Mike Rowbottom: On Coe, Deighton and Johnson's trial by ordeal in City Hall

Thursday, 15 November 2012
Mike Rowbottom50The expected grilling Lords Coe and Deighton underwent during this week's London 2012 debrief at the London Assembly turned out to be more like the kind of grilling my home cooker provides – that is, patchy.

To be sure, there was the opportunity for both these architects of what has been widely acknowledged as a monumentally successful enterprise to bask in a spot of retrospective glory.

But the heat was turned on them with some intensity by Assembly members when it came to the vexed topic of tickets – and the future of the Olympic Stadium.

When the noble Lords entered the lofty glass edifice of City Hall's main chamber – with the backdrop of the Tower of London behind them – they moved in unison. Perhaps they were remembering the words spoken by Russell Crowe's character to his fellow slaves in the film Gladiator as they waited together in the Colosseum: "Whatever comes out of these gates, we've got a better chance of survival if we work together."

Maximus and his friends faced armed soldiers borne on chariots with scythes attached to their wheels; Coe and Deighton faced Assembly members Andrew Boff, Stephen Knight, Nicky Gavron and, most menacingly, John Biggs.

paul deighton deb coe london assemblyPaul Deighton defended the information provided to the Assembly on ticket sales, maintaining that it had been selective to help members see "the wood for the trees"

Knight moved in smartly after Deighton – who at one point stopped rather testily to correct one questioner over his name, which is pronounced Die-ton rather than Day-ton – had defended the information provided to the Assembly on ticket sales, maintaining that it had been selective in order for members to be able to see "the wood for the trees".

Deighton added: "What we tried to do was give you information rather than a data dump," before offering Knight the option of coming back to the London 2012 office to see the database for himself if he wanted.

Knight acidly thanked the London 2012 chief executive for this offer; but it was clear that he didn't want.

At which point Boff stepped in with a headline phrase: "Data dump? Yes please," adding: "If you have got clever data guys, why don't you just sent the data rather than us coming to you?"

Boff took the two men to task over the 2,470 tickets that were unsold for athletics, and the 2,952 tickets unsold for basketball. Deighton responded that the first total related to seats close to the Olympic Flame, which might not be safe for spectators to sit in.

Olympic-Basketball-Final-2012-Empty-Seats1The 2,952 tickets unsold for basketball was down to late calculations over restricted views in the arena

"So you allocated tickets to get burnt, or you just didn't sell them?" Boff asked. Rhetorically, one assumes.

The basketball figure was down to late calculations over restricted views in the arena. But Deighton, who was evincing signs of exasperation at this point, repeated the fact that the sell-out rate for tickets had been higher than 99 per cent, and that the discussion of these figures was not statistically meaningful.

Gavron took up the running, recalling how she and family members had managed to get tickets to a morning basketball session where the O2 Arena was "half empty". She added: "There were swathes of empty seats in very good positions. Why was that?"

At which point Lord Coe, metaphorically locking briefcases with the man next to him in an approximation of the linked shields with which Roman soldiers were schooled to defend themselves, stepped forward: "That's not how we would recognise that," he said. Which seemed a polite way of saying "Rubbish".

"All our statistics make very clear that these were full venues," Coe added. "We are confusing two issues here - tickets for sale, and seats made available for accredited individuals."

The harshest judgement on the ticketing process, however, came from Biggs, whose intensity and deliberation are faintly reminiscent of Hannibal Lecter.

olympic ticketsJohn Biggs said the promise to make tickets available for people of more modest means didn't really work

"There was a perception that it was less than transparent, and that a lot of ordinary people - not wealthy people - wanted to get lower priced tickets, and that they didn't game the system effectively," Biggs said.

"That they lost out simply because they applied for what they wanted to go to and they didn't get the ticket, whereas someone down the road applied for 27 sessions and got a handful.

"The perception was that it was a sort of scatter-gun that won, or a deep pocket that won, and the promise to make tickets available for people of more modest means didn't really work."

Coe faced the question too of whether the Olympic Stadium would become a white elephant, given that debate continues over who will fund the changes necessary to make the conversion required while retaining the athletics track which Britain's Olympic bidders told the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would be a lasting legacy of the site.

"No," Coe replied. "On the contrary. I think the Mayor is quite right to take his time to get a convincing sustainable plan. It is much better to make the judgement for the long term.

"If you are saying to me 'Was I always going to defend the global promise made by me and the Mayor that there would be an Olympic legacy in this stadium', then, yep, I will always do what I said when I said I wanted to deliver that."

After an hour, Coe and Deighton's places were taken over by the Mayor of London and Dennis Hone, respectively chairman and chief executive of the London Legacy Development Corporation. And it soon became clear that Biggs, sitting at the extreme end of the horseshoe of members so that he was almost facing the hot seats sideways on, had only been warming up on the grilling front. His plat du jour was Boris Johnson.

After Johnson had run through a timetable of work on the Olympic Park and confirmed that the Olympic Stadium would re-open "in 2015, or 2016 at the latest", Biggs moved in.

"Do you have the money to turn the Olympic Stadium into a global Premiership facility?" he asked.

"What I can say is that the cost of doing a stadium up in the way that Londoners will expect is considerable," Johnson responded.

"It was not designed for football. The decision was taken a long time ago not to do it that way. There is a discussion going on about how to achieve that. I think it would probably be wrong right now to go into too much detail."

bojo london assemblyBoris Johnson took a considerable grilling from the London Assembly members

Biggs continued, without missing a beat: "I think we can take the answer then that what is proposed is currently unbudgeted and unfunded. Do you take it as a failure if the Olympic Stadium is not re-opening until after the Closing Ceremony of the Rio Olympics?"

"Um," ummed Boris. "I think, that, er, unlikely."

"But would it be a failure?"

"Um, I think it unlikely."

"But would it be a failure?"

"I think that the Park is going to be a great success, and, um, that Stadium is going to be an outstanding success, and as I said just now I think it unlikely that you will be able to snatch any failure or sign of, you know, gloom."

"I have no desire to snatch a failure," responded Biggs, with a grin that was truly chilling. "I want a resounding success. But it does require decision-makers to be clear about whether they have the resources to do the job and if not to define a job that can be done on a realistic timescale."

As discussion moved on, Johnson became restive. And the source of his restiveness was Biggs, who, it seemed, was offering the Mayor some quiet advice.

"I am getting barracked," Johnson said to the chair of the meeting. "Are you dealing with him?"

The burly figure of deputy chair Darren Johnson removed himself from his seat at the centre of the horseshoe and made his way slowly to the Labour member for City and East London, leaning down to speak into his ear. Biggs nodded. It was like watching Roy Keane with his blood up waiting until the referee's lecture was over. Here is a contest – not sporting, but with sport as its context – which will continue to prove a compelling spectacle at least until the London Olympic Stadium opens its doors once again to...whomever.

Mike Rowbottom, one of Britain's most talented sportswriters, has covered the past five Summer and four Winter Olympics for The Independent. Previously he has worked for the Daily Mail, The Times, The Observer, the Sunday Correspondent and The Guardian. He is now chief feature writer for insidethegames.
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