SubScribe: Welcome to the Great British Olympic summer Google+

Tuesday 3 July 2012

Welcome to the Great British Olympic summer

The flags are out, the bunting's up.  Olympic rings dangle from Tower Bridge and the torch is weaving its way across the country. In southwest London the world's greatest tennis tournament is reaching the nail-biting stage, while across the Channel Bradley Wiggins and Mark Cavendish are busy showing the French the art of cycling. And we're smashing the Aussies at cricket. Doesn't it make you proud to be British?
This is the Great British Summer of Sport. The jubilee summer we've been dreaming of since that magical day in 2005 when we snatched the right to stage the Olympics from under Paris's nose.

It hasn't been a smooth ride from then to now. Within 24 hours, terrorists had blown up chunks of London, killing themselves and 52 people who had been trying to go about their daily business. It's a fair bet that had they struck a couple of days earlier, the Games would not be coming to town this  month.
By the time the Chinese played host in 2008, the world's banking system was in freefall and economies everywhere were wobbling. As David Beckham and Leona Lewis (remember her?) made their entrance on a red Routemaster to see Boris Johnson take possession of the Olympic flag, everyone was at pains to make clear that London would not be emulating Beijing's lavish approach. It would instead -  as on its rescue mission in 1948 -  be the home of the austerity Games.

But we always expected it to be fun, that we would have a joyous summer, what with the Queen celebrating 60 years on the throne and all. The Olympic building programme seems to have gone extraordinarily well, on (revised) budget and on time. The sport may yet be wonderful.
But so many clouds have gathered that some of us might prefer to hide in the back room rather than throw open our doors to world scrutiny. The showcase doesn't have quite as many gems in it as we should like. Indeed, there is so much rusty metal and paste, it's hard to find the sparkle.
We like to believe that Britain is universally recognised for its sense of fair play, honest dealing, ethical business and sportsmanship. Oh, and the best free Press in the world. 
Of course it is. 

That's why our MPs thought it was fine to send us the bill for their bathplugs, duck houses and second homes.
That's why journalists thought it was fine to hack into anyone's voicemail in the hope of some tawdry titbit and why politicians now think it's fine to shackle the entire newspaper industry (but not broadcasting or the web).
That's why bankers thought it was fine to lie and to cheat anyone who wasn't one of them, to pocket millions for themselves while refusing to carry out their job of lending money to keep businesses alive. 
That's why the super-rich and multinational corporations thought it was fine to avoid paying their taxes, after all why should they fund hospitals, schools and handouts for the poor?
That's why GlaxoSmithKline thought it was fine to tell doctors to give their adult antidepressant to minors, even though they knew it might make them suicidal.
That's why Stuart Pearce thought it was fine to deny David Beckham a place in his Olympic football team, even though he is possibly the world's most famous living Englishman and a prime reason for visiting this summer.
Good, eh? Really makes you want to come here, doesn't it?

The news today is sobering, And I don't just mean the resignation of Bob Diamond - the man who told us in January that the time for remorse and apology was over. There are so many people expressing opinions, analysing, making feeble puns from his name, that this blog can add little, other than to say it's nice to see the person at the top accepting responsibility for wrongdoing on their watch - Rebekah Brooks take note. Sadly, we can't take comfort from that as an example of British honour, since Diamond is American. Let's just hope that Barclays has the sense not to appoint its head of corporate and investment banking, above, as his successor. One extravagant name is enough. We can't cope with Rich Ricci.

With TV, radio, news websites and Twitter all agog with Diamond and how many zillions he'll get as a payoff, you may have missed today's other examples of why - beyond our greedy incorruptible banking industry - we should be proud to be British, 
Like our greedy, incorruptible pharmaceuticals industry.
GlaxoSmithKline has today agreed to pay $3bn in fines for what has been described as the biggest health fraud in American history. A billion of that was for criminal charges relating to three of its best-selling drugs; the other two billion went on civil fines over half a dozen other medicines, including a widely used asthma treatment.
That's an awful lot of money, but we know that Americans deal in huge figures and sometimes they aren't too fond of the Brits (GSK is based in Brentford). Perhaps they're being melodramatic. What did the company do that was so wrong? 
Nothing much really.
They told doctors they could prescribe the antidepressant Paxil for under-18s, when it is intended for adults. What they didn't tell the doctors was that research had shown that teenagers taking the drug were more likely to have suicidal thoughts.
They marketed the antidepressant Wellbutrin as a drug that would spice up your sex life,  help you to lose weight and make it easier to stop smoking. In fact, these were just possible side effects. 
They neglected to tell doctors that diabetics who took their Avandia pills might have a heart attack or stroke, even though they knew that research pointed to an increased risk.

But surely the doctors should have been more diligent in checking out these drugs? Didn't they read the scientific papers, the medical journals? Well, they probably didn't have time. They were almost certainly too busy going on holiday to Hawaii, relaxing in a swanky spa or watching a Madonna gig - all courtesy of the GSK kickback machine.
A machine that has proved its worth: the company has paid $3bn to settle cases relating to these three drugs over the past ten years. In the same period, its income from Wellbutrin was $5.9bn, from Avandria $10.4bn and from Paxil $11.6bn. Great British business, eh?
Just for the record, there is now a new boss at GSK, and he says it's time to move on.

