BEIJING 2008 – SOME LESSONS FOR LONDON 2012

The spectacular Beijing Games of the 29th Olympiad, which l attended as a private spectator, were an enthralling sporting festival. Over 16 days we saw such dramas unfold in the Bird’s Nest stadium as the performance of the fastest man in the world, Usain Bolt of Jamaica. In the Water Cube pool we had similar outstanding performances by the US swimmer Michael Phelps with his personal haul of 8 golds, meriting a separate entry in the medals table on his own! This while the Chinese lost their “pin-up” boy Lin Xiang who pulled out of the 110 metres hurdles – the only real shock the hosts suffered as they emerged as a sporting superpower at these games. Let’s also not forget the huge success of Team GB coming fourth in the medals table.

So, in short, the Beijing Games will be remembered in years to come for the amazing sporting event that it was, as 43 world records and 120 Olympic records were shattered, rather than for the fireworks and theatricals. This is the first lesson amongst others to be drawn from the Beijing Games for when we host the next Games in 2012. Other lessons we need to learn from Beijing for London 2012 include managing the “IOC lanes” on the roads (reserved for International Olympic Committee officials and key sponsors of the games); air pollution measures; ticketing and touting; and the need to be hospitable to visitors.

As l moved between the various Olympic venues, Beijing seemed awash with Olympic lanes for the IOC officials and sponsors. Beijing has far more four-lane roads to meet such requirements than London, even though for most of the time the IOC lanes appeared empty. Here in London we will struggle to accommodate such lanes on our roads, particularly where we already have bus lanes. Thus it may be worth considering our bus lanes doubling up as IOC lanes, particularly in light of how little those in Beijing were actually used by officials and sponsors.

We should not forget that the major environmental issue of the Games was air quality, as it was in Athens in 2004, and in both cases it was suggested that the pollution would affect the performance of top athletes. The Beijing city authorities improved air quality by providing better and cheaper public transport, and by implementing the odd-even license plate restrictions that allowed the city’s private car owners to drive only on alternate days, as well as quite literally closing down the factories outside the city boundaries before and during the Games. Clearly the air pollution did not affect the athletes, as World and Olympic records were shattered, from the sprints to the marathon. And interestingly Beijing’s residents are demanding the continuation of such initiatives as the license plate system, so this truly becomes part of the environmental legacy of the Games. While London does not face the problem of air pollution to the same degree, it will nevertheless be a challenge to meet the EU requirements for air quality by 2010 and we should be mindful of how any slippage in achieving these targets may impact on our public image in relation to the 2012 Games, as air quality has clearly been established as the critical green issue over the past few Olympics.

Ticketing in Beijing clearly favoured foreigners, as the prices were pitched for local audiences yet were more readily available for those of us from abroad. Moreover, in the early stages of most events we did see many empty seats. This is not surprising as the level of interest in events clearly increases dramatically as we get beyond the qualification stage to the quarter-finals onwards. Some blame should be apportioned to sponsors not taking up their allotments of tickets; indeed it would have better if they had been given away instead. But we should be aware that selling tickets for 2012 at London prices will result in a great deal of demand amongst Londoners while making them unduly expensive for many foreign tourists, quite the converse to Beijing. In this respect some of our clubs have extensive experience of ticketing issues like pricing and distribution and we should get their advice and assistance. For example, it is no accident that Old Trafford, as one of the cheaper grounds in the Premier and with an extensive marketing operation, can sell 75,000-odd tickets every other week during the season.

As for the problem of ticket touts, interestingly the worst touts in Beijing were all foreigners who seemed to have an abundance of tickets, so not surprisingly when the authorities arrested and deported them this went down well with both locals and tourists.

And finally, now that we have taken the baton, we should acknowledge how well Beijing hosted the games. Londoners, like Parisians and New Yorkers, have a reputation for being short-tempered with visitors, particularly those of us like myself who live in Central London. Beijing, however, excelled in welcoming foreigners. It was as if the whole city treated us all like house guests, with most foreigners having tales of Beijingers reaching out to them with kind gestures. Furthermore, we probably won’t be able to provide anything like the huge army of helpful, smiling volunteers. But what London can offer instead is a mixing pot of variety. From the noblest arts to modern street culture, London has it in bags, along with a sense of humour and a great sense of occasion. Despite the difficult job London faces, nothing will stop me being in London for the 2012 Games.