Why we need a foreigner to bid for the Olympics

You rarely find Americans who are not capable of expressing themselves forcefully on almost anything
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The Independent Online

Barbara Cassani, a fortysomething American, is tipped to head the British bid to stage the 2012 Olympics, and you can hear the recriminatory howling already. Is it really appropriate that a non-British national be chosen to lead Britain into battle with, among others, New York? Are we really so short of talent that we cannot find a born-and-bred Briton equally, if not better, qualified? And why, after the jubilee's undisputed (home-produced) success and the lamentable failure of the Dome (which not even the most gifted French administrator could rescue) are we so quick to direct head-hunting expeditions abroad? All this, and we have not yet mentioned the awkward fact that, post-Iraq, Americans are not exactly our favourite foreigners.

Ms Cassani has, sensibly, said nothing so far in her own defence. She does not need to. Her track record speaks for itself. American or not, she would be a contender in any of the countries competing for the Olympics. From a classic US politics and business background, she became one of the pioneers of low-cost air travel in Europe. She took Go, the BA spin-off, from the drawing board to an impressive profit, displaying a fearsome business acumen and a good deal of flair. Having flown Go a few times, I have the impression of a neat, generally efficient and stylish operation; not flashy, but sound. When "her" airline was sold, over her head, to easyJet, she upped and left - a multimillionaire, but one with no show of her own to run.

My point, however, is not only to hope that the Government disregards the Little Englanders and gives the best-qualified candidate the job, but to argue that this is one instance in which being a foreigner, and an American at that, are recommendations, and not liabilities.

The US education system has many faults, including its susceptibility to fashion, the disparity between rich and poor schools and colleges, low standards of literacy and the superficiality of the knowledge that is often imparted. But among its strengths is an emphasis on articulate and effective presentation, which extends into most American institutions. You rarely find Americans who are not capable of expressing themselves forcefully on almost anything, with minimal notice.

Effective presentation is considered not just a virtue, but a pre-condition for doing almost anything else. Some Americans may speak nonsensical jargon, but if they appear in public they look well turned out, speak so you can hear them, organise their material, keep to their allotted time and make sure the technology works. From the higher reaches of politics or academia to day courses for the unemployed, you generally do not get projectors breaking down or microphones not working, Whatever your views on Microsoft's PowerPoint program (and habitual American conference-goers profess themselves jaded by the uniformity that it has brought to the lecture-circuit), presentation in America works.

We British can be slick and stylish when we want to be. Our advertising is some of the most original and wittiest in the world. We can be efficient. But presentation is not our national forte. The discipline may be technical and boring, but we still have not understood what Americans long ago grasped: stand up, speak up and shut up - and if you can't handle the technology, learn. To mount an Olympics bid from a non-exotic country, you need proficiency in all the basics of presentation, then you add all the bells, whistles and hi-tech gizmos you can muster.

Nor should we underestimate the advantages of having Britain's Olympic bid managed and fronted by an internationally minded foreigner of clearly Anglophile tendencies (she is married to a Briton) who lives and works here. From our island off the north-east coast of Europe, marooned in our monolingualism, we often fail to recognise the very traits that make Britain so attractive to foreigners: the depth of tradition coupled (usually) with a live-and-let-live tolerance of otherness; the splendour of London's vistas and landmarks, the range of the shopping, the quirky attention to fashion, the energy in the ethnic mixture of our cities.

Our insularity also blinds us to the things that other countries do better. The trains and buses are not as bad as we think. Britain was first with the low-cost short-haul European airlines. But the signboards and directions at most of our entry points - airports, stations and ports - are a national disgrace. Ticket machines don't work; public clocks tell the wrong time - and no one seems to know who should mend them. A benevolent foreigner, who knows how other places work, will identify our faults more dispassionately and sing our praises far more eloquently than we have ever done ourselves. Go to it, Ms Cassani, and win the Olympics for London.