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The Spirit of 2012 ...

Now that the simply magnificent London 2012 Olympics are over (although great luck to the Para Olympians yet to take part), it is a time for reflection on what was pretty universally agreed to be one of the best- if not the best- Olympics ever.

There was the perhaps expected cynicism before hand, which I must admit I partly shared. Would the capital grind to a halt? Could the creaking tube and bus systems cope with the extra people? Things were made worse just before the games started with the G4S blunders over security and the very early problems as the games unfolded such as the bus that took hours to get athletes from Heathrow to Stratford etc. These all played into our expectations that it would not be the outstanding success that it became- perhaps also it played to how we view ourselves as a nation of people, that we don’t believe we could perform such a feat, that we’re just not that good and that on the sporting field in particular, that Great Britain will always be gracious losers.

The latter point was one that Sir Chris Hoy, who knows a thing or two about sporting success, made when he said that he felt that attitude is starting to change in that the Olympics does show that we can be successful, we can be champions and the medal table does not lie – we ARE the third most successful sporting country and that is something that we should celebrate.

However what I felt most moved by during the last two weeks or so was the Olympics positivity and ‘spirit’ that was generated. At the one Olympics event I did get tickets to (Womens Football Final – USA v Japan) and the several times I saw the events being televised at the BT 2012 Hyde Park screenings, there was a feeling or ethos of  being in effect a kind of ‘Festival of Britain’ where you just suspend what is going on in the ‘real’ world and just revel in the sporting panorama in front of you.

As a result, people seemed really happy, engrossed in what was going on, delighted at Team GB’s success, sporting for other nations and a feeling that a medal for Team GB was a medal for us: something we could all celebrate - walking around London, people whether Londoners or visitors just seemed happy to be there and to be part of this unique event. And it crossed barriers- across ages, nationalities, race, creed, gender, sexuality, religion- everyone seemed to just revel in it all.

I think this also says something quite fundamental about us as human beings too. What makes people happy and enthused is not great wealth, nor fame/celebrity or being surrounded with physicall beautiful people, but to feel part of something greater than ourselves- it is that sense of community and of being ‘whole’ that we seek. The 2012 Olympics brought us together as a nation and as a group of people- in years to come I expect people and historians to talk about the 2012 Olympics spirit in the same way that we now talk about the Dunkirk and Blitz spirit. In short, for a while, we changed.

Clare the Great

One of the things I am currently getting into, is not unsurprisingly, the London 2012 Olympics- yes I know that it is very hard to avoid, but despite the large dollops of cynicism we have put on ourselves, I think it is so far a raging success.

The opening ceremony was a revelation which demonstrated what a great decision it was to hire a supreme filmmaker like Danny Boyle to tell a story about Great Britain, what our makeup is, how we have evolved as a nation (or is that nations?) and as a group of people- and the ceremony kick started the whole event. Despite the shambles of G4S and ongoing ticketing issues, the Olympics themselves have really gripped our people- the crowds at Greenwich Park, the Aquatic Centre, at the road races and at the rowing, in particular, have not just been impressive in terms of the numbers appearing but in their enthusiasm- which in a lot of ways is so un-British!

However for me the star on TV has been the BBC with its tremendous coverage and in particular, Clare Balding who has rapidly become the jewel in the corporation’s coverage. This is her fifth Olympic games that she has covered and although her background and her speciality is horse racing (she was an amateur flat jockey), her knowledge and enthusiasm goes across the piece- she has covered Rugby League, coverage of major events such as the Lord Mayor’s Show and Trooping The Colour and even Crufts.

But on the current Olympics coverage it has been her anchoring of the Swimming meet from the Aquatic centre either with swimmers Mark Foster or Ian Thorpe that has been the most impressive – she has been able to get over to the audience a lot about the science of swimming competition and the back stories of swimmers such as Hannah Miley, Gemma Spofforth and Jemma Lowe to give you an insight into them and the competition. And as if that was not enough, Clare has also made a significant contribution to the enjoyment of the Equestrian events, watching them and offering comment from the Aquatic centre.

Overall the BBC coverage has been to my mind outstanding and you can now forgive them for what they did with their coverage of the Jubilee Regatta- this is the kind of thing that you pay your licence fee for and why it is so important to have a strong and free BBC.

G4S - Private sector v Public?

The current ‘debacle’ or ‘hitch’ (depending on your willingness to spin or not) with the security guarding of the 2012 London Olympics and Para Olympics Games raises, apart from the obvious concern of how secure the Games may be, questions over the Private v Public Sector debate. Does the failure of the third largest private sector employer in the world from honouring its contractual requirements bring into question the ability of the private sector to carry out a number of critical outsourcing roles?

‘Contracting out’, ‘Outsourcing, ‘ Public/Private Partnership’, ‘PFI’ are all terms where the pulic sector passes out provision of services previously carried out by a Government department or a local authority in one form or another. In the past, these tended to be ‘back office’ support services such as office cleaning, photocopying, building maintenance etc where quite often it would be cheaper to engage a company to carry out a service rather than pay people from within the public sector workforce. And althought quite often controversial, in a number of respects, it has worked reasonably well. We are all probably now well used to having our refuse and materials collected by a range of outsourced companies. The services have now been expanded to include a range of services from the transportation of prisoners, the collection of council taxes to payment of pay and pensions.

But the failure of G4S to provide the number of security guards needed for the Olympics has raised the suggestion that whilst providing back office functions can be done well by the private sector, for more front line services, any failure can be critical. In the case of the Olympics critics of outsourcing have not been slow to say that it is the public sector (in the form of the armed forces) who have had to ride to save the day.

The pressure to increase outsourcing has been brought into sharp focus with the kind of changes that the new austerity measures are being expected to bring. For example a number of police forces such as Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Cambridgeshire, West Midlands and Surrey, in order to save money, have been building plans to outsource services such as security of crime scenes, providing fire arms training and the patrolling of neighbourhoods- with G4S as a major player in the field being part of a number of bidders keen on the work.

In a number of respects this kind of thing should not be unexpected- budgets are tight and most public sector organisations have by now out sourced most support services and with minimal flexibility over pay and terms/ conditions of service of their own staff, they are having to turn to the private sector providing some core services. There are some obvious benefits to this approach but the challenge will be to ensure that companies fully provide the services they commit themselves to- they are in it to make money but they are also required to honour their contract. If the G4S Olympics saga teaches us anything it is that you cannot just rely on a provider to deliver what is necessary – you need to have some pro-active oversight to ensure that they are compliant with the tasks they are set and that you don’t take things on trust- especially the greatest show on earth.

Charlton Athletic: A New Start?

Well, if it’s the F A Cup Final today then the season must have finished last weekend- right? Wrong! For some very strange reason, the dear old FA decided two things (apart from who the new England manager would be): first, that the cup final would be played on a normal Saturday with other games being played and secondly that it would kick off at the time of 5.15pm.

This is all terribly bizarre as most true football fans will have less than 30 minutes to get from the match they are going to today (5thMay) to a TV set. It appears that the FA no longer regard the FA Cup Final as the high point of the domestic season and just as another competition to be squeezed in between the already congested football fixtures which is a real, real sadness.

However, for me, a proud Charlton Athletic fan, the season does end today and what a season it has been. Charlton under manager and all round good guy Chris Powell have already won promotion to the Championship and will pick up the Division 1 championship trophy after the home match with Hartlepool today. A win would also give us a total of 101 points – a marvellous achievement. 

I’ve supported the club since 1971 – a very long time indeed and like so many other clubs up and down the country there have been numerous ups and downs on the way. We’ve been promoted, relegated, moved grounds three times, been up in the Premiership, down in the third tier of football, almost gone out of business, even been in Europe for a very short while.

Charlton Athletic is an example of how to be both a model of a well-run club but also how to run itself into the ground. Between say 1998 – 2006 we were cited as the sound way to run a football club both on and off the pitch. We had been promoted to the Premier League without bankrupting ourselves. We had a very sound Chairman and Board, we had one of the finest young coaches in Alan Curbishley and we played attractive, winning football and we received fulsome praise from large sections of football.

That all started to go wrong when Alan Curbishley let the club at the end of the 2005/2006 season after a still successful term finishing in a respectable 13th place. The Board in its wisdom decided to appoint a coach from its rivals Crystal Palace – Iain Dowie- gave him an awful amount of money and sacked him after barely six months. He was replaced by Les Reed who lasted just about a month who in turn was replaced by Alan Pardew, who at least lasted for the rest of that season. Consequently, and not surprisingly, we were relegated that year.

The next season we finished 11th – just six points off a play off place, however the next season (08/09) was a real failure and we were relegated once more and it meant that we had plunged from the Premier League to League One within the space of just three seasons. There were then changes in the Boardroom, a new manager (Phil Parkinson) came in and although he got us to 4th and in the play offs he wasn’t to last long. New owners came in and after initially supporting him, they sacked him rapidly and appointed Chris Powell who had a very mixed start to his time back at the club but this season, with new investment and a virtually new playing squad we have commanded the division and things now look much brighter.

Like all other ‘Addicks’ I will be celebrating when captain Johnnie Jackson lifts the Division one trophy high at around 5pm today, but our story can be taken as a history lesson for other clubs that the toughest bit of football management is not getting to the top but succession. Just what do you do when you have an incredibly successful manager as we did in Alan Curbishley when he leaves? He was our manager for 15 years but in his wake we appointed 6 managers in just 6 years- to be quite brutal, we panicked, we gambled on managers with little or no proven track record, gave them money that frankly was quite often wasted, and for a time we seemed to be close to going into Administration. From the best run club to perhaps one of the worst?

The answer really is not to follow the Peter Risdale/Leeds Utd philosophy of ‘living the dream’ as Charlton eventually did, because if it goes wrong, it really goes wrong and you only have to look at the state of a club such as Portsmouth to see what a mess you can get into. At Charlton, we appear to have got out of it but the challenge going forward is what happens if we come under pressure next season in the Championship. Will the fans and the Board hold firm with Chris Powell and his team or will we face more turbulence. That is the art of football management.

But for now and especially today, it is about celebrating a magnificent season and success. Yes, Charlton are back!