London calling

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Unsold tickets. Security fiasco. Transportation woes. All is not well with the host city in the run-up to the 2012 Games, but the Indian contingent could thrive under such adversity

By Vishwanathan Krishnaswamy

Welcome to the arena The Olympic Stadium was built at a cost of £486 million and can seat 80,000 spectators
Welcome to the arena The Olympic Stadium was built at a cost of £486 million and can seat 80,000 spectators
Photo: CCL/Jeffowenphoto

WELCOME TO the world’s biggest quadrennial festival, where money can’t buy you chips, only a Visa card can. And where you can’t buy just chips (except at McDonald’s) because you need to buy fish as well from the caterer. Still, we can’t stay away from the Olympic Games in London. This is the biggest show on earth and comes only once in four years.

But first things first: Is it an Olympic Games or a war exercise? Are the athletes and spectators safe? Are tickets available? Is everything fine? Sample this:

• There are missile launchers on rooftops in east London and yet, we are not sure if we are safe, because the firm entrusted with a multi-million pound deal to keep everyone safe could not find enough people to secure the Games.

• In the months leading up to the Games, tickets were said to have been sold out. Now we hear, more than a million football tickets are unsold. So the organisers reduced the capacity of the stadia by five lakh, which now means only five lakh tickets are unsold. Innovative way to reduce inventory. Next, two lakh additional football tickets and an equal number in other sports have come back from the respective committees as unsold. A further 1.5 lakh tickets could be given out free to schoolchildren. Hey, this is still better than discovering bundles of unsold with a kabadiwala in New Delhi during the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

• Athletics legend Lord Sebastian Coe, who is the chief of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), said 98 percent of athletes’ trips from the airport to the Olympic Village had gone without a hitch. But the remaining two percent went on unscheduled “sightseeing” trips via Buckingham Palace and other places, which by no means fall on the route from Heathrow to the Olympic Village. All because the drivers their way en route.


 

Olympic Sideshow

Chips from Macs only or else buy some fish, too
Ticket-holders, visitors, spectators and everyone else associated with the Games, better be aware that if you want chips at the Olympics, then you better buy fish, too. Or else, head for the McDonald’s. There is no other way you can buy chips, because the arrangement between the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG) and McDonald’s, which has many critics anyway, is such that Mac has the sole rights to sell chips or French fries at Olympic venues. Other vendors can sell fish and chips together, but not chips alone. Wait, that’s not the only headache. Many venues have no cash machines, so you need to use plastic. And the only plastic card accepted is Visa. So, if you don’t have Visa, you go hungry, and if you want only chips, you either bow to Mac or buy fish, too. Tough life.


G4S to literally pay for shortfall 
Nick Buckles, the CEO of security firm G4S, which is under a lot of pressure, agreed that his company will pay for the 3,500 troops that are being drafted to cover up for the shortfall of security personnel at the Olympics. G4S would pay the costs arising from any police and military replacing its guards, including military accommodation. They may also pay £500 bonuses to the troops.


Amnesty to protest
Amnesty International will be holding a protest against Dow Chemical, which has funded the £7 million wrap around the Olympic Stadium. Amnesty is protesting because Dow owns Union Carbide, which was responsible for the toxic gas leak that resulted in thousands of deaths in Bhopal in 1984.


An F1 circuit around the Olympic Stadium? 
East London was a neglected area till the Olympics came around. Now everything here is turning posh and fashionable. Guess what’s next: possibly a Formula One circuit built around the Olympic Stadium. After the Games, the stadium will get a new tenant. The London Legacy Development Corporation will shortlist and finalise bids received from various quarters, including the newly promoted Premier League club West Ham, fellow east London club Leyton Orient, and there is also a bid from the UCFB College of Football Business. The stadium will also be the new centre for British athletics and host the 2017 World Championships.


Silencing The Voice
The Voice is Britain’s oldest and biggest black newspaper. But the newspaper said its reporters have been denied accreditation to the main Olympic Stadium.The Guardian reported that The Voice had described the decision as outrageous especially because of the high number of black British athletes competing in the Olympic Games. The newspaper has been given three accreditations for football, but none for the Olympic stadium. The Voice’s sports editor also told The Guardian, “Usain Bolt is Jamaican. We cover Caribbean, African, Black British athletes. Our readers are up in arms. They have gone ballistic.”


Packed Heathrow
The average number of people passing through Heathrow is about 1.9 lakh a day. But on 16 July, the first day of the week preceding the Olympics and when contingents began arriving, the airport saw a record 2.37 lakh, including 1,027 Olympics athletes and officials. The airport officials have not given figures since, but it is expected to be as heavy if not more through the week.


