Feargus O'Sullivan is a contributing writer to CityLab, covering Europe. His writing focuses on housing, gentrification and social change, infrastructure, urban policy, and national cultures. He has previously contributed to The Guardian, The Times, The Financial Times, and Next City, among other publications.
Organizers are trying to sell the Olympics as 'Britain’s games.' But England's non-Londoners aren't buying it.
London’s games are really Britain’s games. That, at least, is the message that organizers of this summer’s Olympics have been trying to sell to UK residents.
Britain’s capital has a domestic reputation as a resource-guzzling prima donna that snaffles up spare cash before the rest of the country gets a look, but with the whole country footing the tax bill, the London Olympic Committee has been obliged to spread at least some of the love.
To assist this easing of resources around the country, Olympic teams arriving in Britain this week are often being dispatched to training centers far from the capital. The U.S. team, for example, will soon be arriving to limber up in Britain’s second city of Birmingham, a place less than 90 minutes away from London by train but which, as far as many Londoners are concerned, might as well be on the moon. Likewise, the months-long Torch Relay around the country has attempted to turn the spotlight away from the Olympic Park, diffusing London’s concentrated torrents of Olympic excitement into a sort of delicate trans-national misting.
Despite these gestures, London winning the games has still thrown up the inevitable debates that recur in smallish countries with domineering capitals. For many Britons who live beyond its limits, London is a greedy but insular place, a Saturn that devours their children and pays them back with a mix of indifference and condescension. National institutions and corporate headquarters inevitably cluster there, as do the U.K.’s decision-makers and media.
This means the city seems unable to separate its own life and interests from those of the nation, with the London-based press in particular notorious for presenting essentially local issues like the mayoral elections as national news. This is changing slowly – the BBC has attempted to redress the imbalance by moving 2,300 jobs north to Manchester’s Media City. But while attitudes are softening, many Northerners still talk of meeting patronizing Londoners who automatically assume they prefer beer to wine or need to have the concept of guacamole explained to them. As this article from Scotland’s paper of record shows, some outside London see the games as yet another example of the city locking up money that would be better spent outside the capital.
This isn’t strictly fair. With almost 14 million people living in its wider urban area, close to a quarter of the U.K.’s inhabitants live around London. This intense concentration of people at least means that heavily state-funded resources like public transport and road infrastructure are used more cost effectively than elsewhere. And while the city undeniably sucks in international money and attention, this is a mixed blessing. A safe bet in an unstable world, London property has become such a feeding frenzy for international capital that, according to this study (registration needed) only 12 percent of prime central London real estate currently sells to U.K. buyers, while not far from all this wealth, the city still contains some of the poorest parts of the U.K.
If anyone is benefiting from London’s status as a cash magnet, it doesn’t seem to be the average Londoner. The Olympics are supposed to redirect funds into making things better for East London’s poorer residents. Whether the games help them or not, these people can hardly be damned as metropolitan cash guzzlers who have been living it up at the Scottish taxpayer’s expense. Still, as Britons around the country sit down to another summer of London hogging headlines and burnishing its own self-image, it’s hardly surprising that many of them are rolling their eyes.
Top photo: The Olympic torch passes the birthplace of William Penny Brookes the founding father of the modern Olympics in Much Wenlock, central England, May 30, 2012. The first Wenlock Olympian games were held in 1850 for "every grade of man" and athletic events included knitting, writing, and arithmetic. Wenlock, one of the London 2012 mascots is named after the Shropshire town. Photo by: Darren Staples/Reuters