London's troubled Olympic genius

Should sane Londoners flee the city before its Olympic hordes arrive? From sponsorship arrangements to transport management, it seems an empty city is the organisers' grand plan.

FT.com

Mea culpa. I had thought that the 2012 Olympics were destined to descend into chaos. I now know that the games will be a triumphant celebration of London’s place as an unrivalled global hub. My first error was to underestimate the guile of the organisers; my second to be naive about the proper measure of success.

The scales fell from my eyes the other day when the London Underground suffered another of its catastrophic breakdowns. Thousands were trapped underground in baking heat. The grand design suddenly came into pin-sharp focus. Some might have thought this latest incident was another reason why sane people should flee the capital before the Olympic hordes arrive. Well, yes. But – and here is the brilliance of Lord Coe and his fellow 2012 panjandrums – that’s the plan.

The strategy was put in place many months ago. It began with an announcement that every decent hotel room in London had been pre-booked by the apparatchiks and commercial sponsors who, without a hint of irony, go by the name of the Olympic family. This 40,000-strong elite had also grabbed all the best seats at all the best events.

Hot on its heels came a statement that arterial roads will be cordoned off into Zil lanes to allow members of the family to be whisked between hotel suites and stadiums, pools and velodromes. Mere mortals whose vehicles stray into these reserved routes will face draconian penalties. Residents will be fined for parking outside their own properties.

Those with the temerity to challenge the branding rights of sponsors can expect similar punishment. London has been gifted to McDonald's, Coca-Cola and the like for the duration of the games. Wear a T-shirt advertising Pepsi and you could be sent to the slammer.

David Cameron has played his part. Innocents may have thought that the chaos at Heathrow has been no more than another example of the manifest incompetence of Cameron’s government. Theresa May, the home secretary, is incapable of managing an immigration queue. Images of the dire conditions at the airport have been aired on television networks around the world. What better way to persuade people to stay away.

Every lull in the build-up to July’s opening ceremony has been carefully filled with bad news. Boris Johnson, newly re-elected as mayor of London, has published guidance for those who might want to move around the city during the games. In summary, it says they should walk, get on a bike or stay at home. Passengers at every big rail interchange have been told to expect delays of at least an hour even before they can be crammed like sardines into steaming carriages. Tube travellers buckle in the summer heat at the best of times. For the games, Johnson is proffering an invitation to hell.

Some folk will manage to reach the Olympic park. There they will be stripped of any food and drink they might be carrying to sustain them during the spectacle. How else to force them to pay the exorbitant prices that will be demanded by official franchisees?

Businesses have been forewarned. Lest the transport network completely implode companies have been told to slash the numbers of employees commuting into the centre. Workers will stretch their vacations or spend time with their laptops in the garden. Never mind the economy is in recession.

It is when you put the pieces together that the ingenuity of the 2012 organisers takes shape. From the very beginning the plan has not been to stage a great carnival, but to empty the city. London will belong to the Olympic family and to those lucky souls with tickets.

I had fondly imagined that a successful games demanded public participation. The organisers have understood that it is the billions who watch the games on TV who matter. The images beamed to Beijing, Delhi, New York and Tokyo will be the real measure of success.

These distant viewers will see athletes skipping untroubled through a deserted and well-staffed Heathrow. They will see reports of trains running smoothly, of red buses speeding along unclogged roads, and of restaurants, bars, parks and museums with plenty of room to spare. For a month or so London will actually work. Only those of us who actually live here will know that it is all a fraud. That’s what I call genius.

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2012.

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