ONE of the enjoyable features of festive season entertainment is the regular re-showing of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. There’s a feel-good factor watching the British triumphs at the 1924 Paris Olympics, but above all there is the celebration of a man who is prepared to sacrifice gold to honour his faith: the triumph of conscience over pride, humility over worldly gain.
The Olympic spirit has changed somewhat since the days of Eric Liddell. The Games that took place in London in 2012 were certainly memorable, but for many of the wrong reasons.
The opening ceremony became a left-wing extravaganza extolling ‘Our NHS’ and post-industrial multi-culturalism; and the ultimate boast was that the final price tag was ‘under budget’, saving a good £377million on the £9.3billion set aside.
A later news investigation by Sky Sports revealed that this £9billion was nowhere near the true cost. It claimed that an extra £2.36billion of public money had been spent, taking the bill for the taxpayer to £11.66billion, and with additional associated costs it could go as high as almost £24billion, vastly in excess of the original estimate.
Among these additional expenses were an extra £41million for the opening ceremony, £271million for venue security, the £766million to acquire the land, and the £826million ‘legacy’ programmes. Particularly noted was the cost of paying union members extra during the games, a bribe to stop them striking. That meant £500 to each of the 13,000 tube drivers, totalling £6.5million.
This contrasts hugely with the cost of the 1924 Games in Paris. It has been estimated that total spend there amounted to 10million francs, very roughly equivalent to £40-50million today. Receipts amounted to approximately 5.5million francs, so it ran at a hefty loss in spite of being well attended.
In those days, an international event was a much simpler affair, and as a result much more in keeping with the Olympic ideals of sporting prowess and international friendship. As Chariots of Fire depicted, the opening ceremony simply consisted of the teams marching round the stadium accompanied by traditional band music. There were far fewer events, no paralympic equivalent, and coaching was considered contrary to the amateur spirit, causing controversy over Harold Abrahams’s training methods.
In 2012 it was decided for the first time that the Games should leave a sporting legacy, specifically to encourage and support participation throughout the UK. This was one area which spectacularly failed to deliver. The House of Commons Public Accounts Committee has reported that some of the £8.8billion pledged to create the legacy remains untraceable, while the £323million of taxpayers’ money spent each year since 2015 has made little impact. The country’s share of ‘active’ adults (defined as 2.5 hours exercise per week) has increased by only 1.2 per cent, while two out of five adults in England do not meet guidelines for recommended activity. Since then, sporting participation has been further hindered first by lockdowns and now soaring energy bills.
Most damning of all is that Sport England can account for only £450million of the £1.5billion fund to increase sports participation since 2016. They have been forced to admit that ‘elite sports success doesn’t necessarily inspire activity at grass roots level’. However, no doubt with the straightest of faces, they assure us that ‘Sports England invests public money responsibly and transparently, recording and publishing data on all grant recipients’.
The most visible relic of the Olympic Park remains the ArcelorMittal Orbit, now referred to as the Orbit Tower, Britain’s tallest piece of public art. It was expected to cost £19.1million, with £16million being lent by the then richest man in Britain, steel tycoon Lakshmi Mittal, and the remainder from the London Development Agency.
Commissioned by Boris Johnson, then Mayor of London, the mega-sculpture was co-designed by Anish Kapoor. Johnson, who selected Kapoor’s proposal following a design competition, envisioned Orbit as a major tourist attraction that would become a symbol of the city, akin to the Eiffel Tower in Paris or the Statue of Liberty in New York. Instead, the tower has landed the London Legacy Development Corporation £13million in debt as interest mounts on the loan provided by Mittal for its construction.
To quote the late art critic Brian Sewell, ‘Our country is littered with public art of absolutely no merit. We are entering a new age of fascistic gigantism. These are monuments to egos, and you couldn’t find a more monumental ego than Boris.’
And all in the name of sporting achievement! This is the real legacy, a hideous eyesore on the London skyline, a potent symbol of mindless government extravagance.
In such cases, government would do far better to step back from interfering, and let people get on with whatever sports they wish to take part in. Such eye-watering sums would have been more productive, left in people’s pockets, to make their own decisions, instead of financing vanity projects which fail to make any difference, and lack clear and responsible accounting.
Oh for the days of Liddell and Abrahams, when giving of your best was the driving force, and the honour of participation was the highest ideal their egos strived for – and public money was not scattered like confetti by casual, incompetent and irresponsible government.