Half empty stadia at the Olympics

It seems a tragedy that after all the hard work and effort many athletes have put in around the world we receive reports today that a country of 1200 million people cannot fill the seats for the opening rounds of competition between elite performers who are established as the best in the world. The authorities are bussing in staff from the games to make it look better, but it does lead one to ask what has gone wrong if there are insufficient people to attend on a normal basis. You would have thought that if it were your country hosting the event, and you had the chance to see the greatest and fastest in person at a stadium near you, you would clamouring for tickets.

I must confess in the last few days I have wanted to watch a bit of the Test Match with England’s new Captain, had to get another couple of blog pieces written, needed to pursue a difficult planning matter in the constituency including site visits, decided to catch up on some doorstep conversations, and felt a pressing need to start cleaning my garage out. I ask myself why haven’t I been glued to the TV screen to watch for the latest from Beijing? As I have talked to friends and constituents I have been surprised to find that some of them too have found other pressing engagements, even in this bleak cold and wet summer. I think our reservations at such a distance from Beijing are subliminal and more understandable. I do not think we are getting a fair picture of China from the huge team of BBCcheer leaders for the country, and many of us remain wary of the political use of the games to promote the host nation.

The other day when I was driving to an appointment I heard a BBC journalist offer us a radio essay on what restrictions the media are encountering in modern China. He told us he had been there – at our expense – for 23 days prior to the games. His radio portrait was littered with happy children in the streets, tree lined avenues adffording shade from the sun, the safety of their local communities, and the freer atmosphere toward criticism and alternative views. There was a not a line of criticism, no penetrating comment on the ostensible subject matter of the talk, no detail of what he could and could not say and do as a journalist from the West, and no comment on the censorship and human rights issues that are still so important. It makes me feel uneasy.

The UK government and the BBC have made the games an entertainment for the army of the elite that we are paying to send there. They are in danger of driving a wedge between China, the games and the rest of us. Let us hope some British stars emerge that we all support and want to watch. Well done to our competitors so far. I admire what they are doing, and wish them every success. I would like to see them succeed, but found the opening ceremony with its symbolism of powerful China too much to take. It is just such a pity that so much politics intrudes into the modern Olympics.

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10 Comments

  1. Mark
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Strange, I've seen or heard several reports on the BBC in the run-up to the Olympics that have been very critical of the Chinese government and its censorship (e.g. footage of Chinese police tailing BBC journalist and intimidation of people the BBC have tried to speak to). Perhaps there are two BBCs – the one you hear and see, and the one the rest of us get 🙂

  2. Letters From A Tory
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 10:40 am | Permalink

    I have no interest in watching an Olympics that is hosted by a country whose values are in such spectacular conflict with the spirit of the games.
    http://lettersfromatory.wordpress.com

  3. Johnny Norfolk
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Am I alone in finding the whole thing an expensive sham.

    I am sure far less could be spent on this kind of thing. I find the ammount of gas they are using on the flame is quite a disgusting symbol of waste.

  4. Neil Craig
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 11:45 am | Permalink

    I don't think the media have been particularly unwilling to swell on China's human rights. You can't introduce it to every programme any more than our complicity in the KLA kidnapping, dissecting & selling us the organs of at least 300 Serbian teens should be mentioned in every news item about Britain.

    The publicity given to that guy that put up a Free Tibet banner (in English so you can see who it was aimed at) did not seem to me to be to little.

    Both the Seoul & Mexico Olympics were held in countries with human rights records not better than current China's, but didn't stir any serious media discussion. Of course they may have been dictatorial regimes but they were our dictatorial regimes.

    Reply: I agree there has been coverage on the media of soem of the issues – but I could not contain my rage at the report I described which explicitly said it was a report about the independence of the media in China, was put together by someone not staying for the Olympics, yet white washed China.

  5. Keith
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    I love sport but I'm sad to say that I've watched very little of the games because I don't like China's Human Rights record. Neither do I like the rose-tinted hue of Beeboid reporting.

  6. Donitz
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

    The Olympics suffers from one major fundamental problem.
    It's athletics……………..

    Football, Rugby even Show Jumping are crowd pullers but athletics – yawn.

    Watching Dragons Den last night, a particular "road crash tv" fave of mine, I noted the young, hopeful "wanna be" racing driver with the pushy Dad begging for sponsorship. To which he was rebuked.

    Instead of the "London Olympics" our money should go into sponsoring potential British Sports Stars.

