Hurdles ahead as Blair backs bid for London Olympics

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In its heyday the owners of the London Stadium liked to boast it was the finest greyhound track in the world.

Derelict for eight years since an ill-fated scheme to open a nightclub on the site collapsed, it is now an ugly sight on an unprepossessing arterial road in the East End.

The grandstand's smashed windows look out on to a track littered with wooden pallets, traffic cones and a builder's skip. The clock on the results board has long since stopped ticking.

But this is the site which will host the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympic Games as well as the starring track and field events – if Tony Blair has his way.

After months of dither, the Government yesterday finally confirmed that Britain will bid to host the Games for the first time since 1948. The Government's last grand project, the Millennium Dome, ended in ignominy for the Prime Minister personally and in little credit for anyone else associated with it.

If Britain does win out against Olympic bids from such credible rivals as New York and Paris, the success or failure of the huge logistical operation to put on the greatest event in the world will lie with Mr Blair's successors in Downing Street nine years from now.

Yesterday in inner-city Hackney, the state of the London Stadium revealed the scale of the transformation necessary if Britain is to host a Games.

From his business opposite the stadium, Steve Zealander, managing director of Plaistow Auctions, was scathing of the work needed. "This place is a total mess," he said. "It is where people come to ditch their cars. I reckon you get a murder around here once a week."

Eight miles away in Westminster, Tessa Jowell, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, was resolute that Britain would mount the best bid. An upbeat Ms Jowell told MPs: "We're absolutely determined to do everything we can to win."

Mr Blair said: "The time is right to bring the Olympic Games to the UK. We have always been strong supporters of the Olympic movement as one of only three countries to send teams to every modern summer and winter games. Yet we have not hosted the Games in over 50 years."

But behind the rhetoric, the champions of the bid know they face a formidable task in winning the support of both the public and the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which will make a decision in two years' time.

The financial agreements underpinning London's bid have been giving civil servants in Whitehall and the Greater London Authority sleepless nights. The Government has negotiated a £2.375bn funding package with Ken Livingstone, Mayor of London, towards the estimated £4bn total cost of the Games. The balance would come from the IOC, which gives the winning city the £1bn from television rights, and commercial sponsorship.

With the aim of raising £1.5bn from the Lottery, including a special Olympic flutter, ministers are pinning their hopes on the continuing popularity of the game.

Mr Livingstone also plans to levy an average £20-a-year precept on Londoners' council tax for up to 25 years. Yesterday he characterised that as 38p a week – but a total charge to the average family of £500 could prove a far less palatable figure if Londoners turn against the project.

But the biggest hurdle in the race for the Games could prove the creaking transport system that will be asked to carry 150,000 spectators daily between events. Ms Jowell insisted yesterday that transport improvements were being planned. A new road bridge linking east and south-east London, improvements to the Jubilee and Central lines and the Channel Tunnel rail link between St Pancras, east London, Ashford and France should all be ready by 2012. Stratford station, through which most spectators will pass, will be expanded.

However, Ms Jowell confirmed yesterday there was no prospect of the Crossrail line, linking the east and west of the capital, being built on time. Moreover, the other projects aimed at easing east London's transport problems are all vulnerable to planning delays and environmental objections.

One could be forgiven for wondering whether the Government can really sort out the problems given the length of time before London's bid was given the go-ahead.

Ministers had set themselves four tests before deciding to give the green light. They believe they have satisfied the first, on the affordability of the bid, by working on pessimistic figures that have enough slack for an overrun of more than £1.1bn.

The next, whether London could deliver a high-quality, competitive bid, was subjected to a report by the engineering consultancy Arup.

On the third, the lasting legacy of a bid, the Government pointed to the benefits from hosting the Games to tourism, the East End's economy, the regeneration of some of the poorest areas in Britain and the conversion of the Olympic village into 4,000 homes.

The fourth – the winnability of a bid – was more problematical for the Government and the British Olympic Association. Yesterday Mr Livingstone named Paris and Madrid as London's main rivals and refused to put the capital's chances at more than one in three. Ms Jowell was recently more pessimistic, telling MPs she calculated them at one in four.

Even if London does win the battle to host the 49th Olympiad, the residents of Hackney Wick are sceptical whether they will benefit from hosting the jamboree. From her high-rise home in the rundown Carpenters estate, Janiz Leigh Murray had more ordinary worries: "If we are to have to deal with all the tourists coming through then we should get something in return. These buildings have terrible problems with leaking roofs so I don't see why we shouldn't benefit from the money that would come into the area by an investment into our homes."

OLYMPIC RIVALS

PARIS

With the Games likely to go to Europe in 2012, Paris would appear to be London's main rival if, as expected, it announces its candidature next week in pursuit of its first Olympics since 1924. Paris successfully hosted the 1998 World Cup finals and will stage this year's World Athletics Championships. Existing sporting facilities and transport infrastructure are excellent, but problems over a site for the athletes' village would remain.

MADRID

One of the few major European capitals never to have hosted the Games, the city has a good transport network and plentiful accommodation, and plans to invest £400-600m in sporting facilities. But Spain hosted the Games at Barcelona in 1992.

NEW YORK

The 11 September terrorist attack makes it the sentimental choice, but there is much bad feeling towards the United States within the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the legacy of the corruption scandal that accompanied Salt Lake City's securing of last year's Winter Olympics. Security issues are also likely to be a concern.

MOSCOW

The Russian capital, where the 1980 Olympics were held despite a US boycott over the Afghanistan war, announced its intention to bid for the 2012 Games while hosting the IOC meeting that determined the 2008 renewal would go to Beijing. No further details or commitments have been forthcoming since then.

THE REST

Leipzig, Germany's nomination, is unlikely to carry the necessary cachet. Havana has also announced that it will bid. A Brazilian city might be prepared to enter the frame.

Mike Rowbottom

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