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Wednesday, Aug. 1, 2012

Olympic-class challenges

Special to The Japan Times

HONG KONG — The 2012 London Olympic Games has started, a feast of sports on land, on sea and in swimming pools to establish who is — to quote the Latin Olympic motto — citius, altius, fortius ("faster, higher, stronger").

There will be thrills and spills, brave records and terrible flops, many cheers and even more tears. But for all the excitement and energy, the modern Olympics suffer from three perils — I am almost tempted to say evils: (1) arrogant lack of accountability of the International Olympics Committee, which is almost a mini-state; (2) rampant commercialization; and (3) potentially dangerous chauvinism.

In Beijing in 2008, the Olympics was China's splashy coming-out party, a dazzlingly expensively choreographed event that might never be bettered. I was wrong: Danny Boyle's fantastical, whimsical, magical opening ceremony for the London Olympics surely deserves the all-time diamond medal for its brilliance with a sense of humor totally lacking in precision-minded Beijing. The queen parachuting in with James Bond, indeed; Rowan Atkinson (Mr. Bean playing with the London Symphony Orchestra under Simon Rattle).

The long-term outcome is uncertain: Is China today more international, a more mature global game-player, or does a dangerous chauvinism rule?

The most important test in London is whether the games give the United Kingdom a better appreciation of the world, and the world a better appreciation of it.

Controversies already rage in the U.K. about the costs and benefits of hosting the games: the hefty bill for taxpayers against the dreams of an economic boost; the cost of the new stadiums and facilities against the rejuvenation of depressed east London; the high-living of Olympics Inc. and disruption to lives of ordinary Londoners against a new enthusiasm for sport.

It is hard to imagine that the London games will turn a profit given the soaring costs. When London bid for the games, the budget was £2.4 billion. The official cost reached £9.3 billion in 2007, and the House of Commons' public accounts committee disclosed recently that the bill was "heading for around £11 billion." Sky Sports claimed that the true cost would be £24 billion if all items were properly budgeted.

The athletes' village cost £1.1 billion to build, but has already been sold, with taxpayers footing a £275 million bill for the loss. Jeremy Hunt, the gaffe-prone culture secretary, also responsible for the fiasco concerning the lack of private security guards for the games, called the village sale "a fantastic deal that will give taxpayers a great return and shows how we are securing a great legacy from London's games."

Organizers are trying to claw back as much as they can by selling the 11,000 single beds in the athletes' village for £39.99 each, cheaper than most tickets to the games (mattress is £49 extra), or a full bedroom set, with table and lamp, for £99.

Although the games' authority has not been tacky enough to identify and demand extra for the beds used by Usain Bolt or other superstars, one sales manager told the British press: "Who actually used each item? Their new owners will never know. But there is definitely a fun factor in speculating who slept on the bed, or which athlete pressed the switch on their lamp as they turned off the light the night before the most important day of their life." Yeeeeuk!

Anger is growing over traffic and other disruptions and the privileges for the bigwigs of the games. London is experiencing its "Zil moment", with 48 kilometers of special lanes set aside for official Olympic cars, while ordinary Londoners fume in traffic jams.

Some small businesses are being badly disrupted by rules and regulations. My niece runs a picture framing shop close to Earls Court, about 15 kilometers from the main Olympic Park. She has been told that she cannot have any deliveries from now until early September except between the hours of 1 and 6 a.m. Then noise abatement officials came round to warn that deliveries of glass in the hours of darkness might exceed the limits.

"What can I do?" my niece lamented. "I cannot afford to take a holiday for such a long time. It was ... just an edict."

What especially irks is the government's surrender to the unaccountable International Olympic Committee, whose members will not be running, swimming, wrestling, canoeing, riding or engaging in strenuous sports, nor will they be staying in the Olympic village or enjoying the jellied eel delights of the east end. Instead, they are staying miles away in the five-star London Hilton, all expenses paid by the British taxpayer.

Asked why IOC officials could not stay in a hotel close to the games, Olympic boss Jacques Rogge declared loftily: "I'm sorry but you will not find the facilities there are in this hotel, conference room, simultaneous translation — this is something only more upscale hotels have."

Why do they need interpreters when there are officials, coaches and athletes from every country under the sun? Why not meet in the center of the action?

Policing and protection of the commercialization of the Olympics has caused amusement and irritation, with, for example, butchers being told to take down displays of sausages in linked Olympic ring formation, and an argument about whether wearing a T-shirt with a Pepsi logo would invite instant banishment from the games. Yes, said Lord Seb Coe, chairman of the London organizing committee, since rival Coca Cola is a star sponsor; no, said British ministers, if not part of a Pepsi campaign.

The lasting legacy is more difficult to assess. London is probably the most cosmopolitan city in the world. The BBC claims that its inhabitants come from 200 countries and speak 300 languages. But they are a highly mixed group. They include high-flying denizens of the City and rich business executives from places as far apart as Russia, the Middle East and India, who together have helped to put London on the map as rival to New York as the world's best business center and driven prime London property prices to the highest in the world per square meter after Monaco.

The real cultural diversity of London comes from waves of much poorer immigrants who go back to French Protestant Huguenot times 350 years ago, through Irish, Chinese, West Indians, Indians and Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Turks. More recently, free movement of labor in the European Union has led to Poles and even French, Spaniards and Italians joining London's throng.

London's, and the U.K.'s, problem is that this wonderful cultural diversity is not mirrored in the rest of the country. There are pockets of immigrants in places like Glasgow, Leeds-Bradford, Leicester, Southall, but the U.K. as a whole is hostile to immigrants and likes to pretend being a homogeneous Caucasian country.

The sporting lessons of the games will be that being faster or stronger or going higher is not the preserve of any one country. Yet, the Olympics itself encourages chauvinism with the flags, anthems and league tables.

BBC World behaves as if the Olympics is the only show in the world, but to its credit recognizes sporting achievements whatever the nationality or color of the sportsman — which is more than can be said for most nationalistic media. Watch a televised Japanese football match in Tokyo: It is not commentary, but a chauvinistic scream.

The real test will come when the games are over, the athletes have gone home and the sickly British economy has failed to respond to the Olympic boost. Will the blotchy pinky-gray David Cameron retreat to his blotchy pinky-gray constituency and man the barricades claiming the uniqueness of the U.K.? He does have a tendency, as the satirical magazine Private Eye mocked, to be Lord Snooty surrounded by his gang of toffs.

Or will he seize the Olympic moment and understand that we are all on this fragile Earth together? Multiracial, multicultural Britain could win its brightest gold medal by urging that in politics and economics, as in sports, chauvinism is the biggest sin. Britain, Europe, the U.S., China, Japan, Asia, Africa, are in this together, and anyone's disaster hurts us all.

Kevin Rafferty will be staying away from his London home for the duration of the Olympics.

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