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Comparing Olympic Notes: Chicagoist And Londonist Chat, Part II

By Kevin Robinson in News on Oct 1, 2009 7:20PM

2009_10_01_london.jpg Earlier today, we ran part one of our interview with Londonist editor Matt Brown. While he's explained some of the context of London's role in hosting the Olympics multiple times, he's also shared with us some of the concerns that locals have had with the build up to the games. And while Brown personally likes "big bold projects that can inspire," he also pointed out one of the potential downsides to hosting a high-profile global event, (perhaps more frightening to Americans that to the English): terrorism. "The very day after we got the Olympics, terrorists detonated four explosive devices on the transport network, killing 52 - the single worst terrorist incident ever in London. It's thought there was no direct connection with the Games. However, in the immediate aftermath, there was renewed solidarity and support for the city, which manifested in greater support for the Olympics. I don't think that's a continuing factor, but it was relevant in the early days after we won the bid."

Ultimately, says Brown, "there's nowhere on Earth that could stage the Olympics without some opposition, localised problems or budgetry challenges. Though support will never be universal, a city needs to have a reasonable amount if it's going to make a successful bid. London had that, coupled with an open wound of under-developed land and a rich history of staging such things. I have no idea if similar is true in Chicago."

What follows is part two of our IM conversation with Brown.

Chicagoist: Have people felt that the Olympics coming to London have been worth it, economically?

Matt: Yeah. On the economic side of things...the press take a real bipolar attitude. Some say it's a great thing as we have guaranteed construction and service jobs at a time of general economic woe. Others cost things differently and say it’s absurd to be spending all this on bread and circuses when the government are having to consider serious cuts to health and other budgets. I think there are too many factors at play here for the everyday person to have an informed opinion on the economics - so views are split here too. Did that make sense?

Chicagoist: No, that makes sense. It's the same argument, here: why should the government be spending such a HUGE amount of money on something like this, while schools and hospitals close? It sounds like people have the same sense in London, as well. Has it paid off, tangibly? Have you seen real economic benefits?

Matt: Too early, probably, as the increased visitors and improved services/infrastructure won't be apparent for a couple of years. But we're definitely seeing good signs. Plenty of construction projects, not really related to the Olympics, are now going full steam ahead in an effort to complete for 2012. I'm not sure the impetus would have been there had we not won the games.

Chicagoist: How transparent was the city government, going into the bid? And how transparent have they been through the process?

Matt: Well, always hard to say. If they've been successfully hiding would I know?

Chicagoist: Ha!

Matt: But I recall that during the bidding process, there was a big effort on the part of the organisers to hold local meetings with citizens to discuss concerns. They appointed Seb Coe to run our Olympic bid. He's a major sporting hero over here - multi-olympic gold winner. He did an impressive job of being a figurehead and reaching out to communities. Maybe that's a double edged sword though...whitewash over the truths and difficult questions by having a friendly familiar face doing the rounds. Anyhow, I've not really seen many signs of any serious cover-ups, lies or fabrications. Of course, the budget has increased. But (a) everyone expected that and (b) some things were beyond organisers' control, such as the doubling in the price of steel since the bid.

Chicagoist: What's the trade-off been, as a result of the cost increases for Londoners? Have taxes gone up? Have there been budget cuts in other areas?

Matt: Not really. Not yet. Much of the funding comes from our National Lottery. So there's an indirect loss there in that the funds raised by the lottery that would normally go to things like the arts are being diverted into Olympic coffers. So there are fears that museums and galleries could suffer. Currently, just about every museum and gallery in London is free to enter, but that might change under these financial pressures.
In terms of taxation, the local tax did go up a little at first, but nothing significant for the vast majority. There are concerns that workers unions might use the Olympics to try and demand extra pay. i.e. give us more wages or we'll not finish the job. Our unions have been increasingly militant in recent months. If that happens, it's feared taxes will have to be increased further to compensate.

Chicagoist: We're being told the Olympics will be built with private donations. But you've got the national lottery to pay for it - and keep museums free (we have to pay). I'm moving to London!

Matt: Ha!

Chicagoist: Do you think London would have been able to pull this off if it was being financed through private contributions?

Matt: Private donation is another big funding source here too. And they have secured a fair few sponsors. I don't think we could do it entirely on private contribution. The sums are huge - something like £10 billion here, I think. But it depends on the city and what's already in place. If you already have most of the infrastructure and a decent transport network to reach it, costs would be lower and it might well be possible from private money alone. But here we've had to decontaminate a huge area of land (which had 200 years of industrial crap all over it, including nuclear contamination) and build most of the stadia, media centres and Olympic village from scratch. Hence, we needed multiple funding streams.

Chicagoist: It sounds like you've got a lot of confidence in the London government, as well as the IOC, to pull off something like this. Is there a circumstance that would change your opinion? Make you skeptical?

Matt: Probably not me, just because of the type of person I am...I like to see big bold projects that can inspire. (I'm a big fan of the space programme, for example). More generally, I think most people have a positive outlook on the Olympics at this stage. It fits so neatly into our history, the piece of land was an utter shithole and needed sorting out anyway, and us Brits like to think we can still rule the world at sport, even if that's not quite true. I think it will all go horribly wrong in peoples' minds if there are too many 'white elephants' out of this. I'm talking about the legacy here. If the stadia are underused afterwards, or the massive new parkland that's being created proves too costly to maintain and just becomes the haunt of junkies...That's the kind of story the press will be looking for, and the kind of thing that will turn people against it. But all that comes post-Olympics. The key year will be 2011, when all the bits have to start coming together. It's looking like the stadia will be in place (the construction pace has been incredible, actually), but if there are other issues, like corruption of the organisers, or labour disputes, or major security concerns...sure, people's opinions could change.

Chicagoist: Well, Matt. Thanks for your time, and your expertise.

Matt: No problem.