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Who says Britain can’t deliver the best?

Posted on 2 June 2009 | 8:06am

You can have all the factual analysis
you want, but sometimes major government decisions have to rely on the instinct
of the major figures in the government. Whether or not to go for the Olympics
in 2012 was one such decision.

 As I record in my diaries (page 657) we
were getting all sorts of conflicting advice and ‘people were blowing hot and
cold not according to hard fact and analysis. Tessa [Jowell, now Olympics
minster] had definitely moved towards yes, others had moved away. The worry I
sensed was that we would say no simply because it was easier than saying yes,
and then regret it.’

It was all the more easy to say no
because at the time the government’s agenda was dominated by Iraq. The short
record I made of the Cabinet discussion on the Olympics points out that the
main mood was ‘yes but’, with heavy emphasis on the buts.

But there was another important moment
in the decision-making process, which for length reasons only did not make the
edited version of my diaries, but will one day see the light of day. That was
when ‘Team GB’ presented us with a huge folder full of letters, mainly
hand-written, from sportsmen and women pleading with the government to go for
the Games.

TB spent part of the weekend reading
through them. Already keen to over-ride the scepticism of some of his
colleagues, the entreaties of the athletes ran with the grain of his instinct,
and had a big impact on the way he subsequently won the sceptics round.

I thought about all that yesterday, and
of the role he played in persuading the IOC to opt for London over Paris, when
I was lucky enough to get a personal tour of the Olympic Park. People talk a
lot about legacy in politics. Yesterday it was actually possible to see the
legacy of that decision in 2003 being built.

Put to one side the fact, as visitors
here know, that I am obsessed with sport. What was fantastic about the place
was simply the scale of evidence unfolding before your eyes that when people
say UK PLC is not up to big projects, they are talking rubbish.

Ok, Wembley took too long and cost too
much. The Scottish Parliament took too long and cost too much. The Dome –
another decision where TB’s instinct led the way – was widely deemed a disaster
at the time but is now reckoned to be one of the best music venues in the world
(and will host gymnastics and other sports in 2012).

But the Olympic Park is on a scale far
bigger than the lot of them put together. It is the size of Hyde Park. And it
is coming together at an extraordinary pace. Why else, you might ask, do we
hear next to nothing about it? Because it is going fine. There are very few
negatives and steady progress towards the meeting of objectives doesn’t make
for good headlines.

The stadium is beginning to look like a
stadium, and they only started building it a year ago. An extraordinarily
ingenious engineering project is well underway to pave the way for the roof of
the aquatics centre to go on. The foundations of the velodrome are going down
in an area that for the previous century was a landfill tip. Several of the
planned thirty bridges are being built. Huge lift shafts are now clearly
visible where eventually 17000 athletes and officials will be housed in the
Olympic village, which afterwards will house London families.

There is some impressive action on
sustainability going on too. Ninety per cent of the materials from demolition
of the 250 buildings that were here before has been re-used on site. There is a
giant soil cleaning operation going on to decontaminate the poisoned land that
was here before. Half of the materials arrive in the Park by rail or water (the
river Lea dissects the park). They have their own concrete batching plant on
site. And the legacy plans are already being talked about with every bit as
much enthusiasm as the centrepiece stadium, including the new school that will
be built when the stadium is reduced from 80000 t0 25000 capacity after the

Fears that the credit crunch would lead
to loss of confidence in the massive Westfield shopping centre project on the
edge of the park (a billion pound investment) have proven unfounded. That too
is emerging visibly, and quickly, from the rubble.

Construction will provide 30,000 jobs
between now and July 27 2012 when the Games begin. There is a strict health and
safety policy which so far, touch wood, has seen few injuries and no deaths
despite the mass of heavy vehicle, crane and engineering activity.

