Belfast Telegraph

James Lawton: Winter Games a cold house for fans

if Fifa president Sepp Blatter had become a professional rather than amateur comedian of inexhaustible bad taste he would more likely have been battered than booed at unforgiving places like the Glasgow Empire.

However, apart from his glib remarks about the John Terry controversy when he attended the Olympic congress here on the eve of the 21st Winter Games, football's leading politician did seem to be reasonably attuned to his sport's most pressing current problem.

This is more than can be said for the much more measured character who leads the Olympic movement, Belgian lawyer and former rower Jacques Rogge.

Blatter has finally latched on to the fact that this summer's World Cup, for such reasons as security fears and gross overpricing, is likely to sail beyond the reach of most committed fans across the world, not to mention the bulk of a South African population who are among the world game's most passionate supporters.

Here, he talked persuasively against the security scare-mongering mostly recently indulged by Bayern Munich president and former star Uli Hoeness and generally seemed to be alert to the need for some reaching out to a disenchanted public.

Oddly, though, Rogge seems to be oblivious to the fact that here in a city regularly voted the most desirable in all of North America there are feelings of disaffection towards the biggest sports show ever likely to pass through town.

We are not talking about the scheduled protests planned on behalf of the homeless. Apart from its seedy Eastside inner city, heavily populated by drug users and panhandlers, Vancouver and, say, the township of Soweto do not have much in common except a notable enthusiasm for sport, in this case here, ice hockey, and a growing sensation that they feel about as included in the great and expensive festival as urchins pressing their noses to the glass frontage of a swanky restaurant.

The charge is scarcely original but is being made with some force, not least by the local woman who gave away two £150 snowboarding tickets after learning that she would have to arrive at the site four hours before the start, by chartered bus, and also to remember to bring only cash or the card of the leading sponsor Visa if she wanted to eat or drink any of the Olympic branded nourishment available. Her decision to decline an outing that would consume most of a day at a venue that normally would have required a round trip of roughly half an hour was made finally after an exhaustive failed attempt to find out how precisely she booked the $20 bus tickets.

Another frustrated spectator, a lawyer, sold off his three tickets when he was told that he and his two children, one a four-year-old, had to report to a bus depot before 6am in the morning. “The feeling is that a big party is going on and we just haven't been invited,” he said.

Branding and security measures which are being deemed excessive have ballooned to over a billion dollars — 10 times more than their original estimate — and there is growing anger at the perception that these Games are largely for the benefit of Olympic enrichment and American television.

For the moment at least, Vancouverites are showing not too many signs of amusement. Nor is one of Canada's most distinguished Olympians, the double gold medalist of the Atlanta summer Games in 1996, Donovan Bailey.

He claims to be both angry and hurt by his exclusion from any of the ceremonials attached to the third Olympics staged on Canadian soil after the ruinously expensive summer games of 1976 in Montreal and in the winter of 1988 in Calgary.

While employees of local sponsors have been sharing the honour of carrying the Olympic fans, Bailey smoulders at his exclusion. “After winning two gold medals, I thought I might, at least in some small way, be part of an Olympics going on in this country — whether it was in winter, spring, summer or fall.”

Meanwhile Rogge celebrates an increase in IOC finances, that now have a reserve of more than £250m — enough we are told, to stave off the effects of any catastrophic failure to stage an Olympics. But then it’s hard not to wonder at exactly what might be staved off — a collapse in the momentum of world sport's hold on the hearts of the people, or some regrettable decline in the capacity of its gravy train?

In Beijing in 2008 thousands of good citizens were bussed to obscure locations to watch such compelling events as beach volleyball. Such automatic compliance will not be possible in London in two years' time. Jacques Rogge and his opulent Olympic colleagues might be wise to take note.

Belfast Telegraph


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