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Wednesday, March 31, 2010

London 2012 is a mess already, but they could still make it fun by Mark Steel

Bit by bit, the promises of the organisers are becoming cloudier

You can now register to be in the queue of people who'd like to hear about when you can apply for tickets to the Olympics. But there should be a vetting process, to make it fairer.

For example, during the Beijing games I once watched five uninterrupted hours, and only turned off when the commentator said: "And you have to say, that is a pivotal moment in the history of Algerian judo." Surely that gives me some priority. Points should be awarded to anyone who's stayed up to 2am to watch handball on Eurosport, or stood all day holding cups of tea for warmth in the drizzle, hoping play might begin at a county cricket match in Maidstone.

Instead they'll probably allocate them the same way they sort out school places. Families will move next to the Olympic pool to be in the catchment area. And some tickets will go to churches, so people will start going along every Sunday in the hope they'll be granted a seat at the semi-final of the canoeing.

Whatever they do, it's hard to appreciate the event as a festival of sport, when you see the priorities of those in charge of the franchise. One reason the Vancouver Winter Olympics is regarded as a success is because the sales of McDonald's, one of the main sponsors, rose by 5 per cent during the games. Even the city's libraries were sent memos advising: "Do not have Pepsi sponsoring any library events, as Coke and McDonald's are the Olympic sponsors."

Maybe for the London Games we'll do even better, and pensioners will be told: "This Catherine Cookson book is two days late, Mrs Tomkins. Instead of spending all day steaming carrots you should try a McDonald's Chicken, Bacon and Onion 3 in 1 multi-burger, then you might have time to bring your books back."

For London there are seven "tier-one" sponsors, such as Lloyds, BT and EDF, and the committee's marketing director has advised that now is the time for the, "Seven first-tier sponsors to lock down their market masterplan." Because there are so many opportunities.

They could sponsor tennis players that grunt, so instead of "Yaeeeuuugh", Maria Sharapova can yell "Llooooyds TSB" with every backhand. And the pentathlon could involve the 100 metres, the 1500 metres, the long jump, the discus and persuading someone in the crowd to get their gas supplied by EDF in a 12-month agreement with a completed form for the direct debit.

The Games have been sold to us partly as an opportunity to leave an "Olympic legacy", of stadiums and facilities. But bit by bit these promises are becoming cloudier. For example, the £9.3bn cost of the Games was supposed to include a new park stretching across East London. And this was promoted with one of those virtual films swooping across implausibly green trees and palatial arenas of jollity.

But this week it was announced this won't be built unless someone finds an extra £450m on top. So what will go next? Maybe there'll be no athletics track either, and the athletes will be told it doesn't matter as there's a marvellous virtual one, and these days you can throw a javelin with a Nintendo Wii and hardly notice the difference.

You can guess the underlying spirit of the Games from reading the names of the Olympic Committee. There's HRH Prince Nawaf Faisal Fahd Abdulaziz who, and I'm guessing here, may be there because of his links to Arab royalty. Or maybe I'm being cynical and he's an expert on bloody badminton.

There's the son of former Olympic President Juan Samaranch, once a member of Franco's government. There are some fetching photos of the former president giving a Nazi salute, but maybe he did a special twisting curling one with a degree of difficulty of 5.9 and that's what made him an ideal man to run the Olympics. The current chief is Count Jacques Rogge, and we can all agree the trouble with modern life is our committees don't have nearly enough Counts.

These and more like them run the show, which is why every Olympic decision is based on money, then power, and sport a distant non-qualifying seventh. That's why they introduce daft events to boost the sponsorship, and it won't be surprising if the London Games includes a lap-dancing event, with Barry Davies sent to commentate and gasping: "Oh my goodness, terrific wriggling there from the Latvian."

Or maybe the bankers who profit from the Games will get jealous and demand sports they can compete in, such as coxless offshore accounting and a three-day hedge fund investment event.

But somehow, for reasons beyond the finest of shrinks, there will come a moment when I'm utterly delirious because I've got a ticket for Holland versus Namibia in the water polo.

First published in The Independent on 24th March 2010

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