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Last Updated: Tuesday, 20 March 2007, 15:58 GMT
Going for gold
The Olympic Stadium in Athens
Before Athens there were endless stories of unfinished buildings

By Clive James

Will the London Olympics be ready on time? The worry is always the same, whatever country hosts the global event. But instead of pouring billions into building new stadiums and sporting arenas, focus on getting the television coverage right - that's all people want, says Clive James.

After the success of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000, the Australian media instantly forgot that they had spent four solid years predicting doom and disaster all the way up until the opening ceremony.

The same scenario was played out in the prelude to the Athens Olympics in 2004, with the whole world's media running unending stories about unfinished buildings, until finally it turned out that the same people who had built the Acropolis could still build a basketball stadium, even if they had to set the concrete with a hair dryer.

Olympic site in London
Olympics budget is increasing to 9.35bn
In both Sydney and Athens, the Olympics went off as well as the Olympics ever do. Not even Atlanta in 1996 was quite the shambles the world's press made out. Most of the facilities in Atlanta were actually finished, even if a few of the buses from the Olympic village delivered some of the athletes to the stadium after their event had started, or to Mexico after it was over.

For reasons of newsworthiness the press would always prefer it if the Olympic Games collapsed in utter chaos, but with the understandable exception of Munich in 1972, they haven't done so yet. Why is it that one feels if they do, it will be in London in 2012?

Well, the chief reason one feels they might, is that they're already facing the prospect of a gargantuan overspend. Let's say, for purposes of illustration, there is a sport called piano-lifting and the new Wembley piano-lifting theatre - to a design by the internationally-famous maverick architect Nestroy Berserk - had an initial budget of 10m.

Artistic vision

Now, with only a few stacks of bricks and a concrete mixer actually in evidence on the site where the magnificent building is destined to stand, it turns out the cost has already gone up to 20m. This is because nobody told Senor Berserk the floor - which he had designed to be built out of Peruvian balsa - would be required to bear the impact of pianos dropping vertically when the piano-lifter failed to complete the required clean and jerk.

Offended by this philistine insult to his artistic vision he resigned in a huff, to be replaced by the even more volatile post-modern, pre-sane architectural genius Whacko Rubric. Herr Rubric, having disdainfully scrapped everything that had already not been built, has started again.


He is building something even more expensive, a translucent carbon-fibre cube with a randomised laser-lit roofline that reflects the resonance of a Croatian piano-lifter's bulging neck as he holds a Bechstein concert grand briefly aloft.

And the piano-lifting theatre is just a minor example. Don't even ask about the synchronised underwater squash court, which, after three years of digging, is only six inches deep, and is costing 1m a week to keep free of water while scholars argue about whether the Roman ruins that have been uncovered were once a temple, a military brothel or - as the majority opinion now holds - a synchronised underwater squash court.


The second reason for the prevailing pessimism is closely related to the first. Ever since World War Two, big British projects have acquired a reputation for not only going many times over budget, but for not actually getting done.

Unless you're my age or even older, you probably won't remember Britain's post-war ground-nut scheme. You certainly won't remember the nuts, because hardly any nuts were produced. What was produced was a large deficit, thereby establishing the rule that a bad project takes longer to stop if the money being spent previously belonged to the taxpayer.

Private enterprises like giant aircraft went badly enough, however, and almost always there came a time when the government had to support them with public funds, pending the day they could go into service and start losing money on a commercial basis.

Jesse Owens running in the 1936 Olympics
Much of the 1936 Olympics' coverage focused on the iconic Owens
The Bristol Brabazon and the Saunders Roe Princess double-decker flying boat - even in faraway Australia I was collecting pictures of them - never got beyond the stage of being photographed. The prototypes would appear at Farnborough year after year, always in a different livery to suggest all the world's airlines were clamouring to buy them, while elsewhere the Americans were getting on with the business of dominating the sky.

The biggest airliners in the world but also the slowest, the Brabazon and the Princess laid down the development pattern for the fastest airliner in the world but also the smallest. Concorde eventually got into service, but only after going monumentally over budget while failing ever to be a viable financial proposition for the luckless airlines that got involved with it.

As for the British weapons systems, if you regard war as a bad thing you should be pleased at how often the country's defence contractors built weapons that didn't work. Blue Streak, Blue Steel, Skybolt: always the impressive name, rarely the effective result, and never a prayer of being either on time or on budget.


This was the culture that eventually led to the Millennium Dome. The soaring ambition and the technical expertise were always there. What was never there was the clear-sighted ability to put together a good committee.

British committees had once successfully fought the German bombers, night-fighters and V1s by sheer analytical brainpower. But somehow, in the post-war era, that ability had been lost. Which makes it all the more remarkable that one of the Millennium Dome's most stalwart apologists, the writer Simon Jenkins, has come up with the answer, or part of the answer, to the Olympics fiasco.

He loyally went on calling the Dome an exciting construction even as its empty interior resonated to the hollow whistle of millions of pounds being sucked into oblivion. But uniquely among his fraternity he gained in wisdom from his discomfiture.

Dame Kelly Holmes
London getting the Olympics was greeted with unbridled glee
He now points out that the way to forestall disaster with the Olympics is to put up fewer new buildings and rely more on the fact that the television transmission is what counts. He's almost right. He'd be completely right if he said the trick is to put up no new buildings at all and think in television terms exclusively.

