London Olympics 2012: Running rings around Scots

Scotland paid in full for the 2012 Olympics but will gain little, argues Richard Bath

Scotland paid in full for the 2012 Olympics but will gain little, argues Richard Bath

THE net cost to Scotland of staging the £9.3 billion London Olympics next summer will be many tens of millions, yet when Glasgow stages the 2014 Commonwealth Games, the full £300 million cost will be picked up by Scotland’s taxpayers, not England’s. Fair? Hardly. Iniquitous? Quite possibly.

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That story is at the core of the larger political narrative about the 2012 Olympics north of the Border, yet it is just one of a dripfeed of issues which have helped to raise questions about Scotland’s relationship with the Games. The latest came earlier this week when a proposal for an eight-foot high Olympic rings logo to be hung on the walls of Edinburgh Castle was condemned as crass by the Cockburn Association.

There have been several flashpoints over the Olympic project since that dramatic day in Singapore in July 2005 when Seb Coe and his star-studded bid team unexpectedly pipped Paris to the main prize in the International Olympic Committee vote. During the bidding process that preceded that announcement, Coe was at pains to point out the need for national unity within the UK, yet with his Scottish critics arguing that the promised quid pro quo has simply failed to materialise, the sniping between London and Edinburgh continues.

A lack of Olympic contracts for Scottish companies, a £150m decline in the amount of lottery funding for Scottish grass-roots causes, the lack of legacy projects for Scotland, the lack of events in Scotland and the potential damage to Scotland’s tourist industry – all have played their part in a perception among some at Holyrood that Scotland is not getting the full bang for its buck out of a scheme that began life as Tony Blair’s vanity project.

One such commentator is Dennis Canavan, the former MSP who was convener of Holyrood’s cross-party sports group at the time of the Olympic bid. “There is ample evidence that Scotland is not getting its fair share,” he says. “Whether it’s the decrease in lottery money going to voluntary institutions or lack of contracts for Scottish businesses, what we are effectively seeing is money being transferred to London to Scotland’s disadvantage.

“At the time of the Olympics bid, as the convener of the all-party sports group I hosted an event for Seb Coe at the Scottish Parliament at which he explained a lot of the benefits that he said would come to Scotland. But the spin-offs that he promised simply haven’t been delivered. The outlook is not completely negative by any means, and I think it’ll be a great Games, but there’s a perception building that Scotland is being hard done by, and that needs to be addressed.”

Canavan believes that when the Games start, the whole of the UK will get behind the event in general and Team GB – which is likely to include 40-45 Scots athletes – in particular. Yet he is uncomfortably aware that, in the interim, the perception that Scotland is not getting its fair share is being seized upon by the Nationalists. He is urging the organisers to ensure Scottish businesses are seen to be in the running for any remaining contracts which can be awarded “as a matter of urgency”.

First Minister Alex Salmond’s view on the Olympics suggest that Canavan is right to fear the Nationalists are alive to the sense of the Olympics as a money-pit diverting resources from Scotland.

“They haven’t given a red cent to Glasgow, all the money for the Commonwealth Games is coming from the Scottish Government and 20 per cent from the council,” said the First Minister. “[They are] lavishing money on London regeneration at a time of recession while they are not spending the equivalent in Scotland. I don’t begrudge London regeneration money, but I do begrudge the fact the government are not prepared to do the same here or elsewhere in Scotland.”

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The most obvious issue is legacy, the Games’ buzzword. Where there were a whole host of sports that could have been held in Scotland, the decision was instead taken to stage a maximum of eight early-round women’s and men’s football matches at Hampden despite the concept of a football Team GB proving so controversial in Scotland. Demand for tickets is weak and a re-run of the 1999 Rugby World Cup, when a game at Murrayfield between world champions South Africa and Uruguay drew an embarrassingly small crowd of less than 5,000, is not an impossibility.

Whether it’s Scotstoun, Stirling University, Bellahouston Park, Murray Park or any other number of facilities, Scotland also has an incredibly well-developed sports infrastructure, yet only Namibia and Zambia – two nations with a sum total of two dozen athletes – will be using the facilities on offer. “I think the question we have all been asking is ‘what legacy’?” said Graham Bell, the spokesman for the Scottish Chambers of Commerce.

Actually, the legacy spend is 1.5 per cent of the total budget, and only a tiny percentage of that will make it over Hadrian’s Wall. Minimal just about covers that.

