GB holding camp: These Games are the biggest gamble sport will ever face
Worries over betting syndicates, drug cheats and rings of security – but little sense of fun
Sunday 03 August 2008
Gambling is seen as almost as much of a threat to the Beijing Olympics as drugs and demonstrations by an International Olympic Committee deeply concerned that betting gangs, so active in this part of the world, may try to manipulate certain results in the Games, as they have in sports such as cricket, football and tennis.
Officially, all bets are off when the Games begin on Friday, which makes it ironic that much of Britain's final countdown to the most lavish sporting event ever witnessed is being undertaken in the Orient's answer to Las Vegas. Macau is a round-the-clock gambling resort just a hop, step and jump across the China Sea from Hong Kong. Once a Portuguese-run playground of the rich and infamous, it is now, like Hong Kong, back in Chinese hands, but the hands which matter are those which spin the roulette wheels and deal cards at blackjack tables.
As it happens, gambling is very much a relevant theme for these Games. Britain are gambling that they can achieve the target set by the Government-backed funding body UK Sport of an eighth-place finish, with 35 medals including a dozen gold. This would be the best result since 1920 and justify the £235 million invested in preparations over the past four years.
These have culminated in the £1m it has cost the British Olympic Association to set up a base in Macau, where 15 sports are utilising state-of-the-art facilities paid for from casino profits. The likelihood is that the Brits can win most of their medals by simply not getting off their backsides – on bikes, in boats and on horseback.
Even the British Government are gambling that a golden windfall in Beijing will divert concerns about just how much it will eventually cost to put on even half as good a show four years hence, with China having already spent more than double London's £9.3bn budget on theirs without even a raised eyebrow.
Not that the Chinese aren't gambling too. Currently their biggest gamble is whetherthe cloying pollution which threatens to relabel these the Smog Games can be lifted to let everyone breathe easily.
As for the IOC, they will be gambling that there will not be a major drugs bust à la Ben Johnson that will further tarnish the ideals of Baron de Coubertin and leave more lips curled in cynicism. And there will be a starting line-up of potential cheats gambling that they will not get caught under the stringent new blanket testing system.
But at least the Macau-based British contingent are not actually gambling. Their beautiful beach resort is 15 minutes away from the neon-lit nightlife and myriad casino hotels – one of which has a Venetian-style canal running through it and a packed gaming floor the size of three football pitches. A boot camp it isn't, but perhaps a luxurious touch of R & R might give the assorted gymnasts, boxers, hockey players and athletes a psychological lift as they put the finishing touches to their training before flying three hours north to Beijing.
Paula Radcliffe arrives to join them today with the odds seemingly stacked against her race against time to get fit. For the rest it has been a valuable opportunity to overcome the seven-hour time difference, to alleviate the odd ache and pain and get in shape. "When we get to Beijing we'll be fired up and ready to go," says boxing hope Frankie Gavin, one of the weight-watchers whose eyes have been more on the salad bowl than dim sum.
When they arrive in Beijing they will encounter three separate rings of security surrounding Olympic City. Those of us covering the Games know the Chinese authorities will be watching every move we make and reading every word we write.
Photographers snapping any unauthorised demos and journalists attempting to tap into banned websites will risk being arrested for an offence described as "disturbing social order", the penalty for which is a year in a labour camp for "re-education" without even a court hearing. Human rights? Even many IOC members privately admit they have gambled and lost on that issue. The Games slogan is One World, One Dream, but come 25 August the probability is that China will still be living in a world of its own and will have achieved its dream of winning more medals than any other nation.
You don't need to be pulling a slot machine here to appreciate that Beijing 2008 is the biggest gamble sport will face. These Games will be the most expansive, expensive, extravagant and surely the most politically vexed of the 11 that I have attended. They will also be successful. Just don't bet on them being fun.
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