Robin Scott-Elliot: Organisers miss a slam-dunk in testing out 'people's Games'
London Eye: Young people from the poorer areas around the park could have been inspired by the likes of Parker
Friday 19 August 2011
Today will be the busiest sporting day in its fledgling existence for the Olympic Park. This afternoon the latest test event begins for next year's Games with the acrobats on two wheels trying out the BMX course. Nearby the basketball invitational continues as sport, rather than the mammoth £7bn building process, begins to sneak into the Olympic focus.
These two events follow the road race, the World Badminton Championships at Wembley Arena – branded dirty by the Chinese competitors – and beach volleyball in the historic surrounds of Horse Guards, a venue labelled "rad" by the Americans. There are more to come over the next few months and healthy ticket sales again indicate that this is a country with a rare passion for watching sport, if not playing it. The toughest issue facing government and sporting bodies is how to get us out of the stands and on to the courts, pitches and pools.
No Olympic Games has led to an increase in participation, not even in Australia in the golden glow of the Sydney Olympics. When the London bid was successfully made in Singapore there was grandiose talk of getting bums off seats but that has quietened down, especially since the change of government. The current plan is for a lower-key approach – and one that is constrained by the financial climate – concentrating first on fixing facilities down among the grass roots. But the Games themselves still have important potential to inspire.
The athletes are well aware of the chance this offers their sports. There were two striking elements in talking to British basketballers this week. One was the excitement at what lay ahead, a dawning realisation of the genuine once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that will be theirs in a year's time. The other was a keenness to promote their sport.
The failure of basketball to take off here, especially as a participation sport in urban areas, is a peculiarity. It's not an expensive game and its basics are just that. Luol Deng, the Chicago Bull who will wear a British vest next year, runs a basketball camp in Loughborough for young people. He has an admirable desire to spread the gospel of his sport for its good and for the good of those that might take it up.
The chance to get close to a sporting superstar has the potential to inspire and the chance to see somebody like Tony Parker, the French NBA star, in all his fluid athleticism play in the basketball arena can do likewise.
The crowd is limited to 2,600 each day, the amount the organisers judge ideal to allow them to test the facility. The audience on day one was mixed in age, basketball know-how and race. The racial mix of the spectators was more noticeable than at most sporting events in this country.
Outside, though, there was a depressing reminder of the cost of watching sport. It was little different to any other – football, rugby, cricket – but paying £5 for a bacon baguette to add to drinks, transport and a £25 ticket price makes it into something that is tough for many to afford.
To a large extent, the organisers, Locog, have their hands tied by International Olympic Committee guidelines as to how tickets for the Games are sold – and for all the furore surrounding ticket distribution, Locog deserves credit for making a comparatively good job of it. But for the test events in a park built to aid regeneration in some of the poorest parts in the country, was there an opportunity missed?
The benefits of opening them up for young people from those very areas would have been a step towards addressing what Christine Ohuruogu, who lives nearby, sees as a lack of connection with the Games. And a sighting of the likes of the elusive Parker may have just provided a first real sporting inspiration to a young – and target – audience.
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