London 2012: How a Cabinet disagreement led to London hosting the Olympics
A Cabinet disagreement as Britain prepared to go to war against Saddam Hussein was the catalyst for a sporting festival that will live in the memory for generations. Tom Peck picks up the story
Right then, where were we? If you’ve just got back from two weeks in the Algarve, and are feeling a bit guilty about quite how much rent that Latvian gymnast’s parents have left on the coffee table, don’t. Regret, not guilt, is the emotion you’re after, a whole needling lifetime of it. You’ve missed quite the party.
‘How on earth do you follow Beijing?’ had been the question nervously whispered in Olympic corridors ever since three millennia’s worth of New Year fireworks exploded in the night sky above the Bird’s Nest stadium four years ago.
With charm, wit, warmth and ingenuity, was the emphatic answer delivered by Danny Boyle in an opening ceremony that transfixed and delighted the world, and which set a tone that would so wonderfully permeate the most anticipated fortnight any of us can remember.
These were not Usain Bolt’s games, even though he came again down the track with the speed of a thunderbolt but rolling like old man river, and emphatically into the history books.
Nor were they Michael Phelps’s, even though he won another six medals, four of them gold, to make him by some margin the most successful Olympian in history.
The Games of the XXX Olympiad will be remembered, at least by the people who paid for them, not for dazzling pyrotechnics or intergalactic superstardom, but for the modesty and grace with which our sportsmen and women have quietly but very assuredly gone about not just beating but demolishing the rest of the world.
They will be remembered for Jessica Ennis, simply smiling her disarming smile and waving from the top of the podium at the end of the most successful day in British Olympic history, having so emphatically triumphed under the most intense pressure in the most unpredictable of events.
And for Bradley Wiggins, sat on a throne outside Hampton Court Palace, gold medal round his neck, a week after bicycling down the Champs Elysees in a yellow jersey, informing us later, via Twitter: “
And for Nicola Adams mercilessly pulverising everyone in her path on the way to winning the first ever women’s boxing gold medal, then lighting up the television screen with her thousand watt smile, and declaring in a thick Yorskhire accent, “I’m going to Nando’s!”
And for Kat Copeland, as she powered over the finish line at Eton Dorney, her face an apparition of glee and disbelief, and then turning to her rowing partner Sophie Hosking and half screaming, half whispering, exhalted: “We’re going to be on the stamps!”
And for Laura Trott, diminutive, ditsy, born with a collapsed lung and now a double gold medallist and possibly the brightest star in an overwhelmingly brilliant British cycling firmament. “I can't believe this is happening, it’s so surreal,” she beamed. “I'm just a 20 year old kid. I never thought I'd win a gold medal at the same olympics as Sir Chris Hoy!”
And as for the great man himself, whose sixth gold medal made him the country’s most successful ever Olympian, he was never going to take to declare himself the greatest, as the man from Jamaica has done more than once, he just quietly said: “I shut my eyes and I lunged and drove it all the way to the line. Then I heard this massive roar, and Ihoped that it was for me.“
That roar, too, from the velodrome, to the pool and particularly to the sweeping bowl of the stadium has characterised the games. We heard it at what we thought was its loudest when Jessica Ennis emerged for the very first session in the Olympic Stadium, completely packed at ten o clock in the morning. Then she broke the world best in the hurdles and it has only got louder since. Even the most weary of sportswriters, who like nothing more than to inform of how they have been to every Olympic Games since Demosthenes took silver in the ping pong, concede they have never quite heard anything like it.
We thought it had peaked again, on that balmy Saturday night that no one wanted ever to end. When Jessica Ennis crossed the line in first and everyone was so overwhelmed to have witnessed the defining moment of the games, and then half an hour later, along came Mo, rounding the bend opposite the Olympic Flame, winding up the pace, moving away from the rest, and suddenly there was some redefining to do.
“If it wasn’t for the crowd it wouldn’t have happened,” he said after. “They give you that lift, that boost. It was just incredible.
“I had to hold my head and think, ‘Am I really the Olympic champion now?’ It is the best day of my life. It doesn’t get any better than this.”
