Olympics: London's bid for Olympics is elaborate smokescreen

Barbara Cassani handed over command of London's Olympic bid to Lord Coe with some grace and considerable humility but what she could not do was explain the inexplicable. Why was she appointed in the first place?

It was partly out of ignorance of the way an organisation of self-perpetuating princelings like the International Olympic Committee operates, but more significantly because of something fundamentally flawed in the British approach to the competitive demands of international sport.

Here sport is relegated to the playpen of life when it is not supported by the vast commercial potential of, for example, the Premiership - or a successful Olympic bid. Whenever it does manage to come bawling into the mainstream and occasionally provide a massive lift to national morale, as England's rugby union team did last November, a big parade and a reception at Downing Street can be quickly arranged.

Meanwhile, volunteers who are passionate about sport can get on with the job of competing on utterly uneven playing fields - rather as nurses, gripped by a vocation, are supposed to subsidise other more basic areas of the nation's health. That a woman of impressive commercial background but not a clue about the history and imperatives of Olympic sport could reasonably be expected to deliver the monster prize - or burden, take your pick - of organising a modern Games was more than optimistic.

It was scandalously contemptuous of the demands of the job, and it was to Cassani's credit that she eventually recognised that. Before this, the fact that apparently there was nowhere to be found a native-born inhabitant of London or England capable of heading the bid, thus demanding the appointment of an American famous chiefly for making big profits out of low-cost airline seats, was just another aspect of an extremely costly disaster waiting to happen.

Can Seb Coe, a legendary Olympian and a practised politician, pull it off? Can he haul back the ground necessary after the IOC's quite withering conclusions on important aspects of the London bid? Maybe, maybe not, but at the very least he will know where to make his case and his cajolings. He will not be spinning his wheels in the strange, esoteric world of ego and long-established privilege found by Cassani.

There is another, more important question, however. Can Coe's campaign, however skilfully managed, really commend itself to the city and the nation? Should we, as he urges, believe that this is a project that deserves our unqualified support?

It is extremely hard to respond to these blandishments. Pride in London and the country has nothing to do with it. It should not be a question of my country or my city right or wrong. The real hope should be that London, as the nation's capital, becomes a city self-evidently worthy of staging the Olympics; that in sport it has paid a few dues.

In the meantime, there is a terrible sense of being taken on a futile ride, as we were on England's pathetic and dishonourable pursuit of the 2008 World Cup. There are two supremely relevant questions. Is the city which so regularly inflicts misery on its inhabitants, whose transport system is a parody of intelligent planning, up to the job of absorbing the vast influx of visitors? That plainly is London's Achilles' heel, but the other question leads to an even more damning answer. Is London's, and by extension Britain's, Olympic bid an integral part of a coherent commitment to sport as an important part of national life - or is it an opportunistic stab, a smoke-and-mirrors job which attempts to gloss over appalling deficiencies in our provision of decent facilities for young people?

It is impossible to escape the latter conclusion. We are a nation which pours concrete on school playing fields, one whose government leaps to congratulate itself on doling out some lottery money to our gold medallists at Sydney, then disappears over the horizon again at the first pleadings for consistent support for élite athletes and proper training facilities.

Paris is a strong favourite on both practical and moral grounds. Like every French town, it has excellent sports facilities. Six years ago France organised superbly the World Cup. Attending that event, all across the country, from Lille to Montpelier and Marseille, was - apart from the ravages inflicted by English fans in Marseille - always a privilege.

When a sports minister is appointed in France an intimate knowledge and feeling for the value of the assignment is not a bonus but a requirement. It is not an after-thought, as in the case of Coe's 11th-hour elevation. Sports ministers in France tend to have played sport, one of them, Guy Drut, winning Olympic gold in Montreal. They would not be ambushed, like Britain's current incumbent, by some elementary questions on a radio talk show.

No doubt Coe will run vigorously. He will beat the drum with some style. But then you think of the wasteland of so much of British sport. You think of the scabrous public tennis courts, the inadequate swimming pools, the scanty track facilities, the obliterated school fields, and you wonder quite how much skill Coe will require in making his drum sound anything but hollow.

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