On reflection, Faster, Higher, Stronger is just as prescient a motto for an Olympian as it is for a Tomahawk missile, so perhaps this column shouldn’t have been so surprised when it was invited to an update on Team GB’s Rio medal prospects at the headquarters of Britain’s largest exporter of industrialised misery and destruction, BAE Systems.
There on the screen, all PowerPointed up as we sat and listened, were the splashing swimmers, the whooshing cyclists, the whirling taekwonders. And there, on the walls, were soldiers in khaki under the desert sun, loading impossibly large shells into two-storey-high cannons, ready to rain down death.
Most widely known for various historic controversies over landmines, cluster bombs and for kitting out the Saudi Arabian regime with whatever brutal instruments it might require, BAE has in fact had an ongoing deal with UK Sport – the body that decides which sports are worth going for gold in, and doles out the cash accordingly – since long before London 2012.
There is, it seems, a considerable overlap in technological expertise between slapping down pro-democracy protest in Bahrain and skeleton bobsledding. One requires BAE-designed tanks, the other a BAE-designed sled.
The UK Sport partnership, it was made clear, is a crucial part of the business. “I can’t think of anything more inspiring. We use it to promote careers,” BAE’s Kelvin Davies, who is in charge of it, excitedly explained. “We take our sporting events into schools, to show young kids what careers to choose.”
Then he pressed play on a little video of bright young graduates, all gainfully employed by an international arms exporter, talking of how amazing it is to “look at the pictures on the television, and know that I was part of that”.
The sheer brass neck of it is almost to be admired. There is much truth to the argument that mega sporting events like the Olympics, and the World Cup too, have been mutated and exploited to such a degree that their primary function is to serve as a taxpayer-funded advert for the world’s biggest brands.
The people, be they Brazilian, Russian or British (Qatar’s a special case), pay out for the vast stadiums, then the corporations come along, stump up a tiny fraction of the overall cost, and slather their logos all over them. Not even the athletes get paid, and not that many of them are rich.
But if Coke and McDonald’s can seriously get away with alloying themselves in the public mind with the rippling midriffs of the world’s most finely tuned human beings – and they can – why should we even be surprised if a weapons manufacturer should seek to get in on the act?
What’s disappointing is the price. When our Olympic stars are rented out as a reputation-laundering service for companies primarily interested in dreadful things, they could at least charge a bit more.
The BAE contribution adds up to a little over half a million quid a year, rather less than the $400m (£240m) fine it paid four years ago to the US Justice Department to end a series of corruption charges that had been brought against it.
And that tiny sum is payment in kind, not cash, mainly through letting the Paralympic wheelchair racers have a little go in BAE’s wind tunnel in Lancashire. In return comes a cheery sales pitch for students, full of smiley skeleton bobsledders instead of screeching fighter jets and pillars of smoke rising into the sky above obliterated Middle Eastern cities. That’s worth its weight in gold medals.
In the meantime – this column was breezily told – BAE continues to work on projects with potential implications for sport, like drones with onboard 3D printers, and self-healing aircraft wings. The undroppable relay baton didn’t get a mention. We can but dream.
It’s easy to laugh, but it is possible there’s a deeper logic to it. It is boom time for para-sports at the moment, primarily thanks to London 2012, but the crucial role of the international arms trade should not be underestimated. Yes, world peace would be great, but for amputee sport potentially fatal.
As the last British company to stop producing landmines, BAE’s main contribution to the Paralympics is probably something for which it is rarely thanked – a steady stream of competitors.
German justice full value for money, as Bernie would know
It was not so long ago that wee Bernie Ecclestone waved a dismissive hand at the banks of paparazzi outside London’s High Court and stepped bravely into the comparative safety of its revolving door, only inexplicably to remain revolving inside it through a full 360-degree rotation and then re-emerge on the pavement outside, back in front of the now confounded photographers.
It’s possible then that he also did not see coming the suggestion that to pay £60m to a German court to have bribery charges against you dropped might, to the casual observer, bear a quite strong resemblance to bribery. With a 10-year jail term a possibility, one reading is the man with an estimated £4bn fortune has got off rather lightly, but not he. “I’m a bit of an idiot for paying it,” he said of the largest such settlement in German judicial history, and walked away neither guilty nor innocent.
This, by the way, from a man who, friends tell this column, seethes with rage over his socialite daughters’ monstrously extravagant spending habits (financed by their mother) and “would argue over the price of a pint of milk”. When it comes to money, an idiot he is not.