The irreverent, anti-corporate mood at the Olympics comes as a breath of fresh air.

What will the London 2012 Olympics be remembered for? It’s impossible to give a final verdict just over a week in, but one thing is clear: so far the Games are proving to be a rather contradictory mix of things, and not at all the slick corporate fest they threatened to be in the run-up.

The Opening Ceremony set the right tone. In the deft hands of Danny Boyle, director of films as diverse as Trainspotting, a darkly humorous portrait of heroin addicts in Edinburgh, and the feel-good sensation Slumdog Millionaire, the event contrived to be spectacular, irreverent, unconventional — and extraordinarily appealing.

Its portrayal of a multi-cultural London, its apparent dig at government policy via a celebratory section on the under-pressure National Health Service, its inclusion of trade unionists, and suffragettes campaigning for women’s rights, its choice of Shami Chakrabarti, the outspoken head of civil liberties campaign group Liberty, as one of the bearers of the Olympic flag seemed to lift it above the usual Establishment banalities.

Even the royal family came in for a novel interpretation, with the zany descent by parachute of the ‘Queen’, escorted by a tuxedoed James Bond.

While such elements may have left some international audiences baffled, they enthused many Londoners who found themselves caught up in the exhilaration of it all.

The ceremony was also refreshingly devoid of corporate elements, with the exception of the Rowan Atkinson “Mr Bean” interlude, where the comedian’s whisking out a Samsung Galaxy Ace mobile phone provoked a Twitter-rant about product placement (Samsung is among the Games’ major corporate sponsors).

ONLY MINOR GLITCHES

Logistically, too, the 2012 Games have got off to a good start. Earlier fears about security, after shambolic planning by G4S, the world’s largest security firm, forced a last minute scramble for reinforcements from the army, have so far proved largely illusory.

Transport, too, has not been a major issue, perhaps because of the message to Londoners ahead of the Games to “stay home and stay off transport” as far as possible.

In fact, thanks to the decision by many Londoners to escape the city for the duration of the Games, and a lower than usual inflow of regular tourists, public transport often feels far emptier than usual.

So far, the Games have been conducted with precision and good humour.

The security presence at venues and transport hubs is certainly not as oppressive as many had feared, while the thousands of volunteers responsible for managing the flow of visitors into, out of, and within venues have proved friendly and efficient.

There have been embarrassing moments: perhaps the most serious was the mix-up in the very first event over the flags of the two Koreas, a problem that threatened to escalate but seems to have blown over.

Other snafus have kept Londoners entertained and have generally added to the slightly irreverent, offbeat mood. There was the weird and wonderful moment when Boris Johnson, London’s mishap-prone mayor, managed to get himself stuck halfway up a zip-wire in one of East London’s parks. Eventually he was hauled down to safety.

As in previous Games, there have been plenty of empty seats. The sight of row upon row of these, particularly at the start of the Games and for several supposedly sold-out events such as tennis, gymnastics and swimming, has angered the many Londoners — along with some athletes’ family members — who had repeatedly tried and failed to access tickets.

The problem is reportedly largely due to seats allocated to international delegations not being used, with under-fire sponsors eagerly stressing that it has nothing to do with them. But the question remains as to why a problem successive Olympic organisers have faced persists so stubbornly.

The sponsorship side of it all, of course, remains very evident: approach any venue and you will confront a smorgasbord of publicity and product promotion. Once inside, you feel the push of sponsor power, from the pay “only” by Visa signs to the selection of beverages.

You see it in other ways, too. At a press conference, International Inspiration, a joint initiative to promote sport abroad by various charities and British institutions, was able to reveal the names of its own sponsors, who just happened also to be official sponsors of the Games.

It was a reminder of just how carefully planned, down to the last detail, the reach of sponsors is.

At the same time, the corporate side is one that Londoners are subverting quietly. Travel around London and you are likely to see small shops displaying the Olympic rings, or something Olympic related, in their windows, in defiance of draconian statutory legislation.

Venues are packed with spectators whose homemade snacks and picnics liberate them from the sponsor-dominated provision of food and drink. Long lines form at drinking water fountains as ticket-holders disinclined to pay for water fill up large empty bottles to sustain them.

Such small but significant gestures suggest that there is nothing inevitable about corporate domination of the Games. Countries — and ordinary people — have a way of embracing the Games and transforming them into something of their own.

FORGET THE ECONOMICS

It’s perhaps just as well that the Games are surpassing the low expectations of many.

For despite the best efforts of the Cameron Government to tout the economic benefits of hosting the Olympics, it is evident that it will be next to impossible even to recoup the Rs 78,400 crore of public money that has been pumped into the Games.

Few businesses, other than those in the immediate vicinity of venues, are reporting any Olympics-related boost to trade; hotels throughout the capital are finding themselves obliged to slash prices; restaurants and shops are quieter than normal for August, the peak tourist month, as are museums and galleries.

Speak to any London black cab driver and they’re likely to give a sigh of exasperation as they detail their slim pickings.

All this should have been evident to the Games organisers. Studies from the International Association of Sports Economists are replete with caution.

In a 2006 report, the European Tour Operators Association grimly concluded, based on the 1992 Barcelona and 2000 Sydney Olympics, there had been “little evidence of any benefit to tourism of hosting an Olympic Games and considerable evidence of damage.”

The government has also been attempting to give the Games an “investment spin.”

It is hosting a series of conferences for foreign dignitaries and businesses in the hope of attracting business — though exactly how much “business” can get done under the distraction and buzz of the Olympics is open to question.

“Hosting the Olympics is essentially a ‘holiday of a lifetime’ for a nation state,” observes a recent letter to the Guardian newspaper. “Worthwhile in that it will broaden cultural horizons and create a bank of warm memories to be drawn on in the future. But productive economically?”

So far, Britain shows every sign of enjoying its Olympic vacation. But with the bill yet to be paid, and the economy resolutely in recession, quite how this extravagant summer fest will be remembered is far from clear.

(blfeedback@thehindu.co.in)

(This article was published on August 5, 2012)
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