WITH a ringside seat for the first week of London 2012, David Grevemberg couldn’t fail to be swept up by euphoria that gripped the country.
But as the man who will take the baton from organisers Locog when the Paralympics end, it would be understandable if he felt more than a little ambivalent about the rapturous reception the event has received.
For all that London 2012 has boosted Britain’s morale, generating an unprecedented passion for sport which, it is hoped, will spill over to the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow in two years, it also set the bar for future events incredibly high.
With just over 5 per cent of the Olympic budget at his disposal and no guarantee that big names such as Usain Bolt will attend, the Glasgow 2014 chief executive has his work cut out to produce a games to capture the national imagination.
Yet if Grevemberg is daunted by the scale of the challenge he faces, he is hiding it well. Sitting in the Glasgow organisation’s state-of-the-art offices, the quiet American is explaining how he believes London 2012 has changed the public’s perception of athletes forever.
“I think social media has humanised athletes in a way that has never happened before,” says the man who, as a former wrestler whose own Olympic hopes were dashed by injury, knows all about struggle, elation and disappointment. “For the first time the athletes’ journeys were on all the different media channels. That’s not to say it knocked them off their pedestals. But it made us all realise there’s much more that goes into being an Olympian in terms of sacrifice, in terms of commitment. The struggle, the release and in some cases the relief was so well-captured, so talked about, I think that has engaged people in a way they didn’t even expect.”
Certainly, Grevemberg says, Glasgow 2014 is experiencing a bounce factor, a double bounce, even, since the Paralympic Games are also attracting a lot of interest. Polls suggest interest in buying tickets has doubled in the last months, with more than 40 per cent of Scots saying their experience of London 2012 has made them more excited about the Commonwealth Games.
In particular, the praise heaped on the army of volunteers has seen a spike in the number of people wanting to get involved. “People are phoning us and asking, ‘Where can I buy tickets, how do I volunteer, how can I get involved?’ because they are so enthused and excited about it, and that’s really great because we want this to be the people’s Games,” Grevemberg says.
You don’t have to be Sebastian Coe, however, to realise the success of London 2012 is a double-edged sword. If Glasgow’s Games had followed hard on Delhi’s, with its much-derided athletes village and its empty seats, it would not have been so difficult to impress.
But with seminal moments such as Usain Bolt’s 100-metre victory and Chris Hoy becoming Britain’s most successful ever Olympian lodged in people’s minds, London will be a tough act to follow.
Grevemberg concedes it is crucial to manage expectations. “Our budget is £524 million compared with the Olympics’ £9 billion so there are realities we have to take into consideration, but it’s also about finding smarter ways to work within our budget,” he says, insisting Glasgow should play to its strengths.
“I think it is about finding what is distinctive about Glasgow – our Olympic Park is essentially the city streets, so we are able to use that in a meaningful and different way,” he says.” Some of our venues are leisure facilities which are community-relevant and also at the same time world-class – the new Commonwealth arena, for example, will be open and hosting world-class events and community projects well before the Games start, which is great.”
Although Grevemberg inherited the role of chief executive by default when his predecessor John Scott resigned after breaking rules over accepting gifts and hospitality from a potential supplier, there is no doubting his credentials.
Born in New Orleans, a city with a rich heritage, distinct identity and areas of severe poverty, he feels a natural affinity to Glasgow. He started wrestling at school, eventually winning a scholarship at Springfield College, Massachusetts. He was training with the national team in the run-up to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics when a rupture to his anterior ligaments ended his sporting hopes.
Forced to rethink his whole life, he began coaching deprived children from Washington DC. Joining the Paralympics at a time when it was still run by volunteers, he was one of its first paid members of staff, moving to its global headquarters in Bonn in 1999.
In the 14 months he has been chief executive of Glasgow 2014, Grevemberg, who is married with two children, seems to have stabilised an organisation which was, at one point, in turmoil as Scott was at loggerheads with Alex Salmond.
The city is well ahead as far as stadia are concerned; one of the reasons its bid was successful was that 70 per cent of the venues were already in place. The Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome will open in October while the Hydro Arena, the venue for the gymnastics, is expected to open next year. But there are still many obstacles for the 38-year-old to overcome.
Though Grevemberg is personable and positive, he exudes an air of serenity which sometimes borders on the soporific. He is also a master of corporate speak, peppering every sentence with buzz phrases such as “community engagement”, “security solution” and “time, place, purpose” which sometimes leaves me craving a bit more substance.
