By Comparison … London’s Already Ambivalent Olympics

I spent most of the last week in London and didn’t see one London 2012 Olympic concession. Not one. Not even a concession parked in the back of some other kind of concession. This afternoon I wandered into London Heathrow’s duty-free sporting goods shop, but they just shook their heads when I asked. I then wandered over to the duty-free British knick-knack shop, and the shop clerk looked at me like I was nuts. “A little early for that, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I answered. “Perhaps it is.” What I didn’t tell her was that by this point four years ago, China was positively flooded with Beijing 2008 merchandise. In fact, if I recall correctly, in the immediate aftermath of Athens 2004, the Olympics merchandising machine was shifted into full production. And it wasn’t just merchandise, either. The Dancing Beijing logo was already ubiquitous in supermarkets, on bill boards, even on my phone bill.

By contrast, while in London I saw exactly two Olympics logos in the course of a week. The first, on a poster advertising a Beijing closing ceremonies party in the Gloucester Road subway station. The second nearly escaped me – it was located in the corner of a Visa credit card poster high over terminal 4 at Heathrow.

Quite honestly, I expected to be asked about the Olympics while in London. After all, I’d just lived through them in China (in Shanghai, Qingdao, and Hong Kong). But, if anything, there was a studied lack of interest among those with whom I tried to broach the subject. A couple of academics – given, not representative at all – suggested to me that they were looking forward to them, and that they hoped that they might highlight the full sweep of British history, “especially colonialism.” Right. I wouldn’t even mention the conversation but for the fact that it was in such stark contrast to the politically careful statement that Chinese academics made to me – a foreign reporter – four years ago.

What does it all mean? It means that London is much less impressed by the Olympics than Beijing. This isn’t any great surprise – unless, of course, you spent the last seven years of your life anticipating Beijing 2008, and are dealing with the hangover by sending your athletes to Hong Kong (the only place in the world that might still care). In any event, I came away from this week with the distinct impression that London 2012 will be a more relaxed, dare I say “normal” experience. And that’s not a bad thing.

[An apology to to ZY, who so wanted London 2012 swag. Really, I tried.]


  1. when a country’s economy is down, the marketing budget would be cut, esp the non-routine one, therefore the TOP sponsors cannot spend as much money as them put into the China show… such as the outdoor ad

  2. I don’t think London would be spending as much as Beijing did even if the economy were completely flush. Unlike Beijing, this is the city of London’s show. They have to pay for it and the UK government is not pitchin in. That’s a big difference between Beijing and London. Beijing was a national priority. London is not. Most UK citizens don’t care much about theOlympics and even most London citizens don’t really care. Just imagine if they were as crazy as the Chinese about this? Does the world really need a resurgence of UK nationalism? Football hooliganism on a mass scale?

  3. You know, it’s funny, I am one of the academics whom you spoke to at the RGS meeting and I didn’t mention the Olympics, though I am immersed in it every single day. My wife is currently working on the park site as an environmental engineer and, for her and for the people of Stratford, every day is 2012. If you’d wandered a bit further east, beyond Heathrow and Knightsbridge, you would have been surrounded with the stunning transformation that the future Olympics are exacting on this city and (some of) its people. No shirts and logos, perhaps, but the whole area is being reshaped in anticipation of a windfall four years from now, though they are just as aware of the boom / bust consequences that typically befall Olympics sites.

  4. Hi Josh –

    Thanks for the comment and insight. What I meant, and perhaps didn’t come across in the post, is that the Beijing Olympics were – first and foremost – a marketing event. Whether it be marketing Beijing, the CCP, or the corporate brands that support the IOC. Compared to China – not just Beijing – 4 years ago, London is relatively and completely lacking in this experience. To be sure, the Olympic venues will transform parts of London in the same way that they transformed Beijing. But I didn’t get the sense that the Olympics will transform the UK, nor its international image, in the way that the CCP and its adherents continue to expect the Olympics to transform China and its image abroad. As Fendy sort of noted, the Beijing Olympics were a seven year national political event.

  5. i find the whole olympics gonna transform the country concept kinda absurd and in a way,’s just impossible in every way,the pollution,i think it’s gonna come back real soon,cuz during the olympics,many factories were shut down in beijing,and there was limitation for cars to get on the road,of course there would be less pollution if u put this much effort into it by force or whatever,and protest?there were parks that the governments appointed could be the place for legal protest,but what i heard is ppl wouldn’t even get the chance to protest or got themselves in trouble by trying to what has been changed?don’t get fooled by tremendous superficial propaganda.

  6. You missed the point. The 2008 Olympics were the “first doll” for the Chinese public. The 2012 Games are the third for the British. The first time is always the most exciting. If Shanghai hosts the Games in god knows how many years, people definitely won’t be as exicted as they were this time. India and Afghanistan and many countries that never hosted the Games had national celebrations for their Olympic heroes. Try have the Games in those countries and you’ll get the same enthusiasm as you witnessed a month ago.

    This whole piece is sort of implying “Look at you silly Chinese running around all excited about some crap we westerners don’t even care.”

  7. Wooddoo – Thanks for the comment, but the piece doesn’t imply – or isn’t intended to imply – what you suggest. If anything, it suggests that the UK won’t use the Olympics for the same political ends as the Chinese did. I think that’s pretty obvious. Also, I think it’s worth pointing out that -World Cup aside – UK sports fans tend to value professional competition (premier league, say) more highly than international competition. It’s a fairly common sentiment in countries that can pay top money for int’l talent. Believe me, this wasn’t meant to condescend the Chinese effort toward the games.

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