Every four years, people switch on their TV to see who the world’s fastest man is. (Along the way, there are also amphibian breast-strokers, elastic children, man-mountains and various other embodiments of humanity’s finely honed cutting edge.)
The greatest show in the world rocks up to another chosen city, turns on the sporting firehose and blasts speed, strength and stamina for a month.
The global audience watches the spectacle at prime time, gasping as contingents of supremely sinewy people do things about as far removed as possible from chomping pizza/papads in front of the telly.
Denizens of said chosen city, meanwhile, are also gasping, but for entirely different reasons. Living in an Olympic-designated city is sort of like standing on railway tracks as a speeding, steaming locomotive hurtles towards you. Only, on its front is painted a nice bright yellow smiley face.
When London won its bid in July 2005 to host the 2012 Games, there was cheering in the streets. (Though short lived, as the very next day, terror bombings on the Tube and a bus killed 52 people).
Over the next couple of years, as the committee in charge of such things hatched plans and totted up the costs, the cheering acquired a nervous tone: Yay, hurray, uh what?
Five billion pounds!? (Mind you, this was pre-recession, when the word ‘billion’ still meant something). Of course, everyone knows if a committee says five it means ten.
While the Brits were busy chewing their pencils and designing the worst logo ever (famously described as Lisa Simpson going down on Bart) and the worst mascots ever (Wenlock and Mandeville, two indescribable oneeyed things), the Chinese decided to show the world what they could do if they snapped their fingers and barked “Orympics!” Western media lecturing about human rights abuses entirely failed to dampen a really good show.
When Boris Johnson, the eternally scruffy Mayor of London, attended Beijing’s stunning closing ceremony and accepted the Olympic flag, you could almost hear him gulp. Meanwhile, back in London, everybody had busied themselves building. A stadium and some quality sporting venues were top of the list.
But then, looking at the successful formula of the London Eye, some clever clogs decided to build more tall things with ticketed views. Enter London’s first cable car, from Greenwich to Royal Docks, offering 50m-high views for £6.
Also enter ArcelorMittal Orbit, Anish Kapoor’s 115m-high sculpture of twisted, looping steel, right next to the Olympic Stadium in Stratford, with £15 views. And, ENTER! the Shard, Europe’s tallest building, with its views set to be priced at a fittingly steep £25.
Though that’s a nice pub meal and afair few pints of ale to a Londoner, for Games goers, even that may not sound like much. Though the authorities managed to devise the most hellishly complicated ticketing system — pre-payment, crashing websites, ballots and whatnot — in its quest to be democratic, some people did manage to get tickets for £20. Probably for the fourth heats of the ten-metre kids’ three-legged race.
The really desirable tickets cost up to £2,000, with illegal reselling on eBay driving it up to multiples of that. Ten grand for a bleedin’ ticket? Yer ‘avin a larf, guv! The ones who are actually having alaugh are hotels and landlords.
London is an expensive place to stay in at the best of times, but the surge in demand for rooms has seen tariffs skyrocket.
The best hotels were booked out a while ago, at tariffs that could buy small cars; now the bottom feeders are repricing their plain and tatty rooms at hundreds of pounds a night.
Houses, too, are suddenly gold mines. A two-bedroom flat normally rented at £250 a week would easily fetch £1,000 a week at Games time. Landlords have resorted to evicting tenants, graciously telling them they can come back once the Games are over.
Corporates, of course, are besides them selves with excitement, the kind generated by the thought of plump profits. Did you know that the Olympic rings, torch — pretty much any imagery you associate with the event — are all trademarked? If you are a local baker selling cakes with five interlocked rings iced on, that’s copyright violation right there.
To make up for it, the companies who have bought the rights to be partners and sponsors have devised all manner of ads and commercials using the most clichéd themes.
From faster, Olympian broadband to stronger, Olympian breakfast cereal (or whatever), a relentless assault of sport-themed advertising has the average James on the street ready to gouge his eyes out with a teaspoon.
