London 2012: Olympics and Paralympics

Tuesday, 9 October 2012 00:21 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

When the 2012 Olympics and Paralympics were awarded to London, opinion on the probable success was divided. The pessimists expressed concerns that London’s worldly cynics, sophisticates and marginalised urban poor, will not be moved by the international sporting event and that the city will end up in gridlock due to the huge numbers of visitors expected.

The special traffic lanes, offered by the organisers for visiting dignitaries, which even the ubiquitous London Taxis were not permitted to access, nicknamed, “Zil” lanes, after the traffic lanes reserved for gas-guzzling Zil limousines carrying Communist Party bosses in pre ‘glasnost’ Moscow, were especially criticised.

Londoners were openly making plans to be away during the Games, and travel agents were making lucrative offers expecting a bonanza of business from people who would take up their ‘Olympic Getaway’ special offers. Others were negotiating with their employers to be able to work from home during the Olympiad, to avoid the daily commute to work, which would have been disrupted by the Olympic traffic.

A waiting time of a minimum of three hours at the immigration counters at Heathrow was predicted, and the Immigration Officers Union, in true British labour union style reminiscent of the days when they fought the privatisation policies of the redoubtable Prime Minister ‘Thatcher, Thatcher, Milk Snatcher,’ announced a possible work to rule or even a strike, during the critical days on which athletes and spectators would travel to London.

The peak of scepticism was reached when the Republican Party candidate for the American presidency, while visiting London, expressed reservations whether the British public will throw their full enthusiasm and support behind the Games. Romney was playing on his performance as the man who took over a troubled organisational set up for the Winter Games in Salt Lake City, USA and is credited with turning it around. British Prime Minister Cameron, gave a scathing response to Romney, indicating that it was one thing to organise a Winter Games in some remote city and completely another to do a Summer Olympiad in the world’s financial capital!

The security firm which had been awarded the contract for securing the Olympic venue could not come up with the numbers of personal required and the British Army, Air Force and Navy had to be drafted in. Some units had just returned from operations in Afghanistan. Westminster Parliament’s Home Affairs select committee referred to the G4S performance as ‘an eleventh hour fiasco’.

G4S is one of the British Government and private business biggest outsourcers, Nick Buckler, the CEO, in his evidence before the House committee, said: “We deliver about four out of five notes in your wallets, we are the largest cash carrying company, we read four out of 10 of your meters, we run your prisons, we run your hospitals, so we do a large number of jobs to help British society.” When an outsourcer of such proportions fails to deliver, a disaster of Olympic proportions was naturally predicted and a sense of doom and gloom was rampant in the air.


Against all odds

But stunningly instead of the traditional British performance of bungling bureaucracy, aggressive trade unionism, middle class cynicism and hostility of the poor and marginalised, something extremely, odd and unexpected, except by the extreme optimists, happened.

First, the quixotic opening ceremony. Danny Boyle, producer of award winning film ‘Slum Dog Millionaire’ created a quirky widely-praised seminal event, including a cameo of the Queen parachuting into the Stadium for the opening ceremony, in the company of a no lesser person that James Bond – 007, himself!

Then Britain started winning! Great Britain came third in the overall medal tally, with 29 Golds, 17 Silver and 19 Bronze, an unprecedented total of 65 medals! The London Olympiad produced some stunning firsts – the largest numbers of participating nations ever at 204, 26 sports with 302 events; 10,500 athletes were estimated to have participated, gender equality was achieved for the first time – all participating nations had women competitors and London was the first city in the history of the Olympics to host the games thrice. Without doubt the London Olympics 2012 worked. The Army, some soldiers battle weary, just back from anti Taliban operations in Afghanistan, cheerfully stepped in to fill the gap caused by the discredited G4S. London’s transport system coped admirably. Controversial locations such as Archery at the Lords Cricket Ground and Beach Volley Ball at the Horse Guards Parade were superb.

Further, the average Brit, who is normally uncomfortable with nationalism and xenophobia, showed a stunning pride in the exemplary performance of their athletes! With an economy on a slide, misbehaving banks, a coalition government seemingly at battle within itself and the agonising urban youth riot in London in the recent past, the Brits shoved aside their traditional reserve and came out whooping up their stars, like Mo Farah, Jessica Ennis, and Andy Murray, even extending their support to that thunder bolt from Jamaica of the Commonwealth, Usain Bolt, who won the 100 metres in under 10 seconds!

Sri Lankans should know that a legendary teacher at Royal College, Colombo, St. Elmo de Bruin (nickname predictably Bruno!), a one-time Master in Charge of Athletics, who emigrated to teach at a school in Kingston, Jamaica, wrote to one of his Sri Lankan ex-students, many years ago, telling him about one of his students named Usain Bolt, who ran like lightning!


Stupendous Paralympics

The Paralympics which followed were as stupendous. Richard Whitehead, a double amputee, who runs on carbon fibre blades, won gold for Britain in the 200 meters, smashing his own world record; the Olympic stadium erupted in the same manner that Mo Farah was cheered for his double gold!

Britain came third overall in the Paralympics too, with 92 medals. The world witnessed with awe, the stunning feats of amputees, people with severe spinal injuries, learning difficulties, blindness and other physical and psychological challenges.

Disability, in the context of sports, is history – differently-abled is the way to go; that is the unmistakable legacy of the London Paralympics of 2012.

Overall the Unites States of America and China reflected their power in both the Olympics (USA 104 medals, China 88), in the Paralympics China (159 medals), Russia (73), showed the result of heavy investments in their differently-abled athletes. Great Britain came third in both (65 and 92 medals).

History helps; Britain’s Amateur Athletics Association, Football Association and Jockey Club are the world’s oldest. Lawn tennis, rugby, modern boxing, rowing, competitive sailing and most equestrian sports owe a great deal to British innovation, from the Marques of Queensbury who formulated the rules for boxing or the school boy who took the football into his hands and ran to the goal at Rugby public school.

One important point is that the Government had a relatively minor role in developing this sporting prowess. Before sport became professionalised it was non-government entities that developed the concepts, the rules and promoted sports. Professionalism brought in the business community. Self regulation came into being as governance was required.

The London Olympiad was a classic combination of enterprise, Government, sports administrators and sportsperson, cheered along lustily by the general public. Over 70,000 volunteers deployed by the London Olympic organisers made a huge difference; they made participation fun for the spectators. At the closing ceremony they were given a special cheer by the athletes and spectators in the stadium.


Lessons we can learn

What lessons can we draw from the London Olympics and Paralympics? Firstly, you need the fans, the Brits showed an interest in whatever was on offer, beach volleyball at the Horse Guards Parade, taekwondo, and women’s boxing or whatever. Secondly, you need the sports nursery – healthy, organised competition in schools. Thirdly, you need a strategy which is adequately resourced. A strategy must be an achievable one, not an aspirational pie in the sky!

Funding is important, the pivotal role of Britain’s Prime Minister John Major, who during his tenure, lined up the funding for sports associations from the National Lottery. Funding was not to the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, but to sports bodies whose performance was evaluated by their peers in the sports associations, and those who produced medals got the money. Politics was kept out. No funding to clubs in the ministers’ electorate! The political machinery in the department or ministry must support not gobble up the money or play political favourites! Britain’s long tradition of political and civil service governance and the alert media guaranteed this.

This brings us to the fourth lesson, which is political commitment. Unfortunately in many cultures this is confused with political interference. Politicians selecting teams, nominating captains, selecting venues, and getting involved in all manner of things, which are best left to properly-regulated sports administrators in the private sector; not to politicians or bureaucrats.

The other lesson is that there can be no ‘top down’ sports development which produces Olympic medal winners. The former East Germany tried that path, with their swimmers, sprinters and weight lifters and their performance enhancing drug-addled young bodies. China went on that path too and has found its folly. Individual American athletes have tried it and got caught.

Britain’s sports development has something very British about it. It evolved, performance by performance, learning from individuals who perform well, and building up capacity, over time gradually. In the same tradition of England’s Judge-made law, which was created by precedents of decided cases, not by ramming laws through parliament using a two-thirds majority or whatever; similar to Britain’s system of government, a constitutional monarchy, with Parliamentary control of finance and a rule-based accountable administration and an independent Judiciary.

Some may argue that the grand performances of totalitarian Russia and China do not reinforce this argument. But athletic prowess is ultimately within the power of the individual athlete. He or she needs a supportive environment, a free mind, and a guarantee of fair treatment to excel.


2008 Olympics

The 2008 Olympics were at Beijing in China. China won 100 medals in 25 different sports. 51 Gold, 21 Silver and 28 Bronze. The cost of preparing China’s athletes for Beijing 2008 was close to US$ 586 million. That would make it more than $11 million spent for every gold, or $5.86 million for every medal.

China hired the best professional coaches for their athletes, no matter what the cost. There were as many as 38 foreign coaches. The women’s hockey coach was a South Korean, fencing coach French, baseball coach American, women’s basketball coach Australian, rowing coach Russian. Igor Gringko, the Russian rowing coach, who was paid $ 90,000 a year, said: “Coaches like me help them to win gold medals, or we are fired.” Forty-four days before the Olympics, a German kayaking coach was.

Even at Beijing, the most surprising performance was Britain’s. The British team returned home burdened with gold bullion. 19 Gold, 13 Silver and 15 Bronze, coming forth overall with 47 medals; the USA was placed second and the Russian Federation placed third, defeating heavy hitters such as Australia, South Korea and Japan.

