Steve Richards: In truth, London should have lost. Now the clock is ticking, we must justify the victory

As matters stand, the transport system would not be ready to host an Olympics in the next century
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The Independent Online

Quite often British teams play well and lose. Yesterday's triumph in Singapore was the opposite. The sensational victory for London's bid to host the Olympics was almost wholly undeserved.

There is no doubt that the case for London was brilliantly presented, and the city has made a compelling argument in its favour over recent days. Last weekend London was buzzing with a historic rock concert in Hyde Park, a thrilling tennis final at Wimbledon and a closely contested one-day match at Lord's. Indeed, London buzzes most of the time, the host of a never-ending arts and sports festival that is better than anywhere else in the world.

It is also the case that the campaign to host the Olympics peaked in a way that was intoxicating in its persuasiveness. Tony Blair was at his most charmingly authoritative while David Beckham and other stars wowed them in Singapore with their glowing charisma.

But staging the Olympics is not about a city's capacity to produce political and sporting superstars. A sporting event on this unprecedented scale demands a robust infrastructure, a sustained commitment to sporting endeavour and long-term political leadership. On all these criteria London should have lost. I write this in a state of miserly euphoria. Unless we are aware of the huge challenges ahead, the dizzy excitement that greeted the announcement yesterday will turn soon to resentful disillusionment. At the same time, if the challenges are met, the Olympics will revolutionise the political culture in London and the rest of Britain.

Throughout most of the 1980s and 1990s, London had no political voice, a terrible silence from one of the biggest cities in the world. Margaret Thatcher's abolition of the Greater London Council was an act of vindictive vandalism from which the city suffered terribly. Both Geoffrey Howe and Michael Heseltine, the two most innovative and intelligent cabinet ministers of the Thatcher era, have cited the abolition of the GLC as one of her biggest errors. London had no leader to press for more investment in transport, housing and other public services. As a result it suffers still.

Conversely, one of the current government's successes was the introduction of a mayor and a London authority. In typically New Labour style it undermined its own innovation by giving the mayor only puny powers and imposing the scandalous public private partnership on the London Underground. It is darkly comic that London is preparing to host the Olympics at a time when the rush hour in the city is often reduced to chaos because one of the richly rewarded private companies fails to complete its work on time. As matters stand, London's transport system would not be ready to host an Olympic Games in the next century. This must change fast.

So must the Government's attitude to investment in sport. The French already have an athletics stadium in Paris. London has no equivalent stadium and is struggling to build Wembley on schedule. But this is only a symbol of a wider reluctance to invest in sport at all levels. The sporting potential of teenagers in Britain is squandered by the lack of facilities.

In Sweden, France, Holland and most other European countries, national governments and local authorities finance sporting facilities that take the breath away of British kids when they travel abroad. In contrast, British governments sell off school playing fields, a policy started by the Conservatives and disgracefully continued by Labour.

Yesterday Mr Blair caught the spirit of the moment when he said that the Government would use the Olympics partly to make a statement about the health and fitness of young people. He would do well to explore how other nearby countries already address the health and fitness of their teenagers by investing in sporting facilities.

The understandable joy at the prospect of a renovated East End of London highlights the failure to act already. As such, London is typical of other cities in Britain, booming in parts with a grim underclass nearby. A cabinet minister recently told me about the renaissance of the city near his constituency. He added that a mile away there were grim housing estates untouched by the Government's policies to help the poor. He described the contrast, success in parts of the city, failure to make a difference just a mile away, as "the good and bad sides of New Labour".

In London, at least the landscape of the rundown East End will now be transformed. All the factors that make London the undeserved victor will have to be addressed in order to make the Olympics a success. The clock is ticking. Now we have no choice but to give a major city sustained political leadership, a better transport system and decent sporting facilities. Suddenly, investment and raising the money to pay for the spending will become fashionable.

Yesterday's celebratory edition of London's Evening Standard reported almost euphorically that households would pay £240 more in council tax. If Ken Livingstone had announced that he was putting up the council tax to pay for the renovation of the East End, he would be booted out of office. Now he is doing so to pay for the Olympics he is greeted as a hero.

Similarly, there will be a new focus on the disgraceful state of London's transport. I would not be surprised if the private companies partially responsible for the Underground are twitching a little nervously. They can cope with small news stories highlighting their incompetence and the profits they are making. But the attention of the world's media and the pressure to improve the service for the Olympics will either overwhelm them or persuade them to deliver. It is also possible that the badly needed rail line linking East London to other parts of the city - currently not due to open until several years after the Games - could be completed in time for the Olympics. Surely we can now be more ambitious about the timescale.

In a more rational political culture all these initiatives would happen without the prospect of the Olympics being staged in London. We should insist on a high standard of transport because it is civilising and boosts business. We should demand that, living in the fourth richest economy in the world, our teenagers have the same sporting facilities as nearby countries. We should on humane grounds alone find it unacceptable that some people live in slum conditions. More widely it should be a statement of the obvious that big cities benefit from strong political leadership.

But we live in irrational times. It takes a rock star to legitimise the provision of aid to Africa. It takes the Olympics to justify the provision of decent public services and a willingness to pay for them. Let us hope that the next time we put in a bid to stage a major international event we will deserve to win.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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