Andreas Whittam Smith: In our race to win the Games, we lost our dignity

People manage to get to Wimbledon on time without traffic laws being changed

Click to follow
The Independent Online

I hope the London Olympic Games will be a big success. I am pretty sure they will be. On the other hand… On the other hand I strongly object to the way the International Olympic Committee (IOC) insists that countries bidding for the Games give the rules and regulations of the Olympic Movement precedence over national laws.

That is why the first task facing the Government seven years ago, following London's selection, was to go to Parliament with proposals for legislation that would give the IOC what it wanted. And the result – the London Olympic Games and Paralympic Games Act 2006 – is the origin of most of the arrangements that we most dislike, such as the complete reorganisation of London traffic together with special lanes for the benefit of IOC members, sponsors and assorted hangers-on.

Essentially this is a form of blackmail. If you want the Games, the IOC says to bidding countries, you will have to provide us and our friends with a variety of privileges, from luxury hotel rooms to trouble-free travel across a busy city. These demands have very little to do with securing the smooth running of the Games themselves. They are perks.

Not that the IOC itself is a model of propriety. Indeed you would think that if IOC members wanted to set themselves up as superior to national laws, it would behove them to be a bit more exalted than an athletics body that has in the past appeared seedy.

For instance, in 1998 it was alleged that several IOC members had taken bribes in return for their support of Salt Lake City's bid to host the 2002 Winter Olympics. Six members were expelled and a further four resigned. Then, in 2004, there was an investigation by the BBC's Panorama programme that cast further doubt on the integrity of the bidding process.

Apply common sense to the controversial areas of transport and advertising. In the United Kingdom, so far as I know, professional sports people and teams get to their venues on time without special traffic arrangements. If the traffic is busy, you make an early start. It's not a big problem, is it? Especially as the athletes are housed in the Olympic village from where they can easily walk to the venues where most of them will perform.

Nor is the United Kingdom short of legislation that enables the control of traffic. There are 40 different pieces of current legislation that relate to the use of roads. You would think that with this range of powers, the country could manage to provide the transport facilities needed by the Games. Manchester got by when hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2002.

Everybody involved in the tennis championships at Wimbledon gets there in good time each year without special traffic lanes. Wales did not have any access problems in hosting the Rugby World Cup in 1999. What the IOC spotted, however, is that our traffic laws did not allow the conferring of special privileges on particular groups of people such as themselves. That would have to be changed. They must be treated like royalty.

As for the regulation of advertising, which involves draconian restrictions that prevent any firm other than a sponsor from using words and images even remotely connected with the Olympics, try common sense again. As a country, do we have widespread problems with protecting brands? It has been a long time since anybody could have got away with the unauthorised use of, say, "Marks & Spencer" in their advertising. Nor could I set up as "Marks & Spencer newsagents".

Effective legislation has long been in place to prevent this sort of thing. But this is not good enough for the IOC. They say that major advertisers would not support the Olympic Games without special protections, but I don't notice any absence of advertising at, say, major football matches or Formula One motor racing where no such conditions are demanded.

Nonetheless, as matters stand, nations that wish to stage the Olympics must amend their laws. In certain cases, entering into this bargain may be worthwhile. But it is not for the UK, and especially not for London, a world city par excellence.

Nor do the Olympics enable economic generation since it is governments that pay for Olympic stadiums, swimming pools and the like and not the IOC, and the same sums of money could be spent at any time on whichever infrastructure projects the government of the day thought worthwhile.

In fact, it was a Labour government that secured the Olympic Games for Britain, but a Conservative government would have been just as enthusiastic. I doubt if Labour ministers thought twice about the sheer effrontery of the IOC demands. They did not grasp the enormity of preventing their citizens from going about their lawful business. This is because contemporary politicians have scant notion of the dignity of their offices or of the nation itself.

Lacking in self-confidence themselves, knowing how short they are of the skills necessary for their ministerial roles, wondering when they are going to be reshuffled out of office or whether the electorate will soon kick them out, there is little for which they would stand firm. When they carelessly accepted the IOC's terms, they behaved without dignity and humiliated this country.