talking to passive viewers. This will be the biggest backchannel of conversation, speculation, and debate ever witnessed – and it’s all going to be driven by London, showcasing our capital city to the world.
Tonight I’m going to be in the British Consulate General in São Paulo meeting some of the Brazilian athletes on their way out to the games in London. It’s an event hosted by the UKTI and Visit Britain teams who are responsible for promoting business and tourism in the UK.
Most British people are probably not aware of how foreigners see their country unless they are privileged enough to live overseas for some time. I know the budget for the games was a mess, but when I see that video of Trafalgar Square back in 2005 I feel pride – because of this sporting event the entire world will be watching my country. Who cares about a few billion quid anyway? This event is going to showcase Britain to the world, and for decades to come there will be business deals and tourism to the UK just because of what happens in 2012.
Tonight in Brazil we will all be watching London and looking ahead to the games – with Rio being the location of the games in another four years. In fact you can guarantee that everywhere there is a British diplomatic mission, or a British pub, or a solitary Brit far from home clutching a bottle of Fullers close to his heart, there will be people watching the UK and looking forward to Danny Boyle’s extravaganza a hundred days from now.
Photo by tps58 licensed under Creative Commons