Changing the Olympic guard at Buckingham Palace

By Steven Downes
It was a fitting venue to celebrate London taking over from Beijing as an Olympic host city: outside Buckingham Palace, where millions of international visitors come each year to see the changing of the guard.

And there, the grand stage had a giant Union flag as a back drop as the Handover Party started with a rousing rendition of We Are The Champions.

With 19 gold medals safely stashed away in the hand luggage of the British team about to return home from Beijing in a gold-painted Jumbo jet, for once the Queen anthem’s boastful lyrics seemed entirely justified.

London has got the Games, and – thanks to the performances in Beijing – Britain has at last bought into what it means to be Olympic hosts.

Even my taxi driver had bought into the idea that having the Olympics in London might actually be a good thing. “I’ve lived in Stratford all my life,” said the man from a profession that is known for taking curmudgeonliness to Olympian levels, “and I’ve driven my cab for 32 years, and this is the best thing that could happen to us.”

And the cab driver is not alone. Last Friday in London’s only evening newspaper, and therefore a powerful influence in city politics, the Evening Standard‘s Andrew Gilligan admitted to having been won-over by the events in Beijing. He was no longer, he said, a hard-line, militant member of the International Olymposceptic Committee.

“My task has just become a lot easier,” Gilligan quoted Tessa Jowell, the Olympics minister, as saying. “What Beijing will have done is to remind people what the Olympics are for – it’s been a while since we had this sense of national feelgood.”

There was plenty of feelgood on The Mall. The Handover Party was the first manifestation of the London Games, which has made much of its cultural ambitions and a desire to be cool and “edgy”. With Keith Khan, LOCOG’s cultural director, set to leave within months, the tone of this event might be instructive.

Yet what was presented here was safe, staid and very middle of the road. More Blue Peter than MTV.

Interspersed with a selection of music acts, there were clumsy interviews with celebrities and champions conducted by a couple of lightweight BBC presenters. Beijing medallists Bradley Wiggins and Philips Idowu, Londoners both, got terrific receptions from the 40,000 crowd.

“I’m feeling so much love right now,” Idowu, the favourite for the triple jump who came home with a silver medal, said. “London’s going to be crazy. If we’ve got support like this now, it’s going to be amazing in 2012.”

Britons’ sense of sportsmanship and fairplay could be useful in four years’ time, and it was demonstrated in the manner that the crowd greeted American swimmer Michael Phelps with the biggest cheer of the day when he promised to return to London in 2012.

While the western media had been critical of aspects of Beijing’s organisation, London’s Handover Party demonstrated that even in a European democracy, some things are not so different from communist China.

For one, today offered an echo of Beijing’s fenced-off Olympic Green. The temporary arena outside the Palace, Green Park and The Mall was not open to the public, but accessed only by the ticket holders, all chosen through online ballots and promotional competitions.

And after complaints of unnecessary militarism at Beijing’s ceremonials, with goose-stepping, jack-booted troops carrying the flag, London laid on a fly past by RAF Red Arrows jets.

Phelps, for one, did not mind the smoke-streaming aircraft. “I’ve never seen anything like that before. That’s just awesome,” said the 14-time Olympic champion. “That’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced.”

The Handover Party also prompted LOCOG’s first commercial clash with one of its most important partners, the BBC. The state-funded broadcaster has strict rules on product and brand placement, and in the week before the party, executives from the Corporation had drawn a very deep line in the sand over the on-screen exposure sponsors Visa might receive.

Was this the first example of ambush marketing conducted by an Olympic organising committee? When you distribute thousands of branded flags, it seems inevitable that a few will be held up prominently to camera, with the sponsor’s logo for the TV audience to see. The organising PR company – run by the grandson of Sigmund Freud – said that it must have all been sub-conscious.

The goodwill among the British public now is quite tangible, and that was the overwhelming feeling from the event which impressed rather more than the party performers.

Memo to Lord Coe: when planning the 2012 Opening Ceremony, and wanting to make it truly “cool”, please don’t invite Scouting for Girls to perform London Calling. It must be The Clash, or nothing.

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