And then a week later, it did. A Mexican wave of noise even louder than the first swept round the stadium two nights ago, in what has been described as the greatest atmosphere ever seen in a British sporting arena, willing on the slight, bald headed man from Mogadishu, for every second of the thirteen and a half minutes it took him to become, in the words of Lord Coe, “the greatest runner we have produced in this country.” Then, almost for good measure, Usain Bolt and his Jamaican team mates emerged, to smash the sprint relay world record, with the games’ great global star, touching his head with both hands to form the letter M as he crossed the line - the “Mo-bot” as it is known. As the stadium emptied, the running, the throwing and the jumping over all too soon, the two men, gold medals round their necks, stood on the top of the podium, performing each other’s celebrations, Farah his arm pointed to the sky like lightning a bolt, the Jamaican grinning and mobotting away. It will be the defining photograph of the games.
“I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in my life anything like that. It’s unbelievable, it’s incredible,” Farah said. “Two medals for my two girls who will hopefully be born soon, one for each.”
Mr Farah’s twin daughters are due to be born in ten days time. That he was was joined on the track by his very pregnant wife was as prescient a reminder as any of how impossible it is to define quite when London’s Olympic tale began. Certainly it is long before Seb Coe, David Beckham, Tony Blair and a load of East London school kids got on a plane to Singapore in 2005.
When an eight year old Mo Farah’s parents left Somalia for London in 1991 as the country’s government collapsed and gave way to twenty one years and counting of unimaginable horror, Seb Coe was wearing a blue rosette and knocking on doors in Falmouth seeking to become an MP.
In January 2003, a storm was gathering in Washington, Whitehall and Baghdad when the then Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell went to the cabinet with the idea that London should bid for the 2012 Olympics. “We started with no votes around the Cabinet Table,” she said. She went round the departments one by one, to Health, Education and Transport, and told them what the Olympics could do for every one. Tony Blair, whose last minute lobbying later proved so crucial, dismissed the idea at first.
Tony Blair was much more preoccupied with Iraq, and rightly so. I said to him, “HOw are you going to answer this question. We’re the fourth largest economy in the world, London is the greatest city in the world, we would like to think. What will you say to someone who asks you ‘Why didn’t you dare bid to host the games?’ I’ve never forgotten the way he looked at me. I got a call the next morning from his Principle Private Secretary saying ‘The Prime Minister will support your recommendation.”
Two years later, the American businesswoman appointed to lead the bid Barbara Cassani resigned, because she didn’t think an American bid leader would win the games. “She deserves great credit,” said Dame Tessa Jowell.” She said the person who could win it is Seb Coe.
It was only six months later that the double Olympic gold medallist stood on stage in Singapore and said: ”To make an Olympic champion it takes eight Olympic finalists. To make Olympic finalists, it takes 80 Olympians. To make 80 Olympians it takes 202 national champions, to make national champions it takes thousands of athletes. To make athletes it takes millions of children around the world to be inspired to choose sport.” Jacques Rogge was up not long later, opening his envelope and reading out the word “London.”
“Pourquoi Londres?” - Why London? - was the headline in French sports newspaper L’Equipe the next day. While Parisians ate their breakfast and read of how Seb and Co had, by common consent, stolen the games from Paris, whose bid was far superior (they already had a brand new stadium, we had a pile of discarded fridges on an industrial wasteland), British born terrorists were blowing themselves up on the London Underground. “Tous derriere Londres” - All behind London - was the following day’s headline. Nothing galvanises a city, especially one as vast and diverse as London, like moments of great joy and tragedy.
One of the 70,000 volunteers, whose wit, friendliness and energy, have so enthused spectators, athletes and dignitaries and media alike, is a doctor who treated wounded patients on 7/7. Last week, wearing his red and purple uniform, he happened to bump into Seb Coe on a train.
“I saw the worst of mankind that morning, and now I’m into this and I’ve seen the best,” Dr Ian Hartle told him.
“I treated the victims of the London bombings on 7/7, the Olympics have brought closure.” Seb Coe says it was a “seismic moment”, and the conversation will stay with him for the rest of his life.