But that's the private sector. We know how to look after people who can't help themselves, don't we? We have a history of providing safety nets, protecting the weak, upholding the rule of law. What's that phrase we keep trotting out? Oh yes, the NHS is the envy of the world.
Quite right. What's not to envy about a health service whose clinical negligence bill for last year was a record £1.2bn, a service that lets a hospital patient die of thirst? 
I know, we think we've heard all that before:  the neglect of elderly patients, demented old souls who have forgotten how to drink. Terribly sad and all that, but what can you do? 
Well, when it comes to dementia we have a terrible record - and not only the repeated cases of dehydration in hospital. A parliamentary report today points to 'shocking delays' in the diagnosis and treatment of dementia, with half of sufferers having to wait a year for a formal diagnosis.
But the chap who died of thirst at St George's hospital, Tooting, was neither old nor confused. Kane Gorny was 22 and perfectly lucid. So lucid that when nurses forgot to give him his medicine, he reminded them. And kept reminding them. And when they took no notice, he dialled 999 and begged the police to bring him a drink. But when the police arrived, they were turned away with the assurance that Mr Gorny was all right. Eventually a doctor appeared on the scene and realised that, far from being all right, Mr Gorny was in a bad way. So bad that he died within the hour.

Thankfully we have mechanisms to look into cases where patients or their families have cause for complaint about their treatment by nurses or midwives. A regulatory body was set up for that specific purpose. But the patients must be patient, it may take a while for their case to be heard. The Council for Healthcare Regulatory Excellence reports today that people are being 'let down' by the Nursing and Midwifery Council, whose prime duty is to protect patients. It has a backlog of 4,500 cases, some going back five years, and in the meantime it is allowing nurses accused - or even found guilty -  of assault, theft and drunkenness to carry on working. 
So that's all right then.

And just look at the way we let youngsters learn to stand on their own feet and go out to earn a bit of pin money, rather than keep them under lock and key in care homes. They can see a bit of the country, too.  
Andrew Norfolk of The Times has shown a great interest in this phenomenon, reporting on it with hideous clarity, and today the Deputy Children's Commissioner has joined in to point to the "shocking evidence of abuse inside the child care system". This is the splash story in The Times today and Norfolk writes on the inside pages about one girl's experience. 
Our girl was taken into care in Essex when she was 12. By the time she was 13 she was on the move, and over the next couple of years she was housed in homes in Northamptonshire, Yorkshire and Greater Manchester. Staff noted that she had a tendency to go missing and that she was sexually forward. Eventually  she ended up in a Rochdale home, which charged Essex £252,000 a year to look after her. That doesn't appear to have been enough money to keep tabs on her and make sure she was safe. She would disappear for a day, a week, a fortnight, selling her body for vodka, drugs and pizza. 
This is Norfolk's harrowing account of how she ended up:

One evening 25 men arrived in cars outside a derelict property where the 15-year-old was lying in an upstairs bedroom. They queued patiently on the stairs and outside the room, each waiting to have sex with a girl who was so drunk that she soon lost count of the number of men she was abused by. 
She finally brought an end to the abuse cycle when she wrote a note and handed it to carers. It read: "Asians pick me up. They get me drunk, they give me drugs, they have sex with me and tell me not to tell anyone. I want to move."

But our other public services are OK, aren't they? Our Olympic visitors will see the great British bobby, the Changing of the Guard?
Up to a point. Remember this is austerity Britain, so there are cuts everywhere. The Metropolitan Police says today that it is confident that all will be fine for the Olympics - but when everyone's gone home and nobody's looking, the police budget will shrink by 13% in an effort to save £2.4bn by 2015. That means hundreds of police stations will close, and you can bet your life there will be fewer bobbies on the beat.
The Army, too, is getting smaller. The Changing of the Guard is safe, since the Household Cavalry appears to have escaped the cuts. So have the Paras, the SAS and Marine commandos, but we learn today details of which other great regiments  are to be merged or disbanded. The aim is to get rid of 20,000 soldiers and reduce the Army to a fifth of its strength. Just what the boys in Afghanistan want to hear over their breakfast.

So here we are. Our public services in disarray, the economy in recession,  high streets struggling to survive in a never-ending Sale season, half the country's workforce desperate to find a job or taking tranquillisers to help them deal with the stress of the one they have. We all need a lift. 
The Olympics, according to a Lloyds bank report today, will give us just that. 
Well we know we can trust the banks, so what does Lloyds have to say? That the Games will create 62,000 jobs and boost the economy by £16.5bn with extra tourism and higher consumer spending.
Excellent. The only trouble is, that benefit will be accrued by 2017 and half of it will come from projects that have already been started - such as building the Olympic Park. And it seems a little less wonderful when set against the cost of staging the competition (anything from £11bn to £24bn, depending on which  set of rules you use) and a national debt of more than £1trn.
Hmmm. Was it such a great idea after all?  If not, someone will have to pay the price -  but who?

