LONDON, UK — Excited about the Olympics this summer? For most of my life I have looked forward to Leap Years primarily because Leap Years are Olympic years. But this year is different — because for the first time the Olympics are being held in the city where I live. Not just that, they are being held in the borough of the city where I live. More precisely it is 2.87 miles from my front door to the Olympic Park. The closer the Games come in time and space the more I am dreading them.
In this respect I am like most Londoners. Last week we passed a significant milestone: 100 days until the opening ceremonies on July 27. The breeze created by the collective shrug of this city's residents could probably be felt in Paris — the city we beat out to win the honor of hosting the Games. The Olympic organizers have a major branding problem in their host city. Indifference and mild dread are not the soil in which to grow excitement.
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For me, the highlight of the pre-Games build-up came when we got a piece of junk mail from a local real-estate agent saying we could get between £4,000 to £6,000 ($6,400 to $10,000) to rent out our two-bedroom flat for the duration of the games. That was back in the autumn. My neighbors decided to do it, and anticipating the windfall, took their kids on the holiday of a lifetime for three mid-winter weeks in Goa. They are still waiting for the real-estate agent to actually find someone to rent their place, and the interest is piling up on the credit card they used to pay for their trip to India.
Anecdotes like this add to the generally negative sentiment when London 2012 becomes the topic of conversation around dinner tables and in pubs. The BBC has tried to analyze it and has come up with ten pretty good reasons why some people are dreading the Olympics.
I agree with some of them: transport chaos, for example. London can barely cope with getting its regular population of commuters and residents around town but, the Guardian reports that the city's transport authorities are trying to reduce normal traffic by 50 or 60 percent at key London Underground stations during the 17 days the Olympics is on. On the busiest days in the schedule there could be up to 3 million extra users of public transport.
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The one major new bit of transport infrastructure is the Javelin train, which will run from King's Cross/St. Pancras Station to the Olympic Park in Stratford, a distance of 7 densely packed urban miles in 7 minutes. Cool, right?
25,000 people an hour will be shifted back and forth this way. Cooler, right?
But King's Cross/St. Pancras is the busiest station in London. Imagine an extra 25,000 people an hour trying to get through Times Square or Penn Station in New York — makes you feel a little claustrophobic, right?
But aside from logistics there are deep cultural reasons why the impending Games has not really got Londoners jumping up and down.
Mockery is an English trait. It is in Londoners’ blood to mock this sort of gigantic feel-good event. Indeed, the BBC has been running a mockumentary comedy called "2012" for two years now. It is a close to the bone satire, starring Hugh Bonneville aka Lord Grantham on Downtown Abbey, about the bureaucrats trying to deliver the games on time. It's about as far from propaganda as you can get, yet at the same time its mocking tone is a reasonable way of building interest in the event.
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Second, crass commercialism is a part of life in this consumer-driven society, but there are areas that are considered off-limits: the monarchy for example. The Olympics in the eyes of many should be less obviously commercial but the only way London could afford to stage the games was to rope in money. People going to Olympic events will get off trains and buses in Stratford, an impoverished neighborhood in the eastern part of the city. They will then have to walk through a brand-new Westfield's shopping center — 1.88 million square feet of retail opportunities — before getting to the Olympic Park.
Londoners love to shop — but there is a time and a place for everything. Plus the relentless corporate branding goes against the cultural grain. British understatement is a less important part of cultural life here than it once was, but it still exists.
There is one other cultural reason we Londoners are shrugging. London is where we live, but it is also a state of mind. The things that make it a great world city — a place of dreams for people from every corner of the globe — often have little to do with us.
London is the world capital of finance, but most of us don't work in the financial industry. The veneer of wealth generated by finance is visible, but not tangible to most of us. We live in the theater capital of the world (sorry, New Yorkers, it's true). But most of us go to the theater infrequently.
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The Olympics will be just one other thing that happens to other people who happen to share our geographical space. It is not part of our reality. Very few of us were able to get tickets to the Games. We will watch them on TV like the rest of the world — although with the double advantage of having them take place in our time zone and having them broadcast on the BBC — so, no commercials.
Our main interface with the Olympics will be when we can't get to work because the Tube is overcrowded, or get caught in a traffic jam created by security-conscious policing.
And here we get to the real reason, Londoners are so indifferent to the Olympics. The Games were awarded to London on July 6th, 2005. Less than 24 hours later, in a series of coordinated attacks, suicide bombers killed 52 people. I remember how excited the city was to get the Olympics, and the whiplash its citizens felt when it became clear what the death toll was the next day.
Three years later, Lehman Brothers collapsed, and ushered in the long, enervating years of austerity and unemployment. The London boroughs with the highest rate of unemployment are adjacent to the Olympic Park.
This is the deep reason for Londoner's not really getting excited about the games: Our joy at staging the Olympics belongs to a different historical epoch.