Just say no | 19 February 2005

Broadsides from the pirate captain of the Jet Set

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Far be it from me to give advice to the Queen — last I heard she is one wise and experienced lady — but she’s dining this week with the 13-member IOC evaluation commission, which is charged with judging the various bids of cities trying to land the 2012 Olympic Games. Feign sickness, Ma’am, the worst thing that can happen to London after Ken Livingstone and traffic wardens is the Games. I know, I know, Athens were the best Games ever, so why shouldn’t London have its turn? Well, plenty of reasons, and none of them boring. Athens had no Underground, no good roads to speak of, an airport hastily assembled to welcome Charles Lindbergh in 1927, and athletic facilities inferior to those of any junior high school in the great state of South Dakota. The Games rectified all that, with state-of-the-art roads, stadiums galore, an airport which makes Heathrow look like the French garrison’s at Dien Bien Phu, and an Underground fit for Kings Farouk and Fahd, and any other spoiled fatties from down south.

But — at a price. Greece is now in debt until the year 4032, give or take a year, and that is only if the EU powers that be give us a favourable rate. (Rwanda and Swaziland are also willing to help us, and we have dispatched a team of bankers to negotiate. Alas, last we heard some of them had been boiled and eaten, but nothing has been confirmed.) When Athens first tried to bid for the 1996 Games, the centenary of the Olympics, my childhood friend Spyro Metaxas, of Metaxas brandy fame, was appointed head of the Greek delegation. His budget was $950 million dollars, which may sound small, but, as he says, if one does not overcharge in order to get kickbacks, it is more than sufficient. Metaxas is obviously a very honest man, and, like most honest men, he came in second. Coca-Cola won the 1996 joke games, and Athens had to wait until 2004.

Was there corruption among the Greeks running the Games? Definitely, otherwise the budget would not have gone up close to 12 billion euros. Was Yanna Angelopoulos involved? Of course not, she’s got billions of her own. But I know some of the characters who used to be involved in sports — not as athletes, mind you — who are now flashing some pretty expensive toys, like yachts and Ferraris, which means they either suddenly got very, very smart in business, or they got big kickbacks. Never mind. Athens showcased Greece, and proved that we can compete with the best, so what’s a few billion euros down the Swannee?

London, however, doesn’t need any of these headaches. It’s got plenty of its own without the Games. The last thing London needs is more four-lane motorways, more housing in the south-east, and more traffic. And more overtime for the fuzz. The Brits have proved that they cannot build stadiums except for the Dome. Let Paris have the Olympics with all the headaches involved. The French are better organisers, can spread the events around better —I’d much rather compete in Avignon or Nice than in, dare I say it, Liverpool or Leeds — and their high-speed trains can transport crowds even when there are leaves on the tracks.

So, take my advice, Your Majesty, and stay in bed. Let Tony do the showboating. He will just about be finishing his fifth term by then. Ironically, King Constantine of Greece and I lunched with Spyro Metaxas this week and discussed the Athens Games. The King was delighted at their success, while Spyro grumbled about the costs. ‘Think about how many hospitals we could have built,’ said Metaxas. The King, of course, is a member of the IOC and has nothing to do with budgets. His idea back in 1965, when as monarch he paid a state visit to Spain, was to have smaller Games every four years in Olympia, where the Games first started in 700 BC. He bounced the idea off Franco and his brother-in-law, the present King of Spain, only to see it stolen from him by Constantine Karamanlis, the Greek prime minister 20 years later. It is a brilliant idea which will never be accepted because too many people make money out of the Games. There is no room in the Olympics for football, baseball, softball, beach volley ball, tennis, synchronised swimming and diving, and Taekwando. And no sport whose first priority is not the Games should be included.

The way to go about it is to raise the qualifying bar, thus keeping most of the fat cats who accompany ‘athletes’ back home. There should be around 2,000 to 4,000 athletes maximum; in fact, fewer than 2,000 would be ideal. And every four years in Olympia. Punto basta, as they say in the land of pasta. Next week I will tell you why I’m in plaster and have massive concussion. No, it wasn’t skiing.