    They would under go selection criteria to assess just how good they potentially are. No second rate dreamers as we are not Socialists where everyone is a winner and there is no such thing as failure.

    The sposorship would come with the proviso that if they make it big they pay back the sponsorship ten fold. The surplus thus off setting the costs of the failures.

    A self funding system to award sporting talent not an expensive white elephant showcase for a sport of little interest.

    • Stuart Fairney
      Posted August 13, 2008 at 6:49 am | Permalink

      Maybe it's the chateau neuf du pape talking, but I half agree with Donitz. Half agree in the sense that we shouldn't be wasting money on Olympic white elephants, much less letting Tessa Jowell, (she of the notoriously iron grip of her personal finances), manage the budget.

      But where we part company is when I hear about political schemes that will offset their cost in some undefined 'long-term' This is the lepers bell of the approaching government financial disaster.

      As ever, we get back to the principle that we jail people who fail to pay their taxes, ergo, any expenditure must be so important that we would send our own mothers off to Holloway, if they wouldn't pay for it.

      So if some kid you don't know needs a life saving heart operation, okay, mum get our your cheque book. And I like tanks and aircraft as you never know when the French might get all stroppy again. But am I really going to jail my mother because she doesn't want to pay for some teenager to play badminton because they might one day be good at it?

      No. And neither should anyone else be forced to pay for nonsense like this.

  7. Richard
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    With tickets for the major events retailing for over £500 and hundreds, if not thousands of tickets being sold online on fraudulent websites it's hard to say that there is a lack of demand. Clearly the problems are logistical and technical.

    Let's hope we learn some of the lessons before 2012, lest we end up with another millennium white elephant…

  8. mikestallard
    Posted August 12, 2008 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    One of my relations is in the rowing. I am afraid that, like you, I found a lot of other more interesting things to do. It was only when I got onto one of the treadmills at the gym that I more or less had to watch.
    "Here they come" said John Snagg (remember him?) of the boatrace. "And there they go."
    In the half hour or so I was watching, he did not even appear.
    I am not a great fan of vicarious sport.

  9. wrinkled weasel
    Posted August 13, 2008 at 1:42 am | Permalink

    Better get that garage cleaned out, John.

    Years ago I was what you might call a hanger-on on the political circuit. You have met the type. It was just that I was partnered with someone whose parent was someone and I was morbidly curious about rubber chicken and people who wore mess uniforms that smelt of mothballs.

    Apart from enduring dozens of ordinary dinners I got with the best seats at many of the great London Events with the best views and a chauffeur-driven car to get me there and back. My hosts wouldn't get away with that level of conspicuous consumption-at-public-expense these days. But as for sporting events, I really don't understand the fuss. I didn't then and I don't now. You watch the Marathon; you sit at the finish line on plastic seats and you see sweaty knackered people trundling towards a sponsor-bedecked archway. You follow the boat race, in a police launch and you hope one of the crews might capsize to relieve the boredom.

    But one day, I was shocked and surprised.

    I was present at one of the most awesome spectacles it is possible to see and not die at the end of it. It was a display by the Kings Troop, The Royal Horse Artillery. Television cannot prepare you for the smell, the fear, the scale and the excitement of "The Drive" as it is called. Very large horses hurtle around and weave what look like suicidal patterns, whilst hooked up to very old and very heavy gun carriages. One of the things you possibly don't see on a small screen are the marker men/women who somehow have a role in making sure these monstrous entities do not make a mistake of, let's say, a few feet and a split second, and cause a catastrophic collision.

    (Sorry about this bit, but you understand why the British once had an Empire when you see what the Kings Troop can do.)

    And now to the point. The point is that TV is useless at conveying scale. It cannot give you a sense of awe of the world and it cannot, even in High Definition, convey the sense of personal triumph, the skill and the grit of those involved in sports and particularly the coordination and mastery of horse, men and limber. At best, all you can do is empathise. When an athlete, full of escaped endorphins, reaches the podium, on TV (at least) their cry of Veni, Vidi, Vici, is a strangled squawk, mediated by diodes and sub-woofers. It's not real. It never will be and it is no substitute for being there.

  • About John Redwood


    John Redwood won a free place at Kent College, Canterbury, and graduated from Magdalen College Oxford. He is a Distinguished fellow of All Souls, Oxford. A businessman by background, he has set up an investment management business, was both executive and non executive chairman of a quoted industrial PLC, and chaired a manufacturing company with factories in Birmingham, Chicago, India and China. He is the MP for Wokingham, first elected in 1987.

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