Exclusive: "A long haul for uncertain reward" - British Ministers were advised against bidding for 2012 Olympics by civil servants

Sunday, 27 October 2013
By David Owen

London won the toughest bidding battle in the history of the modern Games to host the 2012 OlympicsOctober 27 - Top civil servants advised British Ministers against launching a bid for the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, insidethegames can reveal.

Restricted documents dating from October 2002 - seven months before the Government finally gave the green light to the ultimately successful London 2012 bid - repeatedly counsel Ministers in the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) not to bid, warning that the chances of success "may be less than 25 per cent".

The documents, seen by insidethegames, also suggest how any such decision might be handled, advocating a "core message" to the effect that there were "serious weaknesses in delivery in sport in this country" and this was "not the right time to embark on what is a risky project".

In the event, London not only won the toughest bidding battle in the history of the modern Games, but went on to stage an event which, while far outstripping original cost estimates, won universal praise for its upbeat atmosphere, fine facilities and technical proficiency.

The documents, marked "restricted policy", consist of a submission, entitled "Government support for a London bid for the 2012 Olympics", by the then head of the sport and recreation division and a covering letter from Sue Street, then permanent Secretary.

The submission, dated October 15 2002, begins with a short, two-sentence recommendation, moving on to consider six "key issues", before concluding with some paragraphs on handling.

The recommendation, in full, reads as follows: "Any decision to support a bid would have major resource implications across Government and great reputational risk, while a decision not to support is likely to create controversy.

"I therefore recommend that you write to the Prime Minister and to Cabinet Colleagues setting out the considerations discussed below and recommending to them that the Government should not support a bid for 2012."

The bulk of the second sentence is underlined.

Despite being advised against launching a bid for the Olympics and Paralympics, London 2012 earned universal praise for its upbeat atmosphere, fine facilities and technical proficiencyDespite being advised against launching a bid for the Olympics and Paralympics, London 2012 earned universal praise for its upbeat atmosphere, fine facilities
and technical proficiency

On the likelihood of any bid succeeding, the submission argues that, while the Games "may well" come to Europe in 2012, "there is likely to be stiff competition from Rome, Berlin and especially Paris".

London, it says, "can produce a bid of good technical quality (though see below on transport), but the decision turns very much on Britain's standing in world sport. This is not good at present".

British sport, it goes on, "tends to use places on world governing bodies as a reward for long service.

"Our representatives tend not to be well regarded and do not have much influence.

"For different reasons, our IOC members have limited influence in that body.

"As noted above, an accurate assessment is difficult: the BOA is more optimistic, but overall the probability of a successful [sic] may be less than 25 per cent."

In fact, neither Berlin nor Rome bid, though eight other cities - Havana, Istanbul, Leipzig, Madrid, Moscow, New York, Paris and Rio de Janeiro - joined London on the starting-line.

Paris and Madrid turned out to be the UK capital's strongest rivals, with London deemed by most to be behind its French counterpart right up until the final presentations in Singapore in July 2005.

A lengthy section on sports policy considerations concludes likewise that "this is not the right time for British sport to be bidding", while reservations are also expressed regarding the complexity of London Government.

It would, the document states, "be considerably more difficult for London to get its act together in areas such as volunteer participation and civic pride issues in the way that Manchester [the 2002 Commonwealth Games host] did, or that London's European rivals might be able to".

Difficult to organise it may have been, but the job done by London 2012's army of volunteers, or Games-makers, was one of the unmitigated triumphs of the Games.

On regeneration, the submission warns that a bid would "lead to planning blight until 2005", while on transport - widely recognised from the outset as a prime concern - "any transport solution appears to entail a high degree of risk".

The submission's conclusion, endorsed specifically by the DCMS permanent Secretary in her covering letter, is that "the Olympics will be a long haul for uncertain reward.

"Overall the cost and risks attaching to the project point to a decision not to bid for an Olympics in 2012."

The document said that "Backing for a bid would be criticised as a waste of money"The document said that "Backing for a bid would be criticised as a waste of money"

On handling, the document notes that "any decision will be controversial.

"Backing for a bid would be criticised as a waste of money by those less sympathetic to sport or the event itself.

"This could be handled but would be a continuing irritant.

"A decision not to support a bid presents a greater challenge.

"Criticism would be more coherent, orchestrated by the BOA and possibly the GLA, both of whom are adept at media handling.

"The Government would be criticised for lack of commitment to sport, lack of confidence in London/Britain and lack of ambition."

A core message acknowledging that there would be benefits from securing the Games, but arguing that the time is not right is suggested.

"We know there are serious weaknesses in delivery in sport in this country and we are acting in collaboration with the national governing bodies and investing to put it right.

"But this is not the time to embark on an Olympic bid.

"We need to get the fundamentals right.

"We are looking at the mega events strategy for the next 20 years."

While noting that she agrees "entirely" with her colleague's conclusion, Street also writes: "We will draft the letter you might send to the Prime Minister when we know your general reaction.

"I think it would be helpful for you to set out your recommendations clearly.

"But you could also create some space around it by pointing out that a different decision might be arrived at if there was a strong and collective Cabinet view in favour of bidding.

"This would require a clear business case for regeneration pressed by the DPM, the risks on transport to be substantially reduced and (of course) more money."

After repeated delays, Prime Minister Tony Blair's Government finally announced that it would back a London bid on 15 May 2003.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Contact the writer of this story at david.owen@insidethegames.biz

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