London bid should win medal for dishonesty

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The Independent Online

It's a surefire way of becoming a pariah in the eyes of the hugely expanding, and, quite frankly, disquieting coalition of politicians, lobbyists and their willing lackeys in the media who this week have been so feverishly banging the drum for a London Olympics. However, it just has to be said: Paris is right to sneer at what the French call so dismissively "the virtual bid".

It's a surefire way of becoming a pariah in the eyes of the hugely expanding, and, quite frankly, disquieting coalition of politicians, lobbyists and their willing lackeys in the media who this week have been so feverishly banging the drum for a London Olympics. However, it just has to be said: Paris is right to sneer at what the French call so dismissively "the virtual bid".

Really, when you consider for a moment the scandalous neglect of British sport and the aspirations of young people over the decades, the appalling statistics of lost school fields and plummeting physical education, the rocketing ascent of English kids up the world obesity league, the fiasco of Picketts Lock and Wembley stadium, and the nightmare of travelling around the capital, how else can it be described?

Naturally the Culture Secretary, Tessa Jowell, gave it a try, declaring: "When you have a chance to bid for the Olympics, what you have to do is stick your chest out, get your chin up and say, 'We believe in this, we believe in our capacity to do it, and do it better than anyone else'. I think natural British diffidence can sometimes be mistaken for a lack of passion."

In this case, maybe past massive indifference and a total failure to understand the importance of sport in the life of a nation might just also have something to do with it.

What is so enraging, at least in this quarter, about the sudden "passion" of the Jowell brigade is that it springs from a void. She scales a dizzying peak of disingenuousness when deflecting criticism of the deeply humiliating need of Britain to withdraw as hosts of the World Athletics Championships - a traditional trial run for successful Olympic bidders - after the International Association of Athletic Federations contemptuously rejected an offer to put them up in Sheffield because the proposed Picketts Lock stadium in London was turned down by the Government.

Says Jowell, "Then the relationship with the Government was not sufficiently clear." She can say that again and again, and what now has created such a brilliant fusion of shared ambition? Could it be the political attraction of giving cake and carnival to the inhabitants of a city and a nation which some days seems congealed to the point of gridlock?

Is it unpatriotic not to support the London bid? The suggestion is not the least dishonesty of the campaign which this week presented to the visiting International Olympic Committee squad - those guys who go around the world inviting great cities to plunge themselves into hock for the honour of funding what so often turns out to be a five-ringed circus - that dazzling array of graphics which so invited French scorn.

If it is unpatriotic to wish, this side of war and survival, that your country does the right thing, that its government doesn't seek to fool both the world and its own people, well, some of us will have to join the traitors' column.

But even as we are indicted, certain truths will not go away. One of them - ask anyone who attended Twickenham any time up to last weekend - is that attending sports events in this country, like trying to get to and from work if you happen to live in the putative host Olympic city, is often an ordeal of grime, danger and mind-numbing time.

The number of Olympic-class facilities here still runs hopelessly behind European rivals like France and Italy and some Third World countries. This spring, for a fifth year, England's most romantic sports event, the FA Cup, will have to be staged not only outside London but outside the country, to the immense inconvenience of all those who have to stutter up and down the M4. The sports minister even failed a simple quiz presented to him by a radio show in his first days of office.

Yet Jowell exhorts us to stick out our chests and lift up our chins. Surely not on the basis of our ability to create a decent sports infrastructure and to promote ourselves as natural hosts of the Olympic monster?

How do we slide easily away from the shame of taking more than a decade to organise and complete the rebuilding of Wembley, one of the most famous stadiums in the world? Paris, making a mockery of British sceptics, threw up the beautiful Stade de France in a fraction of the time.

Of course, Britain has an enviable list of Olympic heroes, and the spirit of competition, the natural instinct to beat the world, has most recently been shown again by the doughty Dame Ellen MacArthur. But as great sporting figures paraded for the benefit of the IOC inspectors this week, a stark truth could not be denied. Audley Harrison, who won Olympic gold for Britain in Sydney, said it well in the afterglow of his triumph. "Yes, British athletes have benefited this time from Lottery money, but no one should run away with the idea that future success is assured. That won't come until we have a proper sports infrastructure in our country."

The London mascot should be Marie Antoinette, who is once supposed to have said that the peasants of France could eat cake. That's what is offered to hard-pressed Londoners, who in any street poll would back up the Queen's opinion that this is a campaign without genuine public approval in the place that matters most. Of course, the French peasants came of age. Those who enjoy sport have every facility to do so, and if they fancy a little cake, they can enjoy it on the terrace of a Left Bank café and be strolling into the Stade de France in half an hour after a ride on a clean and perfectly run Metro line.

Some day, it goes without saying, it would be great to see a London Olympics, but in a city which works and is blessed by a government which has given some little clue that it cares about sport, or anything else, nearly as much as leaping at the main chance.

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