Incredibly, despite £150m of Scottish lottery money (including £14.11m from SportScotland) being diverted from the grassroots causes north of the Border to help fund the Olympics, Scots are barred from benefiting from an important aspect of the Games’ flagship legacy initiative. The Places People Play programme was announced with suitable pomp by London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games chairman Lord Coe last year (salary: £360,000 a year plus £1,000 for each meeting attended), and will pump £135m into sport over the next four years.

Except, because it is being handled by SportEngland and sport is a devolved issue, Scotland’s kids aren’t allowed to enter the programme’s draw for free tickets, which is restricted to England’s youngsters.

Scotland’s young people aren’t the only ones to be disappointed. Scottish business leaders have waited in vain for the deluge of contracts that were expected to result from such a huge event. Of that £9.3bn, over £5bn was due to be spent on infrastructure, all of it spent in Britain. Yet despite Scottish firms such as Letts Filofax in Dalkeith or Barr in Ayr getting in on the act, the final amount of contracts awarded to Scottish firms could be as little as 1 per cent of the total spend.

With a creeping realisation that this is London’s Games, and London’s alone, even perceived strengths of the Games for Scotland are being reassessed through a new prism. Two years ago a report from the forecasting company, Oxford Economics, said that the Games would generate an extra £2.01bn in tourist revenue for Britain, of which £1.47bn would go to London and over £500m to the rest of the UK, including Scotland. However, last week the European Tours Operators Association instead reported a 95 per cent downturn in bookings to London for July and August 2012, and predicted a serious knock-on effect for Scottish tourism given that most overseas tourists arrive via the UK capital.

These are all facts that have been answered with the blind mantra that it’s “Britain’s Games”. For the media, the reality that this is London’s Games dawned in February this year when the allocation for press passes to the event was announced. The London-based papers received an average of 18 accreditations per newspaper – the Daily Express went to war because it only had 12 press passes – while all Scotland’s newspapers got three press passes between them. Although this was extended to four on appeal when DC Thomson, the publisher’s of the Sunday Post, joined the Scotsman group, the Herald group and the Daily Record as the lucky ones to receive a single accreditation to cover the event, the disparity between the provision for English and Scottish media is breathtaking.

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“During the Olympics, readers north of the Border will inevitably have a great interest in Scottish competitors, irrespective of whether they win a gold medal or are just trying to qualify for the finals,” said John McLellan, editor-in-chief of Scotsman Publications and chairman of the editors’ committee of the Scottish Newspaper Society. “With such paltry representation, Scotland’s national newspapers won’t be able to report as well as our readers expect when it comes to Scots competitors. We won’t even be able to send a photographer to the women’s football at Hampden. The accreditation process has been opaque from the start and no-one should be fooled into thinking these are anything other than London’s games.”

There is now a belated push to back up the rhetoric about this being Britain’s Games with firm action. The route that the Olympic Flame will travel through Scotland over six days next June – along with the eight main destinations (Glasgow, Inverness, Orkney, Shetland, Isle of Lewis, Aberdeen, Dundee and Edinburgh) – was published this week, while agreements on things as small as Glasgow 2014 having access to any equipment from 2012 that is still fit for purpose is trumpeted as if it was genuinely newsworthy.

Canavan was at pains to point out how many Scots are heading to London to see the Games for themselves, also stressing that the real legacy of the Games will be the fact that Scots are inspired to exercise. Despite the late hour, he’s still talking up the possibility of Scottish companies winning contracts, something he says “simply must happen”.

Even the SNP, having made its point loud and clear, is now beginning to wind its neck in and negotiate behind-the-scenes accommodations with its English counterparts on arcane but key points over taxation, rebates and the like. Commonwealth games and sports minister Shona Robison stressed that, in the interests of harmony when it comes to 2014, “we are already doing all we can to contribute to a successful Olympic Games in 2012”.

She added: “In addition the UK government, in its Partnership Agreement last May, pledged to work with the Scottish Government to ensure the success of the Commonwealth Games. We have had constructive discussions with UK ministers to turn these aspirations into reality and we continue to make the case for a return of diverted lottery money from Scottish good causes, consequentials from regeneration funding and parity on both the income and corporation tax arrangements for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

“With less than a year to go until the Olympics and less than 1,000 days until the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, people across Scotland are looking forward to the excitement surrounding both. As the Games draw closer we will be increasing our engagement with our UK counterparts to make sure we get every benefit we can for Scotland as well as learning all we can for Glasgow in 2014.”

Yet with just nine months to go until we have lift-off in London’s East End, the scope for wrangling is almost over. Ready or not, the countdown to London’s Games is about to begin.