At the closing banquet of the Olympic Games of 1908 in London, the Rev Robert de Courcy Laffan, British IOC member, declared: “Gentlemen, you are at the beginning of one of those world movements which is going to develop long after we have departed. You have seen the start of something of which no one can foretell the ultimate outcome”. Over the next 104 years the outcome has been monumentally totemic.
Following London, IOC revenue for the next four Olympic Games (2014-2020) will be $4.8 billion from NBC Television alone. Net global IOC income in the four years 2013-2016, embracing Sochi and Rio, will for the first time exceed $8bn. Despite the current chaos of security mismanagement, together with accusations of overspending, will London 2012 have been worth the effort, having spent over £9 bn?
My answer, as a writer covering his 22nd Games, summer and winter, is unequivocally positive. Though sport can be said to be trivial in the sum of our lives, Olympic success, individual or collective, provides social, cultural and sometimes racial landmarks in history.
Though Scotland competes within Britain’s team (as someone with Scottish-born relatives, I support that political arrangement!) the medal-winning deeds down the years of Eric Liddell (gold and bronze 1924), Allan Wells (gold 1980), Liz McColgan and Yvonne Murray (silver and bronze respectively 1988), and Sir Chris Hoy (silver 2000, gold 2004 and 2008) have lifted the Celtic spirit.
For all the many criticisms regularly poured on the IOC and the Games, at their heart lies the Greek heritage of mankind’s inner nobility. The pursuit of physical and mental excellence beyond national boundaries, as witnessed with, say, Carl Lewis or Steve Redgrave.
When Kelly Holmes, from a background of recurrent injury, rose at the twilight of her international career to win double middle-distance gold in 2004, admiration was global.
Over the next two weeks in London, there will be those who emulate Holmes’ triumph. Michael Phelps in the pool may extend his phenomenal range.
The Olympics expand opportunity and emotions in many ways, as demonstrated by Lopez Lomong in Beijing. An orphan in Sudan entrapped in the civil war, he escaped to Kenya, ran several miles as a boy to watch television from the Games in Sydney, and was mesmerised by the vision of 400 metre champion Michael Johnson. Adopted, through a missionary scheme, by an American family, he became an athlete himself and was selected by his peers to carry the US flag at the opening ceremony.
When Mark Foster, Britain’s most accomplished swimmer before Rebecca Adlington – with four world titles and records – carried our flag in Beijing, for his mother, it was an even greater moment of personal pride. Celebration for climbing from obscurity awaits Mo Farah, impoverished immigrant from Somalia aged eight, if he can win the 5,000 metres in a British vest on 11 August.
What above all distinguishes the Olympic Games from other sporting championships is universality, the inclusion of lesser nations along with the great. As Alex Gilady, IOC member from Israel, proclaims: “While there may be 70 countries who win medals, the other 130 are looking forward to the Opening Ceremony to show the world, for maybe 15 or 20 seconds on television, that they exist. ‘This is who we are’.”
There are winners as unexpected as was Wells (admittedly in the absence of boycotting Americans). In 1988 at Seoul, Anthony Nesty’s butterfly gold – ahead of multiple US medallist Matt Biondi – broke three records: the first gold for former Dutch colony Surinam; the first by a black swimmer; an Olympic time of 53 seconds.
Equally euphoric in 2004 was Voula Patoulidou, winning Greece’s first gold for 70 years in the 110 metres hurdles. Because of the esteem in which the Games are held, they have significantly contributed to racial emancipation. Tommie Smith, whose iconic protest in 1968 with John Carlos on the medal podium outraged distorted US and IOC morality, is in London to join acclaim for the expected continuing dominance of Afro-Caribbeans in the wake of decades of champion US sprinters.
This train of emancipation via the symbolic platform of Olympic triumph has stretched from Indian-American Jim Thorpe (decathlon 1912), through Jesse Owens (sprints 1936), Muhammad Ali (boxing 1960), Billy Mills (10K 1964), Josiah Thugwane (marathon 1966) and Australian Aborigine Cathy Freeman (400 metres 2000).
The Torch Relays progress across Britain – not yet fully racially integrated – has demonstrated how hosting a Games can embrace an entire population, young and old. Over six million will have thronged the streets of towns big and small by 27 July. I was fortunate to be granted a “leg” but, as an arthritic veteran, opted to donate the opportunity to a local Norfolk school, who selected, by essay competition, a 12-year-old regional champion girl gymnast. Her happy experience of sharing public enthusiasm on a crowded provincial street epitomised the national mood. Michael Payne, former IOC director of marketing, points out that the ticket sell-out in 23 of 26 sports “is unprecedented success, never achieved before”. The British love sport.
Of course there are doom-sayers, condemning the public expenditure. “If you want to play games, pay for them yourselves,” writes a prominent political commentator. Yet 90 per cent of Games construction contracts have gone to British companies and 75 per cent of the gross budget on regeneration of east London. The security chaos, an acknowledged blunder, which will be resolved by military/police intervention must lead to later legal recriminations.
Yet there remains the prospect of London’s intended legacy – provided the main stadium inheritance is satisfactorily delivered – withstanding any retrospective economic assessment.
Critics of Games expenditure should recall the comment of Peter Coni QC, then chairman of Henley Royal Regatta and treasurer of International Rowing, when IOC commercialism was under fire in 1992. “FISA, (the international federation) is carrying out an extensive programme to help developing countries expand rowing, and is only able to do so because of the funding it receives from the IOC. Sixty per cent of our annual income comes either from a share of television income at the Games, or from Olympic Solidarity, the IOC’s other commercial (sponsorship) income. Without this world rowing would simply be an administrative body meeting once a year. . . to elect committees.”
Today, 95 per cent of IOC income is still reinvested in sport.
I hope that in British media coverage we will bypass xenophobic self-interest, and acclaim the peaks of foreign stars, as we did in 1948 when Fanny Blankers-Koen and Emil Zatopek were revelations in a new era. Mothers aged 30 just didn’t run and jump then. Of course all nations seek domestic reward, yet the obsessive ambition exhibited by normally modest, hospitable Canada at the Winter Games in Vancouver, with their “Own the Podium” slogan, was the antithesis of the Olympic spirit.
The motto of the Olympic Games stresses not winning but the honour of taking part, of generosity between opponents. Sport has to be kept in perspective. Johann Olav Koss (Norway) and Joey Cheek (US), respective speed-skating gold medal winners in 1994 and 2006, donated their bonus earnings to charity. As Cheek said: “I skate round the ice in tights. It is not that big a deal.”