Thursday, 28 July 2011

A pointless Olympic junket

Apparently the start of the Olympic Games in London is now just a year away. Tickets have been sold and many eager sports fans left disappointed by not being able to gain access to even a first qualifying round of an obscure event. The very nature of an Olympic Games means that promotion, advertising and encouragement to either watch or participate are wholly unnecessary. Many more than the number that can be admitted to watch have applied for tickets already and all those with a realistic chance of competing have been well aware of next year's event for years.

For some reason the prior anniversary of the start of the event has been deemed an appropriate reason to spend millions of pounds on promotional events around the world. The BBC reports (here) that yesterday London was subject to a rally in Trafalgar Square at which the head of the International Olympic Committee invited competitors to London and the design of the medals was unveiled, the Olympic swimming pool was opened and both the Mayor of London and the Prime Minister made speeches saying what a jolly good games London will host. And (here) it reports that promotional events were hosted at British tax payers' expense at "nearly 100" foreign venues "to encourage visitors, businesses, students and sports people to get involved".

Has there ever been a more fatuous waste of money? I know the competition is stiff but this really does stand out as a piss-up-wall venture of heroic proportions. It's the bloody Olympic games for crying out loud. No one needs encouragement to visit London during the games, or to use it as an advertising medium (which is its only relvance to businesses) and absolutely no sports people are unaware that the Olympics come round every four years wherever they are held. As for students - what on earth have they got to do with the price of fish? I can't help thinking that these events exemplify three worrying phenomena.

First, we have domestic politicians lending their names and time (and our taxes) to an occasion of no relevance to anything domestic other than the standing of those same politicians. Had there been no rally in Trafalgar Square, no formal unveiling of medals and no formal opening of the swimming pool the games would happen next year just the same. As it is, events were organised. That gave a fine opportunity for politicians to divert from their selfless path of public service in order to be there and look good in front of the cameras of the world. They had the option of doing something useful instead and allowing the IOC to spend its own money promoting its own event without assistance from the UK tax-payer. Sadly, there are few votes and no fame to be gained by staying in the office and getting on with work.

Secondly, we have an unaccountable supra-national organisation flying a delegation into town and being treated like visiting heads of state. Why? The games will be held here next year and never again in my lifetime or the lifetime of anyone involved in the IOC. The venues will either be ready or they will not, the medals will either be pleasing to the eye or they will not, new rail and bus routes will either prove efficient or they will not, security measures will either prevent bombs being planted and/or detonated or they will not, visitors will either find hotels in their price range or they will not, everything else involved with the games will either work well or it will not, a visit by delegates of the IOC will make no difference to anything. All that will be achieved is the reinforcement of the concept that such people are special and are due special treatment. That, in turn, reinforces their unaccountability and the prospect of corruption.

Thirdly, we have an enormous waste of money with no one in power questioning a penny of the expense. It's only a few thousand, a few hundred thousand or a few million; chicken feed in the scale of government spending so it doesn't matter. To me it matters an awful lot. There are countless examples of local and national government throwing money at events of no value simply because the sum involved is minuscule compared to the total budget. I really don't care whether the total of all such sums would make a significant dent in the overall budget because they are a waste of money and should not happen regardless of their overall effect on a balance sheet.

I find myself asking why the Olympic Games is not treated like any other commercial venture. Be in no doubt, for the IOC it is a commercial venture just as the football World Cup is a commercial venture for Fifa. Those organisations rake in millions for their own use (and that of their officials) regardless of how much they then distribute to national sports associations. They operate like the EU. What comes first is the organisation at the top, everything lower down the pyramid of power is beholden to the, always unaccountable, Politburo.

In principle national governments are not beholden in the same way because they are not dependent on finance from the supra-national body, however the "ahem" in the woodpile is politicians. Politicians want votes and think, probably correctly, that associating themselves with those in charge of major sporting events is likely to gain more votes than it will lose. The unfortunate downside is that bribes have to be paid. I don't mean brown envelopes stuffed with folding cash (not in this country, anyway), what I mean is spending tax-payers' money to keep the international bureaucrats comfortable and to put on events that make them happy so they will heap praise on the hospitality given to and the respect paid by the Prime Minister to the august body they represent. There is no benefit to the people of the host country, all benefits land safely on the plates of the international bureaucrats and the domestic politicians who laud them.

The result is ever more power and influence being exercised by supranational sporting bodies. For so long as a national government wishes to gain prestige by securing the right to host a major sporting event it must butter-up the small coterie of bureaucrats at the top of the organising body. It would make economic sense for the Olympics to have a permanent venue because country after country that has spent many millions on stadia has found little demand for those facilities once the games ended. Well well, what a surprise. Were there a domestic demand for such facilities they would have been built and then paid for by the fees charged to the people who use them. As it is Olympic stadia for numerous sports are built in a closely defined geographical area which has never before witnessed any demand for such facilities.

Giving the Olympics a permanent home would remove the scope for the supranational body to exert influence, receive favours and bestow honour on incumbent politicians. That is why it will never happen.

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