The Lower Lea Valley is in the process
of total transformation thanks to these Games. But the whole of London, and the
whole of the UK will benefit – from the Games themselves, the sporting and
social legacy, the image Britain can show to the rest of the world, and the
hope and confidence that will come from being seen to take on such a challenge,
and meet it. Each year, the Olympic Delivery Authority is publicly setting
milestones to be met in the next 12-month period so that people can follow and
judge progress for themselves. They are on track to complete the next set on
target by July 27, three years out from the opening ceremony.

As we toured the site, my eye kept being
drawn to the half laid white piping at the top of the main stadium. In two
years’ time, the stadium will be completed, and will quickly become one of the
iconic images of London. In a little over three years, 80,000 people will be
screaming themselves hoarse as acts of sporting greatness unfold.

And as they do, I for one will be very
grateful that a decade earlier, despite ‘the worry that we would say no simply
because it was easier than saying yes, and then regret it’ we didn’t say no, we
said yes, let’s go for it, so go for it we did, and we got it, and the Games
will be a resounding success. I’m more sure of it after yesterday than ever.

Take a look for yourself at

  • Susan McMorrow

    Like everything – when things are going well we do not hear enough about them – NHS, schools, training etc. I can’t wait for the Olympics, the event is going to be fantastic and I am so pleased that Labour had the balls to go for it – great post Alastair.

  • David

    Well said. I feel bereft that the party I support is not trumpeting the great success they have had these past few years. GB appears worn out. Cameron is lively but bereft of policies and appears opportunistic. The Labour leadership should pull themselves together.

  • Alan Quinn

    Being a Mancunian I’m not that bothered about the cockney games. Quite simply it wouldn’t have gone ahead without Manchester’s 2002 commonwealth games sucess after the Piclets Lock fiasco and the botched world cup bid.
    As usual London gets all the venues with nothing elsewhere besides a football semi final at Old Trafford.. The Chinese held the equestrianisn events in Hong Kong, 1500 km away from Beijing.
    A couple of events could have gone north of Watford Gap to show that this is a UK games but this is a London Centric country.
    The commemerative plates for the games are to be made in China, would the French have done that? Then we wonder why the BNP do well in the Potteries!

  • Ian Eastwood

    Hopefully by 2012 Britain like most of the rest of the world should be out of the deep recession we find ourselves in.
    The games could quite simply catapult Britain past all our competitors throughout the world. In terms of investment, and exposure on the world stage.
    So the timing back in 2003 long before this recession was envisaged, could have been the best one made to see Britain immerge better and stronger than ever.
    T.B. was always blessed with good timing. The lucky Sod.

  • Jamie Hills

    Can you imagine if things were NOT going well down there? We would never hear the end of it … even MPs expenses might get knocked a bit. The desire of some in Britain to will failure is matched only by the ability of those who really make things happen to do so. I go pass the site every day on the train taking me into town and like you I feel a real burst of optimism as I see the thing taking shape

  • Northern Frank

    So tjey even make the concrete in London … I thought these Games were going to be for jobs for the whole country?? Mind you, as far as the sport is concerned, I will defo look forward to that

  • Malcolm Ball

    I agree with the post that says this might coincide with the upturn and give us a real head’s start. But the pride I feel in Britain doing this is weakened by the dunderheaded behaviour of our Football Associations in Scotland, wales and Northern Ireland whose refual to commit players to a UK team risks making them a laughing stock. It also deprives their players of the one chance they are likely to have of winning a global tournament medal. Talk about short sighted

  • JimF

    “Wembley took too long and cost too much”.

    A year late granted, but built with private money for a lower construction cost than the Olympic Stadium. A lot of the £800m was finance costs and governments can borrow at cheaper rates than private finance.

    Wembley has a much bigger footprint, a bigger capacity more facilities. For less money.

  • Serena

    Talking of the Olympics just read you’re a great fan of ‘Chariots of Fire’ on today’s Guardian!!