That last part is really what happened in Sydney. I was there to cover the Sydney Olympics and I soon found out that for the city's population the cool thing to do on a hot night was to watch the show on the giant screens in the streets.

Apart from the tourists, nobody went out to the stadium except old-age pensioners and the unemployed, and really not even the opening ceremony needed a building that big. There was no reason why the whole thing couldn't have been staged entirely to suit television and there's no reason why London shouldn't think that way now.

After all, London has already got the games. The International Olympic Committee might threaten to take them back, but the International Olympic Committee could always be told to take a running triple jump. The only true internationalism of the Olympic Games, after all, lies in the beauty of human bodies.


In 1936 in Berlin, Hitler got stuck with staging the Olympics because the date had been set up before he came to power. He didn't like internationalism - he liked nationalism - and the more racist the better. But for once he had the sense to soft-pedal the mania and let the film director Leni Riefenstahl shoot whatever she liked.

She paid particular attention to the supreme physical beauty of the American black athlete Jesse Owens. The enchanting spectacle of Owens on the move was the central motif of her film Olympia and it's still true today that the Olympic events that count are the ones that look good.

I invented the sport of piano-lifting because I didn't want to insult people who are sincerely interested in weightlifting, but I've never met any except people who are weightlifters themselves.

British Olympic stars promoting the London games
The naysayers are starting to challenge the cheerleaders
You don't have to be in the same building with many of them before you realise that there's not much room for anybody else. You don't have to watch them in action for very long before you come to the conclusion that weightlifting is of interest only to weightlifters and the brave people who marry them.

Nevertheless I'm sure the weightlifting venue for the London Olympics will be built on time, will be an inspiration to all the world's weightlifters and will come in useful in the future as a facility for turning young people away from knives and guns and towards lifting weights.

But I'm equally sure that when you add up the cost of all the new Olympic facilities, it will turn out to be a very expensive way of regenerating the area they cover.

With the money you saved from not building hopelessly specialised facilities for sports more boring than a shopping channel for machine tools, you could actually regenerate an area on purpose instead of just incidentally, and you could also put on a really good-looking televised Olympics. I don't mean with a lot of close-ups of girl gymnasts sticking their toes in their ears. I'm past all that.

But I do mean the Olympics have to be made less like the Academy Awards, where even the grace is ruined by the vulgarity and money gets into everything like a drug. But we won't even mention drugs.

A Point of View is broadcast on BBC Radio 4 at 2050 on Friday and 0850 on Sunday.

Send us your comments, using the form below:

Why not go one stage further and film the whole thing on a blue screen at Pinewood? We could even drop in a few CGI British athletes winning all the medals...
Mal Lansell, Finedon, England

Mr James correctly analyses that the main problem with Olympics is that, all of a sudden, brand new dressage rings are built in areas where are few horses or indeed aristocrats to dress them (thinking of Stratford in this case). However, speaking to a contractor intimately involved in the building process, it appears that most of the venues at the Olympic park will be disposable. The main stadium, for instance, will be largely dismantled and reduced in size from a Nurembergian 80,000 to a more manageable 20,000 seat arena. If the building plan is better thought out than in Sydney and Athen, then we can be sure that the opening ceremony will continue its tradition of incomprehensible naffness: 10,000 young people from diverse and underprivileged backgrounds executing a perfect morris dance for instance.
Julian Hofmann, London

Unfortunately there is too much common sense in Clive James Point of View for him to be taken seriously.
Bruce Gilbert-Smith, Jericho, Vermont, USA

Why is it that whenever this subject of projects comes up, the success of the Manchester Commonwealth Games and the building of the Millenium Stadium in Cardiff are always ignored. I appreciate that 'bad news sells' whilst good news is seen as a waste of the media's time but not everything in this country of ours is a failure (unless the Government, of any colour and persuasion, is involved). The secret is to avoid getting 'the powers that be' involved in anything and make sure that the project is not based in London or the South East!
Ken Tulley, Kendal, UK

Clive James sometimes says things that sound smart but his comment here is sense. We should seriously consider the Olympics as a show and a lot of what is spent is not good value for its purpose after. Re-think what is happening to run away with our money before we look back at another sad joke and fuel for future commedy shows. We have believed that people were in charge who had sense - but wishful thinking needs a reality check.
Trevor Carthy, Newcastle upon Tyne, N Tyneside

If Clive isn't interested in girl gymnasts sticking their toes in their ears, perhaps we can get them to lift weights while the weight lifters stick their toes in their ears. Or perhaps, we could get the girl gymnasts to stick their toes in the weight lifters ears; or perhaps the other way round. I'm going to go for a lie down now.
Richard, London

The Olympics may (almost) always be a success but is their impact on the environment really justifiable? The Olympics are not at all about bringing the nations of the world together - the world is a much smaller place today anyway thanks to the Internet etc.- the Olympics are about business. All the glitter and hype makes us forget this. We are a species in decline obsessed with building shrines to ourselves. We invite the peoples of the world to come and play games, and then tell them we don't want them in our countries. It's time to start living sensibly - the age of great projects is over.
Ivan N. Pachl, Trstenice Czech Republic

It's not just Britain. Canada just this year finished paying off the debt for the 1976 Montreal Olympics. Is Britain willing to spend thirty years paying off its Olympic debt?
Charlene, Calgary, Canada

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