Asked about ticketing for example, he says: “We have three main aims – to deliver an inclusive and accessible Games, full stadia and meet our target revenue.” Well, there can’t be many events directors who want exclusive games, half-empty stadia and not to meet their target revenue, the question is how to deliver them – and on that front Grevemberg is divulging little.
The fact is that since Glasgow’s population is only 580,000 (compared to Delhi’s 14 million), the Games will have to attract visitors from across Scotland and the north of England if it has any hope of achieving full houses. He has already acknowledged the importance of attracting big names such as Usain Bolt to draw the crowds, and athletes are to be offered a one-off tax break as an incentive to attend.
On the plus side, the first event at the velodrome – the UCI Track World Cup Series in November – sold out within 25 minutes. But with officials eventually having to give away tickets to the Olympic football games at Hampden, it is difficult to envisage crowds turning out to less popular events such as bowling.
On security, Grevemberg is a little more illuminating. He was, he says, hugely impressed by the way the armed services, brought in at the last moment as a result of the G4S fiasco, operated, transforming a normally tedious experience into something “enjoyable and memorable”. Grevemberg would not, he says, be averse to having the military involvement in Glasgow’s security operation, but it would come at a cost and would be a matter for the Scottish Government.
On top of all the logistical hurdles, Grevemberg has to contend with the Games’ political dimension. Coming just before Scotland’s independence referendum, the success or otherwise of the Games is expected to influence the outcome, with any patriotic fervour generated likely to boost the Yes vote.
Is the background noise of the independence debate a distraction? Does Grevemberg worry that he could be used as a political pawn? “It is important for the organising committee to remain apolitical,” he says. “The question of independence is not Glasgow 2014’s to answer – it is for the people of Scotland to have that conversation. What’s important for us is to deliver a games with reflective of the greatness of Glasgow, the greatness of Scotland and the greatness of the Commonwealth.”
How to capture this “greatness” in an opening ceremony is Glasgow 2014’s biggest artistic challenge. The London opening ceremony succeeded largely because it shied away from stereotypes of pomp and imperialism and presented a quirkier, yet still recognisable, view of what it means to be British, focusing on assets such as the industrial revolution, the NHS and children’s literature. Will Glasgow 2014 try to emulate this approach, eschewing the shortbread and bagpipes image? Or would stripping away all the obvious Scottish references, leave it lacking any tangible identity?
Grevemberg is admamant that, whether or not a Boyle-type figure is appointed, the emphasis will be on ordinary people. “At the Delhi handover ceremony our cast involved volunteers from the 32 local authorities. We delivered a contemporary, yet historical and mainstream view of Scotland which was respected here at home, but also engaged other people’s familiarity with Scottishness. It’s important to strike a balance between all those different parts,” he says.
Certainly, as is entirely fitting for a city which has always recognised the role art and sport play in people’s lives, the community involvement lies at the heart of Glasgow 2014’s vision. The Games tartan was designed by 15-year-old pupil Aamir Mehmood and unveiled at a ceremony in Shawlands Academy, while the mascot, to be unveiled on September 20, is also the product of a schools’ competition.
Grevemberg says the community projects in place at the venues will continue long after the event is over, ensuring a legacy, which has often been lacking in other games. “There’s a real ownership there. The venues belong to the people of Glasgow and the people of Scotland. I think this is a great opportunity for us to share how culture and sport can be used as a transformative force, as a force for social and communal cohesion.”
That Grevemberg truly believes in the power of sport to change lives is beyond doubt. Indeed, the point at which he becomes most animated is when I ask him how being a former athlete helps him deliver a better games. “I have to honestly say, sport gives you a real sense of direction and purpose, it teaches you how to succeed; it teaches you how to fail and give up and start over; it gives us the opportunity or permission to ‘dare greatly,’ ” he says. The phrase “dare greatly” – taken from Thoedore Roosevelt’s speech Citizenship in a Republic in which he praises “the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood” – is a direct rallying call to the people of Scotland to take part, not sit on the sidelines and carp. The question now is whether they rise to that challenge. «
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Sunday 19 May 2013
Temperature: 9 C to 16 C
Wind Speed: 7 mph
Wind direction: North east
Temperature: 9 C to 20 C
Wind Speed: 8 mph
Wind direction: North