Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Olympics seem more about honouring sponsors than athletes


All last week I was a panellist on The Wright Stuff on Channel 5, a daily morning programme a full two hours long. Its presenter Matthew Wright engages the common man and woman, harvesting and challenging their opinions and feelings about life, culture and politics. The viewers, sharp, sensitive, smart, come from sectors of society largely disregarded by the elite.

On Wednesday, Mr Wright asked why the London Olympics weren't firing up really big excitement across Britain. Why were people were less upbeat than during the Jubilee? Where were our nation's fluttering flags? Was it celebration fatigue? The recession? Just native grumpiness? The phone lines were set alight, emails and tweets arrived as thick as rush hour traffic.

One consensus to emerge was that the Games didn't feel truly, deeply, crazily British. The Jubilee, for them, was all that and more, an affirmation of their history and identity. I thought it perverse that they should celebrate a bunch of privileged freeloaders born to lord it over them, but not a festival of superhuman excellence achieved through ambition and skill.

But as more responses came in the real reasons became clearer. They were proud that sports heroes were going to be showcased in Britain, but hated the oppressive logos of the big corporate sponsors, the biggest and brashest of them Americans. Most of us panellists agreed.

Our island seems to be subcontracted to the US for the Olympics, without our consent, not good in a democracy. Welcome to the Coca-Cola and McDonald's Olympics – those legendary purveyors of healthy food and drink. Resistance to them is surely a patriotic duty. One thing we could all do is refuse to drink Coke or eat Ronnie's burgers and avoid buying the stuff of other backers until after the Games. But best check. Maybe such boycotts would be a crime in today's sell-out Britain.

Somewhere near Queensway in London on Saturday night we saw a fabric shop window with a gorgeous display using the Olympic symbol of the five rings. I won't tell you where because the "brand enforcers" will dash over and shred the hanging mobile. As this paper reported florists have been forced to remove arrangements rejoicing in the games, cafés ordered not to refer to the torch or arrange bagels in seditious ways to replicate the official circles, and other shops obliged to remove even the smallest, sweetest symbol of the fact that their country is hosting the Games and they are proud.

One email I had from an East Ender said the jackboots were even in the street markets looking for rebels to catch and fine. Even Michael Payne, the man responsible for Olympic business partnerships, says control has gone too far. Yet Seb Coe is cool about it all and told Evan Davies on Radio 4 that those attending events would not be allowed to wear T-shirts of rival brand names, as if that was just fine and no big deal. It is cheek and crypto-Stalinism and the people don't like it one bit.

Now to be fair, I think Coe and Boris have done brilliantly to build the stadium on time and within budget, with all the incredibly complicated planning that goes into such events. Danny Boyle for the opening was an inspired choice and the Cultural Olympiad is truly inclusive and magnificent. I have never knowingly praised Boris before, can't stand his politics, manipulative charm, kinship with big money and adventures with women. His dad Stan once told me off for being relentlessly critical of his terrific son.

Today though I do salute Boris's verve and audacity, his style and infectious enthusiasm which have no doubt lifted the Games even before they take off. London is the metropolis of the world, brighter and buzzier than New York, Mumbai, Paris or any other capital. It will be illuminated in all its glory over the coming weeks, God willing. And pray there are no bombs and riots to ruin those hopes.

But I still say, for many Brits the Games feel wrong, alien, representing corporate power over the most wholesome endeavours of humanity. And here Boris et al are to blame, absolutely. Only a fool would say the modern games don't need big bucks and big names. Athletes rent out their chests and backs and heads to brands. Official sponsors were determined, possibly desperate, to get their names up during the Olympics.

The 2012 organisers didn't have to be willing harlots. They could have bargained, set their own limits, made space for British small businesses and innovative local schemes, played one lot off against the other, and not accepted the conditions imposed by partners. But then Boris can never say no to billionaire business opportunities.

They take our cash and now the Games have been taken from us and London has been too. Maybe next the medals should have sponsors' logos on them. That would end the sham that these Games still simply honour physical endurance and skill, the body and spirit.