But there were good reasons to doubt our ability to deliver such a vast project. The Dome was lying empty just over the river from where the Olympic Park was supposed to be, and less than a year later, with two months to go before the FA Cup Final, the new Wembley Stadium’s roof collapsed, chicken-licken like on the metaphorical head of the FA Chairman Geoff Thompson. It was a great baptism for Olympic doom-mongering now shown to have been false. “On time, on budget”, became, along with legacy and sustainability, the mantra of the games, at least once the budget had been nearly quadrupled, so much so that it was joked that the opening ceremony would be a Whitehall mandarin doing a Powerpoint presentation showing how quite how successfully it has all been delivered.
The games are undoubtedly expensive, at least £9bn, and London has borne the cost at time when the world can least afford it. It is a curious thing, this grand circus that is the Olympic Games, now that we have seen it first hand. A travelling city state that arrives over its new home, like the giant spacecraft in Independence Day, zapping it with a velodrome, a swimming pool, a stadium and lots of other costly facilities it doesn’t really need, then floats off to do the same elsewhere.
But then, while it seems crass, and more than a little bit facile to say that the games “brings the world together in a spirit of peace,” it’s true. Imagine how different it would be if we didn’t all get together every four years and do something fun.
Serbians and Croats have frantically flung balls at each other in the Copper Box. Hundreds of millions of people have stared transfixed at their televisions, thousands of miles to the east, watching a game of Badminton taking place in Earls Court. A North Korean bigwig has hung a gold medal round the neck of a South Korean gymnast. A rather sizeable German discus thrower has won a gold medal and woken up on a train in the middle of nowhere. The financial costs are very easy to tot up, if you’ve got a wide enough calculator. The benefits are far less tangible, but they are real.
When asked to name his abiding memory of the games, Lord Coe said: “The way the British public have turned out day after day, turning the venues into theatres of sport.”
Dave Brailsford, Great Britain’s enigmatic cycling coach, and the man behind our dominance in the velodrome put it better.
“It feels like we're in a sports theme park, and the characters are walking around in sports kit, and everybody else is cheering them. It's an incredible atmosphere,” he said.
“Everybody's being a little bit more polite, and smiling and saying hello to one another.
”The impact that this seems to be having on people is fantastic and to be a small part of it, is wonderful.“
So often these days, we describe ourselves as a country “struggling to come to terms with who it is, after the end of the empire” or “struggling to understand its place in the world.”
Whether anyone below a certain age actuallyfeels that is another matter, but at the end of one of the great fortnights in our history, hopefully we are a little bit clearer about who we are.
Danny Boyle reminded us, with a little help from Shakespeare, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, Tim Berners Lee, The Beatles and Dizzee Rascal, that we have long been the home not of caricatured stiff-upper lippedness, but of creativity and ingenuity. And with a little help from the Queen, of all people, reminded us of our greatest gift, just how much we love to take the mickey out of ourselves.
It has also shown just how much we love sport in this country. That the US broadcaster NBC has not been showing the Olympics live, delaying it for the precious evening prime time advertising slot, has generated more outrage here than it has there. Brave will be the government who attempts now to pull the funding rug out from under our elite athletes, and tries to sell off even a single square foot more of school playing field.
If we really have all found the last fifty years so confusing, £9bn might just have been a cheap price to pay for an affirmation of who we are, when thousands in the stadium and millions in their living rooms were delivered to a place of near euphoria, by a man who was brought here from Somalia as a little boy, by his desperate parents, and who talks like a Londoner and runs like the wind.
”Be not afear’d the isle is full of noises”, are the words, spoken by Caliban in Shakespeare’s The Tempest that are inscribed on the giant bell that will be installed in the Olympic Park, in the first phase of the next great construction project about to begin there. Four new neighbourhoods are scheduled to be built, the last brick not laid until 2030. That is a long time, even in the life of a city. What will London’s place in the world be then? Who knows, but whatever happens we’ll still all be talking wistfully about these past two weeks. In the meantime if, like Caliban, you woke this morning and “cried to dream again”, the Paralympics start next Friday, and there’s still a few tickets left.
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