The British defence ministry, loving the chance to flash its hardware without the risk of getting shot at, announced a variety of over-thetop contingency plans to keep the Olympics safe from terrorists.
The best was the plan to mount surface-to-air missiles on top of some Waltham Forest apartment blocks, presumably to pick off terrorists trying that tired old 9/11 thing.
The residents, not very happy about having large quantities of explosive weapons placed on their roofs, have held protests and taken the government to court, to no avail. Missile lock is on. Meanwhile, some people are taking the ‘XXX’ in the 30th Olympiad quite literally.
Grim warnings have been issued of increased trafficking of prostitutes from Eastern Europe to service the demand. Call me ignorant, but who exactly is this ‘demand’?
Are hordes of people really expected to flock to London wanting to watch the women’s beach volleyball (purely for the skill involved, of course), and, in sheer disappointment that it’s sold out, trudge to Soho Square to drown their sorrows in a Jaegerbomb and a foreign lady of the night?
Or are Katja and Natascha special deliveries addressed to the hotel rooms of all the whisky-nosed suits from various national sports committees and federations?
Accompanying these pretty imports are supposedly more unsavoury types — beggars and pickpockets from Romania — being bussed in to prey on the bountiful pickings of an estimated one million fat-walleted visitors thoroughly distracted by shiny new tall buildings.
I haven’t spotted any of these light-fingered layabouts so far, but the easily-agitated Daily Mail tabloid has reported gangs of suspicious types camping outside Hyde Park.
You have been warned. The big question on every Londoner’s lips, however, remains: How will the Tube cope? The city’s iconic underground train network is an engineering marvel but some stations are over 100 years old. Despite engineering maintenance every night and frequent weekend section closures for upgrade work, the truth is, the Tube is bursting at its seams.
Ask any rush-hour commuter, packed and squashed into an uncomfortable curve, to ‘move in a bit please’ and he will shoot fire from his dead, glazed eyes. How can a million tourists, many of whom will not know much English and will be flummoxed by the colourful spaghetti of the route map, be squeezed in?
Tube train drivers have opportunistically held the city to ransom by demanding extra payments during the Games. And they’ve got it — the nice little sum of £1,000 for doing their job. Mon(k)ey see, mon(k)ey do: London’s bus drivers, public bicycle scheme workers and various other groups have also successfully tried the same tactic, gaining up to £500 from executive leaderships terrified of losing their own five-figure bonuses, er, I mean, inconveniencing the eager Games-going public and besmirching the fair name of London.
Needless to say, public reaction, in a time of recession, job cuts and pay freezes, has not been empathetic. Black-cab drivers, that proud and mouthy bunch who have committed the entire city’s road network to memory, have no one to demand free money from, so many have just decided to go off on holiday and escape the madness.
The Mayor has publicly urged them to stay and reap the windfall of tourist cash. But in their shoes, I’d jet off too, if the option was being stuck in eternal gridlock. And that’s what it will be, for even as I type, the arterial thoroughfares in London are being painted over with Olympic lanes.
With the top lane now demarcated for athletes, officials, media and sponsors, and the left-hand lane mostly already reserved for buses and cycles, it means the rest of the city’s working population will be squeezed into the middle lane.
The government has urged employers to make arrangements to let their staff work from home, but not many have, knowing full well that workers will instead be sat in front of the telly. Ultimately, though, Londoners — master complainers, seasoned endurers, and to be fair, actually pretty good at organising things — will grin and bear the Games.
The lucky ones with tickets will enjoy the experience. Shops, companies and transport drivers will mint a load of money. And we, the rest of the public, well, we will trudge on gamely. It’s no coincidence that the official song of the 2012 Olympics is Muse’s Survival.
Ex-Mirror journo Sachin Rao has lived in London since 2007. He has no tickets to the Games but does have a TV. And the local pizza delivery number