Margo MacDonald: Olympic ideals lost in the hype

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Something quite unusual happened this Ne’er Day. I met someone who was looking forward enthusiastically, without a caveat or doubt, to the London Olympics this summer.

She is sure the experience of going to London to watch judo, the sport of her choice, will be a life-changing experience.

The contests for the judo medals will take place in the week before the titanic contests in the track and field events are played out to global TV audiences measured in millions.

Such was her optimism that I have no doubt she and her husband will have stories to dine out on for years to come.

So why should I describe our conversation about the Olympics as unusual? After all, every second last one of us (according to a pseudo-academic analysis of attitudes to sport published by the one newspaper) will be glued to the TV for at least some of the athletics, swimming and the other headline-making sports.

Others amongst us will be frustrated yet again that our favourite spectator sports, in my case synchronised swimming, will be referred to only as a throwaway “also contested today” by the star sports presenters reporting on nightly round-up programmes on TV and radio.

Haven’t we all been bowled over by Boris’s dream, or Coe’s campaign? Both the Mayor of London and the chairman of Britain’s Olympic Committee have caught everyone’s attention with their commitment to making the London Games the best ever.

So why is it that most people I meet are at one and the same time generous in their approval of how Seb Coe has put his heart and soul into promoting the games, and very critical about how much it’s all going to cost?

Because far from the people who live in countries that host the Olympics feeling good about themselves or their country when the caravan has moved on, the experience of the huge debts that remain for them to pay somewhat sours the Coubertin ideal of calling together the world’s young athletes to pit their skills and speed against each other.

The Games have become another gigantic marketing opportunity for the Coca-Colas and Nikes and countless other smaller manufacturers. They have become part of the global diplomacy system, and the world’s greatest chance for hangers-on to live like princes supported by paupers.

Because even in these austere times, the outrageous hospitality explains part of the doubling of the cost (more than £9 billion).

In 2004, the Mayor of London put the cost at £4.2bn. However, the global financial collapse has changed perspectives worldwide with regard to spending priorities and value for money.

That’s true of governments, businesses and sports supporters alike . . . all except Coe’s crew.

Four years ago, critics of the London Olympics were dismissed as killjoys or, even worse, Scottish Nationalists.

Although I’m crocked these days, I was very sporty in my salad days, and hardly missed a minute of the TV coverage every four years after my heroine, Eleanor Gordon, won a bronze medal in the pool at the Helsinki Games.

I still hold a memory of nine-year old me intensely watching film of the start of the Games when all the countries taking part entered the stadium behind their national flags.

I was interested in the relative sizes of the teams, their team uniforms, the few internationally-known stars etc, but what held my attention through an admittedly low-key, serious-faced official opening was the search for Eleanor amongst all the other bereted British women athletes.

In July, I’ll be hunched over my TV rubber-necking today’s stars. But I’m just as likely to watch a film as be bored by the extravaganza of the rest of the official opening.

Contrast the opening ceremony of the Helsinki Games with the £41 million allocated to this year’s no doubt lavish stadium show at which the parade of the flags is out-glitzed by the massed dancers and other performing artists.

It’s a fair bet that real sports men and women would rather have that amount spent in supporting the clubs in their areas which are having their grants cut by local authorities and charges for acquiring coaching certification increased by individual sports governing bodies.

Seb Coe would think such thinking negative.

I’ve heard him appeal to business people to think big and to bid for the big contracts. I’ve heard him encourage caterers to cater for the extra visitors, and others to provide accommodation, hire cars and customise visitor attractions.

But recent studies have shown that the vast majority of Games ticket buyers will live within a 150-mile radius of London.

If these fans do the same as the lady with the judo tickets, they will make time to attend the Olympics by using some of their holiday entitlement and have a shorter summer break, or skip their planned trip to Scotland for the autumn break.

Let’s be positive about the Games when possible, but let’s not do it again?