London 2012

A Question of Sport Sponsorship

[First published on The Daily Opinion, 24/05/12]

The Cornish Pirates' Gavin Cattle carries the Olympic torchOn Saturday 19 May, at 11.30am (or thereabouts), the Olympic Flame was borne down the central street of Falmouth, a small but busy student town in Cornwall. The golden torch was held aloft by Gavin Cattle, captain of Cornwall’s only professional rugby team, the Cornish Pirates. The street was lined both sides with excited spectators; police officers had their work cut out just trying to keep people out of the path of approaching vehicles. The air of anticipation was palpable, yet restrained, as we Brits are wont to be.

With half a dozen others I watched the proceedings from the first-floor window of a flat on the main street, which afforded front-row seats, as it were. (Well, front row and up a bit. You could say we were in the Gods, in fact. I’m sure the original Olympians would have approved.) I had been feeling cynical about the Olympics (cynical? As a Londoner, I’ve been positively dreading it), but sitting here, looking out at the smiling faces in the sunshine, I had to grudgingly admit to feeling a little bit excited – feeling as though I were about to witness history.

The Olympic torch was scheduled to pass by our window at 11am, but (as is common with such events) it turned up a little later than expected. It probably could have reached us a good few minutes earlier, however, had Mr Cattle not been preceded by the Games’ ridiculous sponsorship entourage, comprising The Coca Cola Bus (replete with weary employees waving half-heartedly and shouting “Woo!”), the Samsung wagon, the BMW contingent, the Lloyds TSB truck, and several other vehicles marked simply “London 2012”, each bearing their own little glut of grinning, waving who-are-theys. The torch-bearer, bless ‘im, bringing up the rear, was almost an anticlimax by comparison.

My earlier cynicism was back. I could’ve sworn the Olympics was supposed to celebrate athletic excellence, not capitalist might…? We had gathered at this window to watch one of 8,000 honoured members of the British public take part in the Torch Relay, which was meant to be a way of saying that it is Britain, not just London, that is hosting the 2012 Olympics. To be blunt, what the blue hell does Coke have to do with that?!

I realise the Games is a massive event and that the money to pay for it has to come from somewhere, but these huge displays of corporate wallop are tacky and embarrassing. One of my friends pointed out that the small British flags being handed out during the procession had Samsung branding on the reverse, and opined that America, for example, would never dare deface its own flag in the name of corporate sponsorship. (The Cornish flags among the crowds were unadorned, by the way.) I’m not particularly patriotic, but I must admit, my friend had a point. However, as the Olympic Games is itself a brand (we all know the five rings logo), I doubt that we’ll ever see a return to Olympics free from intrusive corporate content. Perhaps I should just be glad that the money still exists to fund the Games. I just wish that the sponsors could be a bit more… restrained.

A Measure of Confusion

[First published on The Daily Opinion, 16/05/12]

This sign just blew my frickin' mind

This sign just blew my frickin’ mind

The increasing panic to get the UK – or at the very least London – looking spruced and respectable in time for the Olympics has shown itself in the somewhat unexpected form of Lord Howe of Aberavon (former Foreign Secretary under our own rust-topped Iron Lady of the 80s, Maggie Thatcher), as he demanded that the UK stop “dithering” and make the full switch from the imperial to the metric system of measurement before our Continental guests come over and laugh at us.

In a rant worthy of Enoch Powell (well, almost), Lord Howe claimed that the UK’s reluctance to pick one system over the other and stick to it “increases cost, confuses shoppers, leads to serious misunderstandings, causes accidents, confuses our children’s education and, quite bluntly, puts us all to shame.”

Aside from the laughable irony of a Lord calling for Britain to cast off the shackles of the Empire, I think that perhaps Howe is overreacting. I grew up with both systems and, whilst I couldn’t immediately tell you how many gallons to the litre (or even how many pints to the gallon, if I’m honest), I know well enough the measurements I need to use regularly and I can look up the ones I don’t (mille grazie, Google). Metric has been gradually replacing Imperial without children coming home from school in floods of tears, and presumably it will continue to do so until we’re all working exclusively in units of ten. If things have been happening organically and with minimal trauma, why try to push through a change now?

As a member of Howe’s “rudderless and bewildered majority”, floundering helplessly in a sea of grams and ounces, I would also call into question the wisdom of attempting to rush such a huge change through in time for the Olympics – if this were to happen, I imagine that foreign visitors really would see a lot of confused and befuddled Brits. Personally, the uncertainty over whether London’s transport network will be able to cope with the massive influx of humans is more than enough to be worrying about at this late stage (particularly if you’re a regular commuter into the capital). Add to that the allegation that someone recently challenged the security of the Olympic site by smuggling a fake bomb in, and I doubt that complaints over the serving of pints vs half-litres will even make the Oddly Enough column. It’s too big an undertaking to attempt in too little time. It’d be like deciding to repaint the kitchen an hour before the dinner-party.

Home Office minister Lord Henley, who was involved in the recent debate over the use of these two systems, was quoted as saying that he wasn’t convinced that the British public saw any real need to change the status quo. I would go further and suggest that the British public doesn’t even care.

The image of an esteemed Life Peer and experienced politician worrying that smug visitors from the mainland will be wandering around London this summer, discussing the failings of our measurement system in hushed tones behind cupped hands, is bizarre and ridiculous. Moreover, Howe’s assertion that our dual system will confuse visitors is nothing short of offensive.

Perhaps Lord Howe’s zeal is fuelled solely by a selfless desire to help strangers; more likely, though, his national pride is the driving force (another spot of irony, there).

Or maybe he just objects on aesthetic grounds to those rulers that have inches up one edge and centimetres down the other.


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