Different lanes
There is approximately 48 km of ‘Olympic-only’ lanes, which is part of the 170-km network that gives priority to Olympic vehicles. Motorists, who stray onto roads meant only for Olympic vehicles, will be fined £130. But there is also some amnesty if it is observed that they did so by mistake. About half the 1,300 traffic lights along the 170-km Games network have already been phased to green to speed up Olympic traffic.


Cold Comfort
Liu Xiang, the superstar Chinese hurdler gunning for gold, has left his training camp in London because he felt “it was too cold”.


A Sense of Insecurity
Fiasco. Shambles. Humiliating. Inexcusable. Astonishing. Unacceptable. Amateurish — These are some of the words used by British MPs when they grilled Nick Buckles, the chief executive of security company G4S, at the Home Affairs Select Committee. Buckles had been summoned to answer questions on how and why his company had “goofed up” on security issues, including its inability to recruit enough trained people and putting the Games itself at huge risk.

Such was the anger that the MPs seemed to have run out of words while describing Buckles and his company. The security agency, which obtained one of the biggest contracts of the Olympic Games, has come up woefully short in terms of delivery following a multi-million pound deal it had signed with the LOCOG.

Yet, it seems a wonder that the flak has been trained almost solely on G4S while LOCOG officials in-charge of hiring and monitoring G4S seem to have escaped the wrath, at least thus far. While Buckles himself will have to go, there will surely be a few heads rolling at LOCOG, too, for there are indications that the inability of G4S to deliver had been “hinted” at and “suggested” about in independent reports and some meetings over the past year and more.

Buckles’ admission that he did not know of the crisis as late as 3 July, just four weeks before the start of the Games, showed how far removed he was from reality.

One cannot help making a comparison of this fiasco with the 2010 Commonwealth Games in New Delhi. The disaster in India was in terms of the unforgivable greed that some officials succumbed to, while here in London, it is a matter of jeopardising the security of the entire Games.

Considering the times we are living in where even neighbourhood gatherings cannot afford to be careless about security issues, a lapse of this magnitude takes the sheen off what was otherwise promising to be a magnificent Olympic Games in one of the world’s most popular cities.

1,000
Guns and associated ammunition are coming in with athletes who will compete in shooting

The British media has been most unforgiving in its criticism of this colossal security gaffe. While describing Buckles’ meeting with the British MPs, one of the writers at The Guardian said, “He came across as someone who couldn’t organise a tea party at Twinings, or a pig-out in a pie shop. If I saw him searching bags and patting down pockets outside the beach volleyball venue, I’d run a medal-winning mile to reach for safety.”

The paper added that Buckles did himself little good by saying things like, “My first priority is to make sure that my company comes out with its reputation intact.” This, coming from the CEO of a company that has been the subject of the most intense scrutiny in recent times or probably the entire Olympic history, seemed most incongruous. It was almost as if he was living in a different world.

G4S has already lost heavily on the stock exchange and stands to lose millions in payment and yet it plans to hold on to its £57 million management fee for “doing what it has already done” and for the expenses it has incurred so far.

Nicola Blackwood, a Conservative Party MP, was quoted as telling Buckles, “Your performance today will lead quite a lot of people to despair. Before the meeting, we had little confidence in G4S. Now we don’t have any at all.”

500
Volunteers will be on duty at Heathrow and elsewhere and they speak more than 20 languages between them

eith Vaz of the Labour Party, the longest-serving Asian MP in Britain, and chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, was even more scathing. When Buckles told the committee that he was “disappointed”, Vaz replied that’s what he usually felt when his football team didn’t win. “Isn’t there a better word?” asked Vaz sarcastically.

A RECORD HAUL IN STORE
Medals have always been hard to come by for India at the Olympic Games. If you set aside the two silver medals from athlete Norman Pritchard in the 1900 Olympics, between 1928 to 1980, there was just one instance when India won more than one medal at a single Games. It was a bronze won on the wrestling mat at Helsinki in 1952, when India also clinched the hockey gold. All other medals — eight gold, one silver and two bronze — were from hockey.

From 1984 to 1992, there were no medals. But from 1996 to 2004, there was one at every Games. In 2008, it became three, including the first-ever gold by an individual athlete, shooter Abhinav Bindra.

£4,05,000
A Malaysian mining magnate has offered a gold bar worth this much if the country’s badminton team wins gold

Now, on the eve of London Games, there are more than half-a-dozen athletes in different disciplines who, in the past four years, have held the World No 1 ranking, won a World Championship or broken a world record. Surely that is a huge leap forward.