Lord Moynihan, Chairman of the British Olympic Association attributed the success to money, management and commitment. “John Major deserves a gold medal for providing lottery funding.” (Almost all British medal winners were on a National Lottery stipend.) “Every pound received was totally directed, money alone does not deliver medals, and it is entirely about how it is spent.” Lord Moynihan also praised the political commitment: “Across parties, sport is considered a hugely influential force, touching every area of commitment from health and education to international relations. Government has bought into it, opposition has bought into it. British sport has so often been characterised by one year reviews, then an upheaval, then a review, new faces, new systems. You have to have continuity. You can’t expect a company to bring in new management every year and do well. There’s no difference, there has to be a professional, business like mindset.”


Sri Lanka’s performance

Sri Lanka’s performance at the Olympics was nothing to write home about, except for a solitary differently-abled soldier, who was deservedly rewarded and feted. There was also some talk of an inquiry into why coaches of athletes were left behind and ‘others’ were taken to London.

Our neighbour India had a few successes at the Beijing Olympics, one Gold, two Bronze, and the winners spoke out – Abhinav Bindra who clinched the Gold in Men’s 10-metre air rifle event at Beijing, said: “Indian sports needs CEOs with targets. Our culture of honorary functionaries removes all sense of responsibility while imparting authority to control the future of thousands who sweat everyday across the inadequate training facilities which dot India.”

Writing in the Times of India, Bindra put forward a six-point plan for ‘Changing the Face of Indian Sports’:

1. Promote sports in schools. Spot talent early and provide scholarships to the under privileged high performers.

2. Improve infrastructure. Only proper infrastructure at the grassroots level can nurture talent. The facilities at the National Institute of Sports Patiala haven’t been upgraded since the 1980s. India has about 20 synthetic surfaces for hockey, compared to Holland’s 400 and Australia’s 350.

3. Administration needs professionals. The truth is that politicians heading sports bodies have abysmally failed to deliver. They should make way for professionals. Professionalising sports bodies is a pre-condition to excellence in any sport.

4. Training for coaches. We need to spend on specialists who can train our coaches and physiotherapists.

5. Increase budget allocation. India’s sports budget for the year 2005-06 was Rs. 292 crore. That was just 0.06% of the national budget. Australia spends roughly four times more with a population 60 times less.

6. Corporate support. There is a need for corporate groups to seriously encourage sports at the grassroots level. Not only provide rewards post performance. How about top business houses getting together to adopt an Olympic sport each? In London in 2012, India had six medals, two silver, four bronze, no gold. That is one medal for every 20 million Indians! Clearly Bindra’s points have not been taken into account and operationalised, or they have an extremely long gestation period!


Lessons for Sri Lanka

What lessons for Sri Lanka? Next to the management of land, and employee-employer relationships, sports is probably the most overregulated sector in Sri Lanka. The regulations made under the Sports Law No. 25 of 1973 cover reams of paper. These are mostly obscure and not known; only the bureaucrats have copies and these are trotted out to stifle any national sports administrator who gets too uppity.

There is a total lack of transparency in the politico-bureaucratic supervision (as against blatant unaccountable interference) of sport in Sri Lanka. This too must be addressed. Autonomy and accountability for the National Olympic Association (NOC) and National Sports Associations (NSA) is simply not there. It’s all bare bones politics. Even team selections are done by politicians, sometimes at the highest level. Critics have been heard to say that our NSAs are run by politically-aligned oligarchs with perpetual succession!

All this may be tolerable if there is performance. Only performance is reality. All the words, explanations and promises are useless; it is only performance that counts. Sri Lanka is nowhere, except in cricket, which is the exception which reinforces the rule. But in cricket too we have seen ugly manifestations of disease in the system. Kumar Sangakkara spoke about this in his incisive Cowdrey memorial lecture at Lord’s.

The system must free from politics. Schools sports must be supported. Skilled coaches must be developed. NSAs must be brought under rules of governance and held to account for performance. Rules must be observed and discipline imposed. Sports events should not end up in fisticuffs, even there seems to be the patronage of power behind the fists.

Gambling on results is becoming a curse, as is the use of performance-enhancing substances. These are not purely Sri Lankan problems, they are international problems. But there are national and international solutions, which must be applied locally. The Beijing and London Olympiads have shown us the way. Nothing seems to have been learnt from Beijing. May be the lessons from London 2012 will be learnt, internalised and applied?

(The writer is a lawyer, who has over 30 years experience as a CEO in both government and private sectors. He retired from the office of Secretary, Ministry of Finance and currently is the Managing Director of the Sri Lanka Business Development Centre.)

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