I've had a brilliant idea for a new Olympic sport. Like most Olympic events, it's an elite activity, open only to a select group of contestants who have trained hard for years. Each of them – I'm thinking Tony Blair, Tessa Jowell, Lord Coe, Ken Livingstone and Boris Johnson for starters – has to stand on the edge of a pit and see how much public money they can throw into it. The gold medal will go to whoever manages to dispose of the largest quantity of taxpayers' dosh, probably in the region of £6bn, in the allotted time.
Last week even the Olympics cheerleader-in-chief, Tessa Jowell, admitted that ministers almost certainly wouldn't have bid to hold the 2012 Games in London if they had known that the country was going to tip into recession. "Had we known what we know now, would we have bid for the Olympics?" she mused at a conference on Tuesday. "Almost certainly not." Cue much clarifying and spinning by Ms Jowell, who protested that her remarks had been taken out of context. All she meant, she said, was that during times of financial hardship bidding for the Games might strike some people as a "distraction".
Now we're all neo-Keynesians, of course, there's less chance than ever that the Government will see sense. The Games are supposed to regenerate east London and bring 3,000 jobs to the Olympic site in Stratford, which works out at a mere £2m per job. Not just that, you get a lot of useless sports venues – the famous Olympic "heritage" – as well. In Sydney, which did the honours in 2000, the Olympic plaza is said to resemble a ghost town; after the Athens Games in 2004, the Greek government was forced to cut public services because the event over-ran its budget so dramatically.
That would never happen here, would it? When London won the right to stage the 2012 Games three years ago, they were going to cost £2.4bn. Two years later, the total cost was already four times higher (£9.35bn), prompting MPs and other public figures to ask how the organisers got the original calculation so wrong.
The good news, however, is that the £2bn cost of staging the games (as opposed to preparing the infrastructure) will be partly funded by big names from the private sector: Lloyds TSB, BT, British Airways and other sponsors who are currently doing so well financially. The Olympics are also supposed to bring a £2bn boost to the economy as overseas tourists flock to London. Oh, and the games will also help combat the obesity epidemic as overweight spectators leap from their armchairs and take up sprinting, long-distance running and synchronised swimming. I mean, it worked in Atlanta – look at how slender and toned Americans became after hosting the 1996 Games – so why shouldn't it happen here?
This is a scandal. It always was, from the moment London beat Paris based on a bid which struck me as ludicrously optimistic even at the time. As thousands of people lose their jobs, unemployment heads for 2 million and the Government pledges to borrow eye-watering amounts, the country cannot afford to invest so much public money in an event which lasts two weeks and brings very uncertain long-term benefits.
If there is too much loss of face in offering them to President Sarkozy, the British Government could at least suggest sharing the 2012 Games with Paris, only two-and-a-quarter hours away by train. Blair refused to consider a joint bid when he was prime minister, which now looks like one of his stupidest decisions. Personally, if I were mayor of London, I'd implore Paris to take the wretched thing off our hands entirely.Reuse content