Oh yes, of course, it's obvious. Beckham brought the Games here. He must pay, rather than take, the penalties.
Stuart Pearce explained today why Beckham had been left out of the Great Britain squad, or rather why he hadn't been invited in. 
No one told Pearce who to pick. He was focused on winning, he had to think only of the football, there was no room for sentiment. Nor was there room for Beckham on the coaching side - all seven places had been taken.
Pearce was, however, told who not to pick, starting with those who'd played in the Euros. So no Carroll, Wellbeck, Walcott, Oxlade-Chamberlain (the only under-23s). Then there were those who would rather be on holiday or whose managers thought they needed a rest.
Olympic football, it seems, is too important to leave to the likes of Beckham, who arranged his entire life to be available and fit for this competition and the chance to play one last time for his country. Much better to turn to a player who not so long ago had far more pressing things to do than to represent his country.
Olympic football is so important and popular that it is the one sport for which you can get tickets virtually every day, including the Great Britain matches. You can even get into the final for 65 quid. It's not hard to see why: the standard of play is never going to be anywhere near  that which we can see in our own homes most nights of the week. 
Of course, Beckham wouldn't have been a box office draw. Nobody in the world would have wanted to see him. 
Good to know that at least one person in charge of something in this country can't be swayed by money. Pity he made the wrong decision.

We can berate the corrupt and the sleazy, we can beat ourselves - and others - up for a thousand failings, but some things you cannot control.
We all hoped for a glorious summer. Instead we have had grey skies and rain. We have tried to grin and battle on regardless, turning out to cheer the Queen at her sodden Jubilee pageant and the torch runners as they jog through the gloom. We have put up gazebos and umbrellas to protect us and our soggy sandwiches at street parties. We have been more neighbourly. We have shown that we are still the masters and mistresses of stoicism, of making the best of a bad job.
Maybe the sun will come out later this month. Maybe Murray will win Wimbledon. Maybe we'll beat the South Africans in the cricket. Maybe we'll get a clutch of golds at the greatest Olympics ever seen and restore our national pride with our performances on track, field and in the stands. 
Maybe, just maybe, we'll be welcoming to our Olympic guests, help them when they get lost, rather than try to rip them off; cheer their athletes' achievements as well as our own; try to be patient rather than angry in the traffic jams; remember that jingoism isn't patriotism.
It's a tall order, but maybe we can do it.
Or maybe, with the 'biblical' rain of the past few weeks, God is telling us something about our country and ourselves.


  1. Bloody hell! Can somebody give me directions for Beachy Head?

  2. Interesting observations - but I disagree about Beckham. He's not in the squad because he's long past it, unfortunately. Nobody will be complaining if we win a medal - which is what Pearce has been appointed to do - and therefore has to pick the best players available. The news, for once, made me feel less cynical about the Games - that it is not just a vanity project for Coe and all his cronies, including Becks.
    They're still bleating on about Becks this morning - it reminds me of the time when Coe, on his then form, wasn't good enough to make the team that went to Seoul in 1988. A moronic 'Coe Must Go' was started by some tabloids, including the Mirror, whose main reason for sending Coe was sentiment and who demonised Peter Elliott who took Coe's place.
    When the Games came round Coe's brat attack was largely forgotten and a slightly injured Peter Elliott went on to win silver in the 1500m - ahead of 4th placed Steve Cram...SAW

  3. So yesterday, I collected two chests of drawers from the new parents of a baby we fostered this year, for three children we looked after last year. The families have never met, and probably never will. But the kids were made up with this modest gift, because they finally have somewhere to keep their clothes.

    Good things happen, all the time...

    1. Absolutely. You couldn't be more right.
      the thing that struck me about yesterday's news was that it was instance after instance of corporate/organisational failure.
      I believe that we are a generous people, given to spontaneous acts of kindness as you describe, and i hope that is the impression our Olympic guests take home with them. But it is because we have this sense of fair play that we get so angry when those who have so much money/power/influence then lie and cheat to garner themselves even more.
      It also grieves me that it engenders a culture where many wealthy people don't expect ever to have to put their hands in their pockets. on the lowest level, it's the people who put the sandwich they would have bought themselves on a saturday on expenses because it's thursday.. and the middle managers who clutch any office freebie to their chest, never passing them down the line.
      one chap offered to buy me lunch once as a personal 'thank you'. there was an entertainment spending freeze at the time, but he said 'i think we can squeeze this one through on exes.' i was appalled and offended. if he wanted to buy me lunch, i wanted to know he was footing the bill, not passing it on to someone else. (it never happened anyway!)
      this greedy culture can also be seen in the demands of stars of what must be provided in their dressing rooms. how many zillions does madonna have that she can't afford to finance her own grapes? and then there are the tony blairs who are happy to turn to silvio or cliff or richard for their island paradise for the family holiday.
      and all the while your foster families and millions are scratching around to be able to afford the £8.50 Sun caravan offer. it makes my blood boil.
      but i've had my rant. it's everyone else's go now.
      thanks so much for taking the trouble to comment...

  4. Excellent. That says it all. Shall now bury my head in the sand (or mud, in my case) MG

  5. Absolutely first class - if only someone could react! DJ