Sunday November 26, 2006
In the time that it takes you to read to the end of this sentence, the cost of the London Olympics will have risen by another billion pounds. Worse, I have no idea whether that is an exaggeration or an underestimate of the soaring bill for staging the Games. After the grisly experience of the Millennium Dome, you might have thought that this government would have been once burnt, twice shy of the construction and mass entertainment business. After the money-guzzling, credibility-munching monster that was the dome, Tony Blair half-apologised for that fiasco and sighed that there would be 'lessons to be learnt' about the running of large infrastructure projects. Well, if remedial classes in event management and construction ever happened, no one involved with the Olympics seems to have attended them. The disaster that was the dome is now being replicated on an even more gargantuan scale on the other side of the Thames.
Just as with the dome, Tony Blair was initially sceptical about the Olympics, only to allow himself to be seduced by the thought that the Games would be a glamour project to put Britain at the centre of world attention. Just as with the dome, Gordon Brown bit his nails about the costs, but didn't publicly voice his doubts for fear of being cast as a killjoy. Just as with the dome, the Tories and most of the media were all for the Olympics until the project started to go off the rails.
Just as with the dome, those who were sceptical about the costs and doubtful about the purpose were dismissed as whingeing spoilsports. When the government was debating whether to back the bid, Bill Bush, an adviser to Tessa Jowell, did some confidential research into the Sydney Olympics of 2000. He found that the Olympics generated a fortnight of euphoric public and media opinion when the bid was won and another fortnight of feel-good when they were on. In between, there was six years of ferociously hostile media and public opinion. Politically, that made the Olympics a sport the government was always bound to lose at.
Just as with the dome, Mr Blair shrugged opposition aside once he got seized by the notion of adding a grand projet to his legacy. When cabinet colleagues and Downing Street aides expressed their doubts about going for the Games, the Prime Minister told them: 'Don't be such wusses.'
Just as with the dome, responsibility for this project is divided. Tessa Jowell, Ken Livingstone, Seb Coe - the minister, the mayor, the Tory peer and a large cast of political and sporting panjandrums - all have a finger in this project. When everyone is in charge, no one is in charge. The chief engineer, Jack Lemley, has fled back to America for fear that his reputation would be wrecked by continuing association with the project. He quit complaining about political meddling and warning that the costs would escalate 'exponentially'.
Well, of course. It was both predictable and predicted that the Olympics would be a black hole sucking money out of taxpayers and lottery funds and away from good causes. Try justifying these Games to disabled groups whose lottery funding is being cut. Cost overruns are as integral to the tradition of the modern Olympiad as are cheating and corruption. The Games are a serial financial killer. The taxpayers of Montreal are still paying for the 1976 Olympics 30 years after they were staged in the city. The cost of the last Olympics in Athens went so out of control that the Greeks had to go begging for a bail-out from the European Commission. The Olympic legacy to Sydney was another huge budget-buster and a splendid stadium which sat empty and unused afterwards. Beijing is believed to be flushing away going on for £20bn to host the 2008 Games.
I have to say that even a hard-core Olympic sceptic like myself has been staggered by just how rapidly and wildly the bill for the London Olympics is escalating. The chief spinmeister of the bid effort has written a revelatory book in which he plausibly argues that the figures in the original budget under-stated the true cost because no one in charge actually expected London to get the games.
In front of MPs last week, Tessa Jowell added nearly a billion pounds just to the budget for constructing the venues. The bill for buying and cleaning up the land for the site has more than tripled. The budget for policing and protecting the games has ballooned from £190m to £850m because it had apparently occurred to no one that the Olympics might be a tempting target for terrorists.
And it will get worse. There will be revelation after dismal revelation like this for the next six years. The Observer today exposes another phoney figure in the Olympic dodgy dossier. If the main stadium is going to have any useful life afterwards, then money will have to be spent converting it, virtually doubling the cost originally given for the stadium alone.
The most priceless moment of Ms Jowell's appearance before MPs was when she got to explaining the 'delivery fee' for the management of the project. What was £100m in August has now inflated to £500m. The cost of cost-control has quintupled! In just three months! This is the mad, mad world of the Olympics.
An amazing £130m is to be spent fabricating a 'permanent media centre' on the site. There might, I suppose, be some point to that. A venue will be needed for all the press conferences that will have to be given to explain how it went so horribly and expensively wrong.
From Wembley Stadium to the Scottish Parliament building - oh, and did I mention the Millennium Dome? - Britain has a miserable record at bringing in big infrastructure projects on time and on budget. The crucial difference with the Olympics is that they can't be postponed which means they are even more likely to inflate in cost. When Wembley wasn't ready, at least the FA Cup Final could be moved to Cardiff. The deadline for the Olympics is an iron one. You can't tell the world that you're a bit behind and would they kindly come back in 2013.
The Olympic contracts are not fixed-price contracts. Every landowner, developer, contractor and builder, from the corporate suits to the sparks installing the lighting has been handed a loaded revolver to put to the head of the government. Pay up - or the Games get it. Whatever figure anyone is giving you at the moment, the real cost is going to be even more stratospheric. £8bn? Do I hear £10bn? The man who designed the Montreal Olympic park reckons we will eventually be landed with a bill of not less than £15bn for an event to which only the very wealthy and the very well-connected will get a ticket.
We could carpet the country with spanking new hospitals or double the aid budget with the sort of money that is going to be blown on just 17 days of Olympics - and still have change to buy back all those school playing fields that have been flogged off.
The Games' supporters do not like to speak about cost; they prefer to talk about 'investment', implying there will be some sort of return. Which will be what exactly? The experience of other cities is that international sports festivals do not attract tourists - they repel them. Tourists stayed away from Germany during last year's World Cup because they did not want to spend their holidays in the company of thousands of football fans. When Australia and Greece staged the Olympics, tourists boycotted the countries, fearing traffic jams, a security clampdown and hotel rooms to be had only at rip-off prices. Who in their right mind is going to want to holiday in London in the congestion and security hell that will be the capital city in the August of 2012?
Just as with the dome, supporters of the Olympics say they will regenerate part of London. I'm all for the regeneration of the East End, but you didn't need to do it by bringing this overblown, ludicrously expensive spectacle to town. It is a perverse and wasteful way to regenerate that area of the capital by squandering money on facilities for which there is no long-term use and stuffing the mouths of developers and contractors with gold.
When all their other justifications turn to dust, the cheerleaders fall back, just as did the supporters of the dome, on the claim that the Games will be some sort of tonic for the nation's morale. The unfailingly optimistic Tessa Jowell proclaims that we should cheer for the Olympics because three million primary schoolchildren think they are going to be medal winners.
That's three million children who are going to be bloody disappointed, then.
When the French lost the Olympics, they were stunned and upset that they had come runners-up to Britain, almost as stunned and upset as those of us who never wanted these impoverishing Games in our city. France has a better record of making a reasonable fist of grand projets like this. In the French presidential elections, Segolene Royal and Nicolas Sarkozy will be competing to please French national pride. How about inviting Sego and Sarko to bid to take the Games off our hands? Just a thought. A better one, surely, than the idea of squandering ballooning billions on this benighted five-ring circus.