As I write, an unusual protest is taking place. It began with a group of runners, not a group of people known for their militancy, and in the Devon village of Torcross, not celebrated for its left-wing credentials. The runners noticed to their surprise that for the majority of its route the official Olympic Torch was not being carried at all. The torch’s route is shown on an interactive map, and anyone who looks at the map for themselves will see the patters. Each morning, a car drives the torch to a town or a city, and half a dozen runners then take the torch through the centre of that town. The torchbearers each run for about 300 metres only, which takes an hour or so. The torch is then taken by car to a new town the following day, and for the majority of the distance it is being driven.
This ersatz relay offended the sensibilities of Britain’s amateur runners, who sparked by Torcross pioneers, have responded by volunteering in vast numbers to take a torch of their own across Britain – and Ireland – running in blocks of around 8 to 10 miles each. Every metre of its distance, the unofficial torch is carried by hand. Runners’ websites have taken up the story, and it seems likely that the Real Relay will arrive in London 10 days before the official torch, having involved around 800 runner
It is interesting that the Torch relay in particular has sparked this very polite protest movement, for the relay is almost the only part of the Games that most people will be able to see in the flesh. In most places, it has been well received, and is authentically popular. Some of the reasons for the relay’s visibility are relatively banal. The Olympic organisers had the choice of distributing the Games across Britain, but plumped for the “safer” option of fitting as many of the events as they could possibly manage within a single, purpose-built stadium. The organisers’ choice to keep everything in Straftord, or at the very least in South East England, is the sole cause of the Games’ net cost to the taxpayer of £11 billion. It has of course meant an absolute bonanza to the major construction companies – Bam Nuttall, Carillion, etc – blacklisters, union busters and promoters of bogus agency employment as they are.
The relative visibility of the Torch relay is a product of more though than just the Games’ over-concentration in London. The London Organising Committee (LOCOG) have actively gone out to minimise the amount of the Games that will be capable of being watched by anyone “in the flesh”. These decisions have included fencing the route of the cycle competitions and charging for prime viewing spots (to get a sense of how this contradicts the entire history of that sport, just cast you mind back to any images you have ever seen of the Tour de France, which, like almost every cycling road race, is of course perfectly free to view) and refusing public access to horse inspections (a decisions which has caused one of the main organisers of the equestrian events Hugh Thomas to resign). The organisers could also have taken for example the Olympic 10k off the track, where it is a visually boring and uneventful competition, to one of the thousands of routes (road, park, etc) used for 10k races up and down the country. They deliberately did not do so.
The Olympic torch route is of course free to watch; in this it compares to the main Olympics events for which tickets can already be purchased on ebay for over £400 per person. This is where the “one stadium fits all” model, which Mark Perryman has criticised on this blog, proves so pernicious. It concentrates access to the Olympics in as small a venue as possible, placing a premium on tickets for the Stratford stadium. One of the commercial secrets which LOCOG are refusing to release is what proportion of the tickets for the prestige elements of the Games (eg the men’s 100 metre and 800 metre finals) have been made available for public booking online. Before we get to the sporting public, there are at least groups of spectators who have priority: first, the global rich, second the families and hangers on of the London organisers, the Olympic sponsors, and the IOC committee members, and third, the purveyors of corporate hospitality. In the press, a best guess has been commonplace to the effect that only one third of the tickets for the prestige events have gone on general sale.
While the runners of the Real Relay have been objecting to the bogus nature of a running spectacle in which three-quarters of the distance is not being run at all, other critics of the Olympics have been at pains to point out two further blemishes of the Torch relay. First, rather than originating in some distant Olympic past, the idea of a torch relay agoes back only to the 1936 Berlin Olympics and was an invention of Nazi propagandists, temporarily enthused by the idea of connecting their regime to ancient Greece. Second, while the London organisers have publicised the torch relay as a tribute to 8000 of the most generous or the bravest of people, it turns out that at least 1200 of the tickets were handed over to corporate sponsors, and have in turn been cascaded down to various corporate executives, regional salesman, managers in allied companies who negotiated deals favourable to the donating company, and not least of all, Lakshmi Mittal, Britain’s richest man, and his son.