Olympic gravy train speeds up

As a global spectacle the opening of the Beijing Olympics set a standard that London 2012 would do well not to suggest it can match.

The extravaganza that held four billion TV viewers enthralled may well have been the greatest show on earth.

It would be all too easy for London's cheerleaders to get sucked into a braggadaccio bidding war suggesting that a lesser show would somehow be a failure.

But the Beijing show was produced by the workings of a totalitarian state. There was no public accountability for expenditure. Fixed-price labour was provided at a fixed price by the masters of a command economy that simply shipped in battalions of citizen workers to create the event.

One-party states have always excelled at producing spectacular shows. Pre-war Nazi floodlight rallies and post-war Moscow May Day parades served to boost domestic morale and to send powerful messages to the outside world. The Olympic Games offered China a place at the centre of the world's affections that was seized and exploited with swagger and style by the nation's rulers. They used it brilliantly to wrap key messages of global peace from a superpower.

For London 2012, the challenges are infinitely more complex. Its PR machine still has to convey messages about the spiralling costs of the Olympiad effectively. There is work to do convincing taxpayers in a recession-hit economy that there are controls on expenditure for an event that has quadrupled in price in two years. To many, the Olympic gravy train appears still to be in runaway mode - fuelled partly by the egos of politicians splashing other people's cash around.

How long before the next politician looking for a headline pledges an opening ceremony grander than anything the Chinese laid on?

Except, of course, that voters in Britain, unlike China, have a voice - and it remains far from unanimous in its approval of 2012. The real comms challenge now is to create value and not to make an Olympic sport out of ceremonial bragging rights.

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