Beijing Olympics: A tough act for London to follow

The 2012 host faces numerous challenges, including tight budgets, security concerns, and a dearth of homegrown Olympic champions in many sports.

Lefteris Pitarakis/AP
New hosts: A crowd celebrates the official Olympic handover ceremony, broadcast live from Beijing, at a free ‘London 2012’ concert on Sunday.
Dylan Martinez/Reuters
Waving the flag: At the official handover ceremony Sunday in Beijing, London Mayor Boris Johnson began his city's four-year countdown to the 2012 Games.

Follow that! Even before Beijing passed the Olympic baton to London on Sunday, British officials were gearing up to face a formidable challenge in matching the 2008 Games. The Chinese have raised the Olympic bar and some 2012 Games organizers are already trying to manage expectations.

Boris Johnson, the London mayor who received the Olympic flag on Sunday, has stressed that although “dazzled” and “blown away” by the Beijing Games, he is not intimidated. But Mr. Johnson and others who will preside over Olympic preparations face three challenges that the Chinese had less trouble with: security, homegrown Olympians, and cash flow.

The first was underscored hours after London was awarded the 2012 Games in 2005, when the July 7 bombings startled Londoners into realizing that they, too, were on the front lines in the battle with Muslim extremists. The Olympic site is positioned in the middle of one of Britain’s largest Muslim communities in the east London neighborhood of Stratford.

But the authorities don’t want the metallic grip of security to squeeze the joy out of the Games. According to Games minister Tessa Jowell, “The key thing is that the security is effective and keeps people safe, but it is not oppressive.” A security blueprint is expected at the end of the year. The aspiration is to enable people to soak up the atmosphere inside the Olympic park, even without tickets to venues – a bit like Wimbledon.

When it comes to the competitions, however, the hope is for anything but Wimbledon-like performances. In the tennis championship, Britain hasn’t won a medal in men’s or women’s singles since 1977. There are concerns that the British won’t come up with home champions to grace the 2012 Olympics. Only 12 years ago in Atlanta, the team won just one gold and failed to make the top 30 nations.

“Success is infectious,” says Mark Richardson, one of the few British medallists in Atlanta. “People want to see British athletes being competitive with a chance of getting a medal.”

With an eye on 2012, British Olympic leaders sent young talent to Beijing to observe what turned out to be the country’s most successful Games since 1908, when London hosted the Games, provided the judges, and invented events contested solely by Britons. Despite lacking those advantages in Beijing, the British team won 47 medals – 19 of those gold – coming in fourth in the overall medals count.

British cyclists, backed by multimillion-pound investments from the National Lottery, which were channeled in both facilities and sports science, particularly stood out. Aiming to buoy other sports with cold, hard cash, Britain has devised a national sponsorship scheme called Medal Hopes. But currently, there is a funding shortfall of £79 million ($145 million). With the economy mired in a credit crunch and tight rules restricting advertising on athlete apparel, sponsors could be hard to attract.

A similar cash crunch looms over the actual Olympic site. The budget, partly funded by a £20 tax on every London household, has quadrupled to £9.3 billion. Government ministers have warned that taxpayers will not cough up more. And, Johnson notes, Britain does not have a boom-time economy to bankroll a Bird’s Nest in east London. Instead, he is calling for a “value for money” Games. The International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge has countered that standards must not slip.

Already, there is skepticism that Britain can deliver such a massive project on a tight budget. East Londoners are also asking what will become of the Olympic park after the Games. They fear being saddled with a white elephant.

“There have been no proper discussions on handing the Olympics village over to the local community,” says Kevin Blowe, a local resident critical of the 2012 plans. “Major building projects do not transform areas. I’m sure it will be a great success. But none of that has an impact on the community.”

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