Alan Hubbard: London needs Bojo to win to put some mojo into the Olympics
Sunday, 29 April 2012
But if I lived in London I would be doing so on Thursday (May 3) because I believe Boris Johnson has the X-Factor and deserves to be re-elected over Ken Livingstone not only because of what he has done for sport in the capital but for what he is likely to do for the Olympics.
And that is bring a touch of humour and bonhomie to the Games which at the moment the upcoming event sadly seems to be lacking, as one prominent artist now working on the Cultural Olympics was saying last week.
My fear is that there won't be fun in Games we seem to be pursuing with the grim-faced win-at-all-costs resolution that once characterised sporting philosophy in the in the old Soviet bloc.
Which is why we need Bojo to get his mojo working.
Nothing personal Ken. This isn't really about politics, but personalities.
In his four years at City Hall Blue Boris has done more raise the profile of grass roots sport in London than Red Ken ever did, with cash investment and schemes to get kids off the streets into exercise and games. And, famously, get Londoners on their Boris bikes.
Much of this is is down to one of the best moves he made – crossing the great political divide by inviting the former Labour Sports Minister Kate Hoey into his his team.
It is a cross-party double act that has worked splendidly, for both Bojo and Hoey have a genuine feeling and appreciation of sport which Livingstone lacks.
Ah, I hear you say, but didn't Ken greatly assist London deliver the Olympics? Indeed he did. His contribution was substantial, despite telling Londoners that the Games would cost them per capita "no more than a Walnut Whip".
But for Ken it wasn't really about sport. It was always about using the Games as a vehicle to re-generate a desperately run-down part of East London.
Over the years I have interviewed both Ken and Boris about their sporting interests. When I met Livingstone during the run-up to London's successful 2012 bid it quickly became apparent that what he knew about sport could be written on the back of an Oyster card.
He actually confessed: "I am not a sporty mayor. I really couldn't care less about sport. The nearest I've been to it was a snooker table at college."
Livingstone (pictured below) did add he made the occasional visit to the swimming baths and recalled he may once have attended a football match – at Queen's Park Rangers, he thought.
While a lack of passion for sport was about the only thing he had in common with Lady Thatcher he admitted he was converted to its political worth on the road to Damascus - or rather, Stratford – "conning the Government" (his phrase) into splashing the taxpayers' cash via the Olympics into those expansive regeneration plans for East London.
But I have lingering admiration for the way he worked the corridors of power in Singapore alongside Seb Coe, Tony Blair and Craig Reedie to secure London's victory in 2005, and even more so for the movingly emotional, statesmanlike speech he made following the subsequent 7/7 terrorist bombings which so blighted London's hour of triumph.
My chat with Boris came soon after he had taken office. He had invited me to jump in alongside him into a first class carriage on a train from a school swimming gala in Dulwich back to the city.
"But I haven't got a ticket, Boris," I protested.
"Don't worry old boy," he replied. "Neither have I."
He assured me at the time: "Obviously everybody is worried that we are going to waste squillions on projects that are going to have no lasting benefit for East London. That is why I want to make sure that there is a proper legacy. I'll be using my position on the Olympic Board to make sure that we deliver value for money not only for London, but the whole country."
Johnson's first move as mayor was that highly controversial appointment of the feisty Hoey as London's sports mistress – her official title was Commissioner for Sport – and she has been not only his sporting coach, but cardmarker. For while there is no doubting Johnson's genuine regard for sport, he barely knew anyone in the game. But, like Livingstone, knew how to play it politically.
In his time as Mayor, he has left his footprint on sport largely without dipping a toe into the mainstream. His concentration has been on schools and youth sport, turning up at a number of events like that primary schools swimming gala in Dulwich where such was the ecstatic clamour on his arrival that you would have thought the 300 kids were greeting Becks, not Boris.
"Standing in a clammy, overheated swimming pool, watching a kids' competition and feeling the adrenalin takes you back to the terror you experienced yourself." he said. "You remember diving in and fearing your trunks might be coming off."
Earlier he had told the youngsters. "I once swam in a schools competition and I was so slow that my teacher told me never to do it again."
While clearly he's more at home on Have I Got News for You than A Question of Sport, he's been a bit of a player himself. "I once challenged Seb Coe to a race down Fifth Avenue in New York. I didn't win. He's rather fast, you know. But I love any kind of physical exertion, it's made me what I am."
At Oxford he played rugby as a tighthead prop for his college, Balliol. He jogs and, of course cycles, regularly.
"I love sport but the fact is I'm no bloody good at it. Anyone who's seen that video clip of me playing [for the Parliamentary team in a charity match] will know that I am not God's gift to football, but I think it's incredibly important for building self-confidence, team work, competitive spirit, ability to cope with failure, all that stuff, which is so hard for kids these days. When I was running for Mayor, I was always conscious of the part sport might play in my life for the next four years.
"One of the things that made me really excited about the job was going to see a couple of boxing academies. I suddenly had this blinding flash that maybe this was a sport that wasn't being sufficiently encouraged because it is a bit politically incorrect."
When I we talked about boxing, the name of Ricky Hatton came up. Boris said he'd never heard of him. "I love watching them biff each other but I don't really know who they are."
One personality he had heard of though was Dwain Chambers. Just. "Now wait a minute – the guy who's cheated? Took drugs? Right?" So should Chambers be allowed to go to Beijing ? "Absolutely not. No I would not be happy about that. It would send out all the wrong signals."
Johnson now says he sees sport as an essential weapon in fighting the ASBO culture. "I'm not suggesting it's the whole solution. This is not just some crazed playing fields of Eton type of thing but it is something that inspires me and makes me feel that there is real scope for expanding it into evening out the differentials and injustices in London.
"I am really sad that competitive sport in this country has not been encouraged as much as it should be. These school races where nobody was allowed to win, how ridiculous – a load of balls. At school I wrote something for a posh essay society about the importance of sport as a way of getting people to feel better about themselves, that sort of stuff. I remember it was widely mocked but basically it is true."
For while Bojo might have some fun with the Games, as he did when he whiff-whaffed his way through Beijing, where he did an impromptu sprint, booted and suited, down the home straight of Bird's Nest track when the stadium was empty, he seems to take sport seriously. One hopes sport will now return the compliment.
Whoever's hand is raised after the big fight on Thursday, Biffer Boris, the defending blond bomber in the blue corner or Crafty Ken the born-again counter-puncher in the red, the loser must not be left out of the big Olympic party.
Ironically at the moment neither have tickets, having failed to acquire any in the infamous ballot. I have no doubt that Lord Coe will sort that, for both deserve places of honour for playing their respective parts in the success story that will be London 2012.
Actually it would be rather nice to see them sitting cosily alongside each other in the VIP box. If they are still talking by then after verbally trying to punch each other's lights out.
Meantime sorry Ken, nothing personal, or political, but I do hope Bojo, who famously got Londoners on their Boris bikes, is not on his on Thursday night
Alan Hubbard is an award-winning sports columnist for The Independent on Sunday, and a former sports editor of The Observer. He has covered a total of 16 Summer and Winter Olympics, 10 Commonwealth Games, several football World Cups and world title from Atlanta to Zaire.