Archer Deepika Kumari goes into the Games as the World No 1 and the Indian women’s archery team is ranked No 2, while shuttler Saina Nehwal and boxer Mary Kom are ranked No 4 in the world. Shooters, including Ronjan Sodhi, Gagan Narang and Abhinav Bindra, have won World Cups and wrestler Sushil Kumar has won a World Championship in the past two years. So medal hopes are higher than ever before.

London’s showpiece An aerial view of the main stadium and the Orbit, designed by Anish Kapoor
London’s showpiece An aerial view of the main stadium and the Orbit, designed by Anish Kapoor
Photos: AFP

World Cups come more frequently and many of the World Championships are annual or biennial affairs, but the Olympic Games come once in four years and the competitions are all about handling pressure.

With greater international exposure, Indian athletes are no longer in awe of big names and that should come in handy as the 81-member Indian contingent goes for its biggest campaign since overtaking England and becoming the No 2 gold medal grosser at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

But are five, eight or even 10 medals enough for 1.2 billion people?

Approaching the Indian challenge at the London Games in another way, let me take you back to the words used by British MPs for G4S and its chief executive, Nick Buckles.

Till a few years ago, those may well have been the kind of words Indian media would have used for the “goings-on” in Indian sport or for the performance of its athletes at various major Games, where the number of freeloaders has often been more than the athletes themselves.

Now that G4S has given the word ‘fiasco’ a different meaning and dimension, the workings of Indian federations seem small change in comparison.

410 
The size of the Australian Olympic contingent, which is the country’s smallest in 20 years

Sure, there were minor ‘fiascos’ like the inept handling of tennis selections, lack of ammunitions or shuttle cocks, or athletes cribbing about not being given a fourth or a fifth chance to qualify (yes, that was true in the case of track and field competitions) or even the Indian Olympic Association leaving it till almost two weeks before the Games before deciding on the flag-bearer, which finally is going to be wrestler Sushil Kumar.

After performing this duty, the wrestler will go back to Belarus to train and return right towards the end of the Games for his event.

India could come back with anything between five and eight medals, and if that happens, it would be marked by great celebration. But the moot point is: for a nation of 1.2 billion people, which has spent more than Rs 250 crore in the past four years, of which more than two-thirds have gone for foreign exposure and another Rs 20-25 crore on foreign coaches, are five, eight or even 10 medals enough?

Well, that is a topic we can deliberate over post the Games.

Vishwanathan Krishnaswamy is a senior sports journalist.
[email protected]

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Medal hopes

GOOD BETS

Photo: Tumpa Mondal

Deepika Kumari: The World’s No 1 archer in the women’s recurve category has been in excellent form and is tipped by many to win gold for India

Women’s archery team: The trio of Deepika, Laishram Bombayla Devi and Chekrovolu Swuro, ranked No 2 in the world, are serious contenders for the team title

Vikas Krishan Yadav: The welterweight (69 kg) boxer is currently ranked No 9 in the world. Just 20, he has already been ranked as high as No 2

Photo: Getty Images

Vijender Singh: The middleweight (75 kg) boxer has the experience and pedigree. After winning the bronze medal four years ago, the 26-year-old is hungry for gold

Abhinav Bindra: India’s only individual gold medallist has taken time off to motivate himself once again. At 29, the 10m Air Rifle specialist has what it takes for an encore

Gagan Narang: The 29-year-old shooter has eight Commonwealth Games gold medals and three World Cup titles, but missed making the 10m Air Rifle final in 2008. A medal will be his crowning glory


FAIR CHANCE

Saina Nehwal: The shuttler is on a roll, having won two titles recently. She is the only player that the Chinese seem to fear. The World No 4 also wants to make amends for her loss in the quarters four years ago

Photos: AFP

Mary Kom: The 29-year-old multiple world champion gets her best chance as women’s boxing makes a debut at the Olympics

Ronjan Sodhi: Despite a world record, World Cup gold and an Asian Games gold, the double-trap shooter is taking part in his first Olympics. He is desperate to make up for missing the 2008 Games

Leander Paes-Sania Mirza: A determined, focussed and history-seeking Paes with an equally determined Sania can pull of a medal in the mixed doubles tennis

Sushil Kumar: The 2008 bronze medallist has also won the 2010 World wrestling title (66 kg), Commonwealth and Asiad gold. The Indian flag-bearer has the tenacity to shine on the big stage

Yogeshwar Dutt: The 60 kg grappler has won medals at all levels and this could be his final frontier


LONG SHOT

Men’s archery team: The trio of Jayanta Talukdar, Tarundeep Rai and Rahul Banerjee have the ability to pull off a surprise

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