Simon Kelner: Should tax breaks be bolted on to an Olympic deal?


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The Independent Online

I know it's only a week away, and I know that all around us are the signs that the Olympics are coming, but after such a prolonged, over-wrought build-up, it seems almost hard to believe that soon our attention will be diverted from official incompetence towards athletic excellence.

At which point, those of us who are, at best, equivocal about the arrival of the world's biggest corporate sporting circus in town would do well to keep schtum. However, there's still time for me to draw your attention to a largely unreported aspect of London 2012 that may interest you. Here's a question for you: What do the Cayman Islands have in common with Stratford, east London? No, it's not the beaches, climate or stars who have houses there. It's the fact that they are both tax havens. During July and August, any internationally-domiciled company or individual will not be taxed on their Olympic earnings. So, whether it's Visa, who have a monopoly on ticketing arrangements, or Usain Bolt, inset, who will trouser a fortune if he wins the 100 metres, the Exchequer won't see a penny of it. It is part of the price, I'm afraid, of winning the right to host the Olympics. The IOC insist on these tax breaks, and without them they'd just take the Games to another city. Haven't we heard a similar story before? Oh yes, haven't the bankers always said that unless we continue to have virtually no regulation in the City of London, the big financial institutions will just up sticks and go elsewhere. Some would call it a quid pro quo – the Olympics have brought jobs and a cash boost and the City creates a significant amount of employment.

Others might call it blackmail. A campaign has been pursued by the pressure group 38 Degrees against the Olympic tax breaks and they have already achieved a notable success. McDonald's, fresh from the bad publicity surrounding Chip-gate, has waived its rights to the tax holiday. It's not a huge sacrifice – it says revenue from sales of the Games will constitute only 0.1 per cent of its annual UK sales – but it is important in that it puts the pressure on other corporate sponsors to do the same (Coca-Cola has since followed suit). A report from Ethical Consumer estimates that the total sum lost to the Exchequer by these exemptions is £600m, a not inconsiderable amount and something to offset the £11bn cost of staging the Games. Of course, without the millions pumped in by sponsors, this great sporting jamboree probably couldn't take place and certainly not on the scale we will see.

I find it hard to get behind the Olympics at this stage: all I see is travel disruption, an official gravy train and vast amounts of money disappearing into a corporate hell hole. I am sure that when the world's best athletes start running and cycling, throwing and rowing, diving and jumping, and, especially, playing table tennis, I'll feel differently. And – who knows? – it may even be sunny then.