The long and winding road to 2012 – and the turning point of a stack of handwritten letters to Tony Blair
Posted on 27 July 2012 | 10:07am
It was as a result of a mid morning phone call from Tessa Jowell that I went to my diaries for 2002 and 2003 and tweeted some of the key moments in the history of the Olympic Bid.
She was calling from the athletes’ village, where she is staying for the duration of the Games as she goes about the place dispensing her kindness and sorting out any problems that come the athletes’ way. She was still bubbling over with the excitement of having taken Ed Moses to Brixton yesterday, as the torch passed through her constituency. And she was full of the joy of having been woken up in the early hours by a very famous voice emanating musically from the stadium. As part of Operation #Savethesurprise, I won’t say who it was.
And then, I confess, we did a bit of reminiscing about the long journey the last government took to go from inception of the bid, via winning Cabinet support for it, then to victory over Paris, and now, almost a decade on, the official ceremomy.
The diaries show Tessa, then Culture Secretary, as a constant voice arguing that we should go for it. So was sports minister Dick Caborn, who never wavered in his belief, when so many others were saying we had no chance, that we could beat Paris.
Tony Blair’s position was more complicated. Instinctively he was in favour. But fair to say he was somewhat scarred by The Dome (now one of the world’s greatest music venues of course), we were worried about yet another failed and expensive bid, and we were aware that several members of the Cabinet were much less enthusiastic than Tessa.
As a sports obsessive, I was always on the side of Yes, whilst understanding the arguments of No, not least the financial ones that were raised often by Gordon Brown, Alistair Darling and Andrew Smith. Clare Short was against, presumably in part on the grounds that we were in favour. I was surprised to read in my diary that John Reid had also opposed, as did David Blunkett initially, though he had come round by the time the decision had to be taken. Jack Straw and Ian McCartney both spoke of the fantastic impact the Commonwealth Games in Manchester had had on the North West as a whole (an impact which continues to be felt via the supremacy of Manchester based British Cycling). As with The Dome, when we went for it, John Prescott was key.
There are 18 entries for the bid in the index of Burden of Power, and for me the most important was the one for January 25 2003. I cannot remember who it was that had the idea of getting British athletes past and present to handwrite letters to Tony Blair, and put them together in a big red, white and blue Team GB folder, but it was a turning point. I remember names as varied as Paula Ratcliffe, Chris Hoy, Jess Ennis, Steve Cram, Denise Lewis, Steve Redgrave, and youngsters we had barely heard of, all setting out why they wanted to see the Olympics come to Britain. We put the file in TB’s weekend reading box for Chequers. He called a couple of times over the weekend, and I could tell he was deciding that despite the risks and the doubts, we could not not go for it.
It was interesting to see several political journalists among those welcoming my tweeting of all the relevant entries. Others, less charitably, thought I was just trying to get in on the act, or get Tony in on the act. I was certainly wanting to remind people that as with a lot of big projects, what seems obvious now was not always so obvious. I was moved by Tessa’s emotional call this morning to want to point out her absolute consistency throughout. And I wanted to point out too that when cynics say politicians never make change happen, the Games would not be taking place without the political support of the last and current governments.
I also agree with the tweeter who pointed out that it would be nice every now and then to hear David Cameron and Boris Johnson and Co pay proper tribute to their predecessors in making it all happen. Tony Blair never fails when talking about Northern Ireland to acknowledge the role played by John Major in laying foundations. Messrs Caneron and Co would do themselves no harm whatever to point out that the chapter they are helping write as the opening ceremony kicks off the Games tonight is part of a book that is bigger than them, bigger than all of us, and has many authors, not least the sportsmen and women whose letters to a Prime Ministerial predecessor played a big part in driving the political process in the first place.