  • Vortex Wingtips

    Would like to hear your views on the ministers, the politicians and the lame exscuses they are giving for “errors” and “poor accounting”. I think every one of those mp’s named and shamed should offer themselves up for reselection before the next election

  • Colin Morley

    Hope you’re right – that everything continues to go according to plan and that GB hosts a memorable 2012 Olympics. Worry – not the regeneration and optimism – that is great – just what the country needs in fact. Worry is those who are displaced and what will replace life for them. I am old enough to remember the wholesale dismantling of communities in the sixties to make way for “modern living” – OK it made life better for a few – but it changed the landscape and the culture of whole swathes of England (and presumably Wales and Scotland) and not always for the better. Change is inevitable and should wherever possible be for good. But if I were a displaced East Ender right now I may not feel so charitable.

  • Lucy Hill

    Dear Alistair,

    Hope you don’t mind me writing… I wrote an article published in the Guardian a few days before yours in the Mirror in February.

    The link to the edited version is and if you are interested I can send you a copy of the original which is more candid. (Mind also have a copy you could ask for if you would prefer)

    I applaud your discussion of depression, panic and bipolar disorder.

    What’s your take on psychosis and schizophrenia?

    Best regards,


  • Pete

    Just been on this website

    it is hilarious

  • BarBar of Oz

    The funniest story I read about the Olympics was in Cherie Blair’s autobio. This was at the G8 dinner when Japanese PM Koizumi leant across the table to the surrender monkey Chirac and said loudly “What do you think Jacques? Very good food here?” And burst out laughing. This was in reference to Chirac having said Britain had the worst food in the world. Everybody turned to look at the Queen, who assumed an expression of mystification. Chirac said to her: “I didn’t say it”. “Say what?” replied Her maj. Koizumi apparently went on to lead the gathering in singing Happy Birthday to George Bush. He must have had a few pints, Koizumi. He was quite a doll, imo.

    And the next day was the terror attack, so the Olympics got lost. It was great to go to that site, Alistair. Thanks.

  • JimF

    AlanQuinn – the IOC specified they wanted a compact games where possible in the bid document. London had to bid on the basis of one city and most venues close by.

    Now, when they are looking at saving money by moving boxing to Wembley Arena (next door to stadium, where I work) one of the considerations is the IOC desire for compact games. Not a conspiracy/anti-north thing but a bid requirement. Lots of teams will base themselves around the country so everyone will benefit.

    Glad the games are going well. They get b*gger all praise for it. The bid guys passed on a document to us at Wembley with the six stages of a successful project from the Sydney organising committee.

    It read:

    1. Euphoria
    2. Disenchantment
    3. Search for the Guilty
    4. Persecution of the Innocent
    5. Successful completion
    and finally…
    6. Glorification of the uninvolved

  • Thomas Rossetti

    Interesting article, Alastair, but I think it’s too early to say that the decision on the London Olympics was the right one. Juan Antonio Samaranch declared the 2000 Sydney Olympics the “best ever” and yet, years after the games, residents were enraged that the Olympic Village site was derelict and unused.

    Rather like the Iraq war — which may yet prove to have a positive outcome — Britain bid for the Games on a series of half-truths and deception. (According to “The Guardian” Ken Livingstone has admitted he *knew* the original budget for the 2012 Olympics was an underestimate and that it was likely to rise significantly if the Games were awarded to the capital. When people knowingly deceive the police they get into all sorts of trouble; when politicians deceive the public nothing happens.)

    It is simply outrageous to twist the facts to suit your purposes on the grounds that whatever you’re proposing will be beneficial to people in the end. It implies that they are too stupid to understand the facts.

    If I wished to marry someone I wouldn’t tell the girl (falsely) that I had a million pounds in the bank on the grounds that the marriage would benefit us both in the long run anyway. I would tell her the truth and let her decide for herself.

  • gary Enefer

    Sadiq khan has sent out an email asking people to vote for anyone accept the BNP. Even if you don’t vote Labour voting to stop these awful people is a better option.

    Sadiq is working very hard at present to help his constituents.

    Fellow bloggers – any ideas on who one should vote for?