Beijing perspective: Matthew Brown

MATTHEW BROWN is a freelancer who has experience of working both sides of the counter in the MPCs at Olympics and major athletics championships, filing for newspapers and websites but also working for the organisers. He is back in Beijing ahead of the Paralympics. Here are his reflections on events thus far

The Beijing Olympics were many things – spectacular, efficient, astonishing (especially some of the performances) – but most of all they were well-managed, in all senses of the term.

This was an operation not just well-run and highly organised, but closely controlled. It wasn’t just the choreographed crowds – “Cheer” blared the big screens in the Bird’s Nest as a marathon runner approached, and they did – nor the incessant public announcements instructing people how to behave, security was tight too.

Subtle, never in your face nor openly threatening, it was always there if you looked for it, from the ranks of military, police, or BOCOG guards (there seemed so many different types of law enforcers) marching across the Olympic Green, to the silent ring of security men who stood 10 metres apart, 10 metres in from the eight-foot high fence around the National Stadium.

If you didn’t look up, you almost wouldn’t know they were there. Indeed, once inside the “Olympic bubble”, security was less intrusive than at many other events, but the bubble was tightly sealed and most visitors to the Games rarely ventured out of it.

They rarely needed to. Journalists stepped out of their official media hotels and village apartments on to official buses that ferried them along official Olympic lanes to the MPC, and from there to the various official venues. It not only made life easier for the working media but kept life, Beijing’s life, out of view.

Those who lived outside the bubble had a different experience. Travelling on the subway every day we shared the crowded trains with ticket holders, overwhelmingly middle class Chinese, many from out of town, and so different from the people in the hutongs where we stayed. For the poor of these old shanty towns, the “dream” of seeing the Olympics in their home city was lived out at a distance, via TV screens at the back of their cheap cafes and restaurants where endless repeats of Chinese gold medal winners relayed the same powerful message.

Their eyes, like ours, were diverted by the action at the Water Cube and the Bird’s Nest. As we scurried between the lucky few who gained access to the Park, chasing our deadlines, elsewhere, allegedly, hundreds perhaps thousands of dissidents and petitioners were being detained in a south Beijing hotel lest their paths should cross with ours. One woman who held up a placard in Tiananmen Square silently declaring the legend “Protest” was hurried away by police. What else went on, quietly, out of our bubble-eyed view, we’ll probably never know.

So what can LOCOG learn? On the media side, make it affordable even for lowly freelancers and independents. The IOC may have long since sold its soul to the corporate devil but London doesn’t have to.

In particular, don’t charge outrageous fees for access to the internet. To get online at the MPC and venue tribunes cost close to £300 in Beijing, a flat fee, no concessions charge (and payable only by using a Visa card). At home, I could pay for five years’ broadband access for that price. The large media corporations who run our daily newspapers and TV stations may be able to cough up that sort of dough (although I bet even their accountants blinked at the figures), but it left the editor of Athletics Weekly, thinking seriously about how to get by without it. That can’t be right.

And if covering the Games stretched the budgets of freelancers from the rich west, what must it have been like for our colleagues from less affluent parts of the world – Africa, south America, even parts of Asia? Independent coverage should be encouraged at an Olympic Games, else we all get a blinkered view.

Also, curb the power of broadcasters, or at last give the written press a chance. More than once in the Bird’s Nest it took two hours after the end of an event before a winning athlete reached the written press part of the mixed zone. Working late comes with the job, but when races finish at 11pm, spending two hours drumming your fingers in the dungeons of the stadium is frustrating to say the least.

A bigger issue is what the London Games are going to be for?

Beijing was supposed to be about human rights and openness, neither of which we can properly judge from the last few weeks although the signs, as Amnesty has pointed out, are not great. Actually, as Peter Nichols of the Guardian argues, they were about China selling itself to its own people.

London, on the other hand, is supposed to be about legacy – that odd word that seems to have a new meaning each time it’s used.

In the sense of local regeneration, the worry is two-fold. How will local communities be able to feel part of the Games, to feel as if the Olympics is theirs?

LOCOG needs to aim to make it the London people’s Games, so the London people can welcome the world, and the Games will once again have that global festival feel that was lacking in China. If, as in Beijing, only privileged ticket holders and accredited personnel are allowed near the Park, the Games will be just like any other corporate event being staged at a nearby venue. There are hundreds of those every year in the east end.

Secondly, what chance will the local community have to share in the legacy if, in autumn 2012 when the figures are counted, the only way to balance the books is to sell the land and buildings to the highest bidders? What chance then for all those new buildings to become community assets, rather than corporate arenas?

In this sense, the Olympic legacy seems a more distant dream each time Boris calls for a cut in the costs.

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