Why I remain an Olympics humbug, life on Mars and souvenir tweets

I feel like a grumpy parent who, finding the house clean and tidy after the teenagers’ 18th birthday celebration, still counts the empties and complains the revellers have exceeded official alcohol guidelines.

But I feel bound to point out that none of the arguments used against the London Olympics before they began is invalidated by the success of the Games. True, London’s transport breakdown never happened, nor did the terrorist attacks. True, too, the French, our chief rivals for holding the Olympics, had riots in Amiens as we basked in the afterglow. There is still no evidence, however, that big sporting events, no matter how stylishly organised and how many medals the host nation wins, bring economic benefits or increase mass participation in sport.

The public-sector budget for the Games was £9.3bn. Critics, including the Commons public accounts committee, put the true costs, including policing and security, much higher. Let’s say £12bn. That would buy (very roughly) 60,000 new houses or 1,200 new secondary schools or 24 new hospitals. Or pay the salaries of 60,000 nurses for a decade. Perhaps the success of the Olympics will persuade everyone of the value of public spending and collective endeavour and prompt the corporations that profited to close down their offshore tax havens. But I wouldn’t bet on it.

Private doubts

Anyone who thought the private sector, shamed by the failure of G4S to “deliver” Olympic security, had gone away, should note the creation of Pearson College, announced just as the Games ended. Offering BSc degrees (validated by two London University colleges), it will be run by the publishing conglomerate that also owns Penguin and the Financial Times.

Another Pearson property is Edexcel (annual profits: more than £60m), an exam board that lives on fees paid by mostly taxpayer-funded schools and which made extra money (until the practice was recently outlawed) from seminars showing teachers how to maximise pupils’ pass rates. One chief examiner was caught on video telling teachers how ridiculously easy its geography GCSE was. The textbook publisher Heinemann is also part of Pearson’s empire. It has a “partnership” with another exam board, an arrangement that has attracted the attention of Ofqual, the exams regulator.

Perhaps Danny Boyle needs to show schoolteachers and academics bouncing to music in gowns and mortar boards (Glasgow 2014?) if the march of the private sector into the public realm is to be arrested.

Old-fashioned kindling

Newspapers seem to be having particular difficulty coming down from their Olympics euphoria. Two days after the Games ended, the Independent was offering yet another 32-page “souvenir supplement”. If newspaper-reading households keep all the “souvenirs” of the past three weeks, and neglect to recycle them, it will not only deal a blow to the planet’s trees but also create a worrying national fire hazard. In the age of instant news, the papers go overboard for events such as jubilees and Olympics because, on these occasions, they still have a unique selling point. A souvenir tweet, after all, is a contradiction in terms.

To Mars to boldly glow

Dutch entrepreneurs, it was reported in the Guardian, plan to put four astronauts on Mars by 2023. The costs –much reduced because the pioneers will be emigrants with no means of returning home –will be met largely from a reality TV show. Viewers will not only watch live coverage of the Martian settlement’s progress, but also choose the first settlers from 40 volunteers (the others will follow at two-yearly intervals) who will have trained for a decade. Or so we are told.

The website (mars-one.com) looks convincing and lists a Nobel Prize-winning physicist among its supporters. But anybody who saw the early moon landings knows your average astronaut wouldn’t hold a television audience for more than 15 minutes. The organisers invite us to imagine watching a video of Columbus in 1492. But visitors to Mars are unlikely to encounter equivalents of Native Americans, only microscopic bacteria at best. Surely the sensible plan is to imitate the most successful emigrations in history and recruit convicts and religious maniacs who would reliably provide more edgy TV.

Cricket balls

I wonder how the English cricket authorities, who have just dropped Kevin Pietersen from the Test team, would have coped with Sidney Barnes, an Australian batsman some rated second only to Bradman. During a match in Australia, in which (after some sort of sulk) he was 12th man at his own request, a besuited Barnes wandered on to the outfield with mirror, clothes brush and deodorant spray. In front of 9,000 spectators, he delayed play for eight minutes as he spruced up the players and offered cigars. His many pranks also included raiding an icebox to slide heavy blocks down the pavilion roof close to England players at Brisbane in 1946.

Even Pietersen, a dreadful show-off who makes a performance of merely sending a gentle push into the covers, hasn’t achieved such heights of attention-seeking. But I’m sure Barnes, who had a rubber stamp made of his signature so that he could sign autographs faster than his team-mates (he, too, was eventually banished from Tests), would have master ed Twitter and internet videos.


Peter Wilby was editor of the Independent on Sunday from 1995 to 1996 and of the New Statesman from 1998 to 2005. He writes the weekly First Thoughts column for the NS.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality