Tag Archives: Olympics

Why I won’t just “back the Brits”

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There are a few elite runners I still want to do well at the Olympics – if I had to pick three, right now they’d be Asbel Kiprop, David Rudisha and Caster Semenya. At their best, they run ebulliently. And, when they run, they offer a vision of how different our entire world could be. There’s most at stake when Semenya runs (although her form, I know, has been atrocious this year). But both Kiprop and Rudisha represent a shifting border of conflict; an intrusion into some of the most prestigious parts of the Olympic sporting calendar of countries who were once tolerated only at the edges (the steeplechase, the men’s and women’s 10,000 metres).

Speaking of the women’s 10k, when Tirunesh Dibaba (above) won the gold on Friday, I couldn’t help but grind my head against the fact that when Live Aid took place she was just 6 weeks old. For all those images with which I grew up – of Ethiopia as the very epitome of African hunger and powerlessness – here was a woman showing that Ethiopians don’t need to be the object of someone’s else pity but can be the protagonists of athletics history.

The commentators on BBC rightly described her as a running “great”, the Guardian buried her triumph in a single column inch at page 13 of its next day’s coverage. And I doubt any of the other papers made more of her. In our debased media culture, the Olympics can only be communicated as a series of British triumphs or defeats – Dai Greene, scraping into the final of the 400m hurdles is a vastly more important story than the 6 athletes who qualified faster than him.

And this is one reason why I can’t just back the British atheletes, like we’re all supposed to do.

I know this must seem quixotic to some readers; I was born here. I have run in a number of UK-based atheletics clubs, and the only Olympian I ever ran with (now retired) was a sprinter in the UK athletics team. I read the papers, without meaning to, inevitably I know the names and histories of the British athletes better than any of their rivals. But David Cameron, Jeremy Hunt, Boris Johnson … I don’t laugh when I see these crooks integrated into the Olympic pageant, they make my body revolt that in my twenty years as a political activist our side has not done more to push them aside.

And sport does not exist in a walled city, immune from all that takes place all around. When Zara Phillips rides, I have a quarter of an inkling of the concentrated privilege that was poured into her upbringing. She will always be “their” athelete not “mine”. From the David-Brent managerialism of Charles van Commenee to the sexism of the Standard’s daily Olympic “hottie”, UK athletics is saturated in sporting politics which are utterly alien to me.

How much is Seb Coe paid?

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How much is Seb Coe paid for fronting up the Games? I should preface the following remarks by saying that I have no objection in principle to the idea that he should be paid something. He is not (in contrast to his fellow London Organising Committee (LOCOG) board member Lord Moynihan) a third-tier sportsman who has been over-promoted solely for reason of past service to the Tory party. Coe, who received his peerage before the Olympic bid, did of course also have a long and undistinguished career with the Conservatives, but he is where he is primarily because he is an Olympic gold-medallist and a multiple world-record-breaker, and the former holder of one of the greatest world records of all time (the 800 metre record set at Florence which lasted until 1997). By all accounts he works very hard indeed; and it seems generally accepted by people who followed the process closely that the 2005 speech he made to the IOC was instrumental in swinging the Olympic Games London’s way.

Seb Coe controls a large organisation with a significant budget. I would consider him at least as socially useful (say) as the head teacher of a large secondary school, or the vice chancellor of a modest university, and if the total amount of money that he was set to make from the Games was comparable to other public sector managers of that standing, I would see no reason in posting about it. But he is being paid rather more than that:

First, Seb Coe draws from LOCOG an annual salary of £357,000 p/a (2010-2011). This is determined by LOCOG’s remuneration committee, attended by Coe and five other LOCOG committee members. It met just twice in 2011. (The details of this salary are available in LOCOG’s accounts).

Second, according to his entry in the House of Lords Register of Interests, Coe has a a number of paid directorships, etc:

  • Non-executive Director, AMT-Sybex Group Ltd (which sells software to energy and transport businesses)
  • 0800 Reverse Limited 0800 Reverse Ltd (this appears to be a company marketing a “Battleship”-style gambling game)
  • Consultant, Chelsea Football Club
  • Speaking engagements (4 of these in the last 12 months) (Coe markets himself as a public speaker and can be booked through The Edge agency for c£10,000 per evening (Dwain Chambers gives the figure in his autobiography). This is relevant to Coe’s public activities, because the topics he speaks to (Leadership, The Art of Winning, Formulating the Perfect Team) relate to his present, publicly-funded role as Chairman of London 2012, not his past life as a private athlete.)
  • Seb Coe Health Clubs – Jupiter Hotels (he owns a number of health clubs in Leeds, Bolton, Kidderminster, etc)
  • Special Adviser, Nike International

According to the Register, Coe pays all remuneration from these sources into a company The Complete Leisure Group Limited of which he is the Sole Director.

The Complete Leisure Group appears to be a successor to “Seb Coe Ltd” (see below).

Tax

There is also the interesting question of whether he has been paying tax at the correct amount.

Just concentrating on Seb Coe Ltd first.

What the above figures appear to show is that in the two years in question (1 Jan 2007 – 31 Dec 2008) Coe was paid (ie received into his bank accounts) a total of £634,754.

Of this he has declared (just under) £20,000 as profit, and paid tax only on this smaller figure.

How did he do this? In 2008 Coe spent £41,760 on administering this company (i.e. presumably his accountant’s fee, and maybe some other similar disbursements), but in 2007 his “administrative expenses” were a whopping £587,359.

In essence, these administrative expenses have been set against both year’s income, turning a series of very high salaries into a very low profit.

It would be interesting to know why the administrative expenses were so much higher in one year than another. To my untrained eye (and as a non-accountant), the higher figure gives every appearance of an artificially generated tax loss.

I’ve attached the full accounts here for 2008 so that readers can read them for themselves. If there is a benign explanation, please do set it out in the comments box.

Now, when Seb Coe Ltd became the Complete Leisure Group here was a considerable change in the accounting model, which now confirms to those of a larger and more complex business than anything I’ve seen at first hand. Just to give one indication of its size, one of the business’s acts in 2010 was to write off £3 million in capital:

It “may” be that this figure of £3 million corresponds broadly to the real salary that Coe is now paying himself; but I’d be lying if I pretended to have the knowledge of high-end accounting to say this with any conviction.

I’ve attached the full accounts here for 2010; comments invited in the box below.

Reasons to demonstrate on July 28; number 3: the Tories

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My view of politics owes more than I care to admit to that of the Norwegian commentator who ended his account of that game in 1981 “Lord Nelson, Lord Beaverbrook, Sir Winston Churchill, Sir Anthony Eden … Lady Diana … Maggie Thatcher, can you hear me? Maggie Thatcher … your boys took a hell of a beating! Your boys took a hell of a beating”

But when I think about the Olympics, and who is celebrating, all I see are the bankers and the politicians, the pims crowd, the organisers of corporate hospitality and the Union Jack wavers, the people whose chests thrill with joy at the sound of Boris Johnson’s voice being broadcast to a hundred London underground stations.

Through the build up to London 2012, it has been our side – the people who love in social housing, the advocates of consensual policing, the London poor, the young, the users of green spaces, pacifists, those whose idea of a happy meal extends beyond the corporate sponsors of Macdonalds, Coke and Cadburys  – that has been taking the beating.

Imagine how much worse even than they are now the Olympics would be like if the Tories and the police were able to maintain their original lie that no-one in London would protest against the Games.

But we will be, of course:

Reasons to demonstrate on July 28; number 6: Olympic public announcements

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Lords Cricket Ground is nowhere near Kings Cross. There’s no good reason why every road sign on the Kingsway should have a further sign on its back too (saying “plan ahead” and advertising the GeatAhead2012 website)

The advice itself is no better than its publicity.

“Try changing your route”. Well, I live on the border of zone 1 and 2 and both the nearest, and the second-nearest, tube stations to my home are designated travel hotspots. I work out of offices right on top of Holborn station, which is where the Piccadilly line intersects with the Central line (i.e. the main line heading east towards Stratford). There will be no point trying to get to work by tube for the duration of the Games – I understand and accept that. But what other route can I follow? Crossing Euston Road by bike will be a nightmare. Kingsway itself is on the Olympic Route Network; and mid-way along it is Russell Square, the intended home of most of the world’s media. The road itself is likely to be too busy for either a bus or a bike to do any good. Even walking will be seriously disrupted by sharing the pavement with several hundred journalists.

“Try changing your route” is at the same time both obvious and inadequate. And what’s true for me is going to be equally true for anyone who crosses at any point in their daily commute Waterloo, Victoria, Kings Cross, Oxford Circus or London Bridge.

Condescending as they are, none of these are as bad as the sound of Boris Johnson’s voice being piped through the London Underground urging me to check these same banal websites with no useful information. I didn’t vote Boris; I (along with around one in three Londoners) detest him, his party and his friends. Hearing him on my commute, and being unable to “switch him off” – makes me feel like my city is under hostile occupation. And in a way it is; so long as the enemy is properly understood, not as some foreigner but as the native rich. It’s yet another reason to be protesting on July 28:

Poem for the London Olympics

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I believe in sport, in the chance it gives
To escape our cramped lives, to breathe deeply
To quit our towns of low plastic celilings,
Our days plugged in, without direct sunlight.

Standing tall, my back  straight, my head forward
I live. I steady myself and prepare
To spring forward: to move, and see anew
Parks, paths, flowers in an urban setting.

But you; who paint the worst polluters green
Who block my routes, who fence open spaces
For the private joys of spies and thieves

You, who bring rifles, jets, navy frigates
Armed police, to my London that was ease,

You have no right to speak in sport’s free name.

London 2012’s fake relay, and the runners’ Real Relay

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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.

Reasons to demonstrate on July 28; number 9: the injustice of Olympic “fast-track justice”

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A number of newspapers have been reporting plans reportedly drawn up by the Crown Prosecution Service to the effect that for the duration of the Olympics, courts are going to be operating special extended opening times, from 8am to 7.30pm instead of the ususal 10am to 4.30pm, and there will be a special “fast-track” for offences committed in the vicinity of the Olympics.

The fact that prosecutors are talking like a British version of Judge Dredd does not, of course, mean that they have the resouces to deliver on the same threats. After all, just five weeks ago, the papers were reporting that there will be fewer courts open during the Olympics than there are normally; the Crown Courts will be operating at only 50% of capacity, “Thames and Stratford magistrates’ courts, both situated on the specific ‘games lane’, will operate one courtroom only (for overnight cases) and planned youth courts will not be held at Stratford. Highbury Corner will deal with priority custody trials and productions from Stratford and Thames, whilst gateway traffic cases will not be listed at Waltham Forest.” I.E. the Coalition’s cuts, which have hit the criminal justice system especially hard, will prevent fast-track justice from taking place in quite the way that the prosecutors are saying. (And the senior judiciary, whose summer holidays are precious, are not playing ball).

One part of the latest announcement though which I do find genuinely troubling, however, is the suggestion that Magistrates will be expected to carry out a larger number of hearings by “virtual court”, i.e. by video link from police stations. This is a problem. Where virtual courts have been tried in London before (as they were in 2010-2011), they have been a manifest failure. You have to set up a timetable for the hearings (which are booked in 15 minute slots each), there are often connection difficulties, and in practice the pace of the court hearings is considerably slower than the ordinary courts.

More worrying than the general inefficiency of the system is what it does to the meanigful content of justice. At a Magistrates’ Court hearing a person may plead guilty, and if they do the court is expected to proceed to sentencing. Fifteen minutes is usually far too short an amount of time to deal properly with sentencing decisions, and you can imagine what an inadequate sense the Magistrates get of the peronality of defendants – who they see as a smal blob at the other end of a TV screen – and who will often be a drug user, a recovering alcoholic, a young person who has been in trouble lots of times before for very minor offences, etc. Difficult decisions, such as whether to jail someone, or whether to refer them for treatment, end up being made on the hoof.

Bad decision are made which have a long-term impact on people’s lives.  You could say something similar about the Olympics as a whole.

Details of the main July 28 protest can be found below: