Marketing of UK plc goes into Olympic overdrive
Ministers go all out to sell Britain as place to do business
London, capital of England. Capital of the United Kingdom. And, for the next seven weeks at least, capital of the world. The 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games are no mere sporting event. They are the catalyst for a foreign invasion by the worlds of business, politics, finance and the arts which, it is hoped, will showcase the very best of UK plc and attract investment for decades to come. Deals will be done, billions will be spent, poses will be struck and the eyes of the world will, everyone hopes, witness Britain at its finest.
David Cameron hailed the nation's moment in the global spotlight as a multibillion-pound "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity". With anaemic growth figures expected this week, No 10 and the Treasury are pinning everything on an Olympic boost to lift the economy out of double-dip recession.
No one can be quite sure how lucrative hosting the greatest show on earth will be – but it could be as high as £16bn over the coming years. If such money is realised, it would exceed the £9.3bn cost of staging the Games, secured back in 2005 in very different financial times.
It has been a rocky road getting here. Troops have been called in after the private firm G4S failed to deliver enough security guards. Olympic lanes to whisk VIPs across town have angered those stuck in traffic jams. Thousands of tickets went unsold, and the great British weather appeared to be determined to deliver a washout.
But for the great and the good, the powerful and the profitable, there is only one place to be. Jeremy Browne, the Foreign Office minister responsible for the Games, said: "London will be, for the next seven weeks, not just the capital of the UK but the capital of the world. Billions of people will be turning on the TV to see what is happening here. Everywhere I go in the world there is huge excitement about the Olympics and Paralympics."
Every inch of red carpet is being rolled out. More than 100 heads of state are due to arrive. Think of any global company, and they are coming, too: Google, Apple, Sony, Coca-Cola, Samsung, Warner Bros, Facebook. The A-list will bring real glamour, from Brangelina down. Only in London could the creator of Downton Abbey – Julian Fellowes – rub shoulders with Michael Acton-Smith, founder of Moshi Monsters, to showcase the very best of British.
Not everyone is welcome. The Home Office has rejected applications for two dozen people judged to pose a threat to national security.
London hopes to capitalise on being the first major western global city to host the Games for two decades, positioning itself as a more accessible, liberal, business friendly economic hub than the likes of Beijing, Athens, Sydney or Atlanta.
The real business will not take place in Stratford's steel-and-concrete bowl but in a neo-classical mansion in the shadow of Buckingham Palace. More than 3,000 business leaders, government ministers and officials will meet in a specially commissioned British Business Embassy at Lancaster House.
Sir Martin Sorrell, head of the global advertising firm WPP, hopes the Games will show Britain really is open for business. "The eyes of the world are on the UK [which] has a wonderful opportunity to stress Britain's assets, like education, technology and the creative industries. I am sure deals will be signed over the next few weeks, but the most important thing is the image that is cultivated and taken away."
Every dignitary and VIP will be assigned a government minister – officially to keep them company but told to sell Britain as a place to do business. "They are not out having a jolly," insists a senior government source. "They will be working very, very hard." In almost panicked tones, Whitehall officials admit it is a massive, ambitious operation.
Writing in The Independent on Sunday, Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, urged the country to get behind the Games. "As we count down and the weather looks up, it's time for everyone to put aside the usual British cynicism and start getting behind the Games."
If Britain is not yet in the grip of Olympic fever, it is inching closer by the day. As the Olympic Torch continues its tour of London today, more than 10 million people have turned out to see it. A ComRes poll for this newspaper shows almost a third of people are "dreading" the Games, but four in 10 say they are looking forward to them. Two-thirds think it will benefit private sponsors but not the "ordinary people of Britain".
Against expectations, visitor numbers are at record levels, with the next stage of a £100m marketing push offering cut price deals due to launch as the curtain comes down on the Paralympic closing ceremony.
More than 100 presidents, princes and other international dignitaries will pass through London in the next month, including Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff, Michelle Obama and President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria. Vladmir Putin of Russia, is expected to put his differences with Britain to one side to make a private trip for the judo events.
The event has more diplomatic potential than any previous Games. Only 48 world leaders went to Athens in 2004 and 82 to Beijing in 2008. The only catch is that the IOC, not Britain, decides the guest list, which could make for some awkward dinners.
The boost to Britain's economy could be considerable. David Cameron has predicted a benefit of £13bn over the next four years. Christine Lagarde, head of the International Monetary Fund, is flying in for meetings. Visitors are expected to increase by as much as 2 per cent on last year. A spending splurge of £750m over the next month is predicted. Goldman Sachs forecasts that the Games could add as much as 0.4 per cent to the GDP, large enough to keep the country out of recession, and London could see as many as 18,000 new jobs annually over the next three years stemming from the Olympics.
London will host a who's who of the global boardroom as government ministers and business ambassadors lobby the most influential diplomats and executives on the planet. The UK Trade and Investment lobby group has organised 17 one-day summits at Lancaster House to secure an Olympics legacy for British business worth up to £4bn. Google's chairman Eric Schmidt, Sir Martin Sorrell of WPP, Sir Jonathan Ive from Apple, Sir Howard Stringer, chairman of Sony, and Daniel Ek of Spotify will speak at a seminar on the digital economy. British business will be there in strength, with half the companies in the FTSE 100 being represented.
The paparazzi cannot wait as royals, pop stars and the Hollywood elite and Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, drop in to party. The Sports for Peace charity soirée at the Victoria and Albert Museum on Wednesday is the hottest ticket. Prince William and Kate Middleton will share the red carpet with Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie, plus Muhammad Ali, Sir Christopher Lee, Michael Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lewis Hamilton. Canary Wharf is full of huge luxury yachts, like Cannes. Nicole Kidman¸ Michael Phelps and Abhishek Bachchan, the Bollywood superstar, will also be around town.
* As he prepares to welcome the world to the London Olympics, the nation's oldest teenager has given in to the pressure to get a sensible haircut.
When the Olympic flame arrived in the capital on Friday evening, it was greeted by a surprisingly well-groomed Boris Johnson, blond locks neatly trimmed and brushed into a conventional side-parting, after a £29.50 cut at a salon near City Hall.
The new look followed Boris's appearance on the David Letterman Show in the US last month. The chat-show host suggested the London Mayor's trademark mop could hinder his chances of becoming PM. He asked Boris: "How long have you been cutting your own hair?"
* A marathon runner born in the new state of South Sudan was last night given permission to compete in London 2012 under the Olympic flag.
The IOC executive board took the unprecedented decision to allow Guor Marial, a former refugee, to take part as an independent athlete.
Marial, 28, fled to the United States from a child labour camp but has not been granted citizenship.
* A Los Angeles lifeguard and surfer more accustomed to the sunny beaches of Santa Monica than the warring streets of Damascus will be an unlikely poster boy for Syria at the Olympics. Azad al-Barazi, 24, arrives in London tomorrow to compete in the 100m breaststroke. He was born in Saudi Arabia and has lived in Santa Monica since he was seven, but his parents are Syrian.
His father is originally from Hama, where some of the bloodiest atrocities of the conflict took place last month. "It's hard every time you hear something about Syria, it's another load of people dying in this place or that. I try to block it out," said al-Barazi.
* A canoeist who cannot compete is taking legal action against the Olympics organising committee on behalf of all women whose sports are not in the Games. Samantha Rippington, 27, is the UK canoe champion but only men can take part in the Games's canoe races. "We're asking Locog to carry out an equality impact assessment," she said. "We aim to highlight to the world that inequality still exists between men and women."
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