Perhaps there was a quiet moment of schadenfreude for Gordon Campbell in the days leading up to the Olympics, as the organizers suffered a series of gaffes, sponsorship outrages and public political squabbles and the Britain’s tabloids mocked what they were then calling an “Olympishambles.”
After all, that’s exactly where he’d been two years before when, as premier of British Columbia, he watched the London papers rip into the early days of the Vancouver Winter Games for their flubbed opening ceremony, their tragic luge death and their seemingly endless rain.
If there was such a moment, he is too diplomatic to acknowledge it. As Canada’s High Commissioner to Britain (a job he took up last year), Mr. Campbell prefers to talk about what happened next: In Vancouver in 2010, as in London in 2012, things suddenly got better, as some clever forms of organization shared between the two Games kicked into play.
“The British media, they were writing some charming articles about what was going on in Vancouver,” he said during an interview at his office in Grosvenor Square. “But I frankly didn’t care about what they were writing in Britain … what I cared about was how the people in Vancouver and British Columbia felt about it – and they loved it.”
The success of the Vancouver Games led to a lot of phone calls and visits from the London organizers, who wanted to emulate an Olympics that was admired for being open to the wider city and staffed by a well-organized army of citizen volunteers. The London organizers have talked a lot about “the Vancouver example” these past two years – and, in fact, there are 200 people from the Vancouver organizing committee sitting on London’s organizing committee.
The platoons of pink-suited volunteers who fill every street corner and train station in London, offering assistance, directions, logistical advice and bar recommendations to visitors are modelled on Vancouver. So are the concerts and live events scattered throughout central London, far away from the Games site.
Mr. Campbell was a sought-after voice, as he had been involved with the Vancouver Games from their bid in 2003 through to the closing ceremony seven years later – and had endured all the fiscal nightmares and wrestling matches with an imperious International Olympic Committee that host governments must endure.
Vancouver had been a success partly because Winter Olympics are less expensive and awkward – after all, they take place in cities where winter-sport activities are typically taking place anyway. But Vancouver also had some organizational innovations based on lessons – not entirely positive – learned from watching the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
“We came out of the Turin Olympics and we thought, you have to make the Olympics something way beyond the sporting activity,” Mr. Campbell said.
Turin, like most previous Winter Games, had seen sporting events walled off from the surrounding city, which was mainly used to provide accommodation and a transit corridor to the sports.
Mr. Campbell and his colleagues saw a new approach: “You give it to the city, you give it to the people, and one of our goals in Vancouver was to say, ‘This is your Olympics, you’re invited to it.’ So we had activities taking place all over the city … And I think they’re trying to emulate that in London – except that London is so much bigger than Vancouver is, it’s hard to see it in the same way that we saw it in Vancouver.”
The other influence from Vancouver – less visible to visitors – is the way these Games are being used by the government as a gigantic political summit and business gathering. Host governments have always taken advantage of the presence of hundreds of foreign political and business leaders in their city, but the Vancouver Games made it a more deliberate and organized affair, and London has taken it several steps further, setting up major venues for deal-making and negotiation in the shadow of the sporting events.
Canada is using the London Games – and Canada House, the Trafalgar Square icon that has undergone a multimillion-dollar renovation – as the backdrop for a series of industry gatherings, business meetings and mini-summits between politicians and foreign businesspeople. There are some 20 such events scheduled during the 16-day Games, and half a dozen cabinet ministers, at least one premier and the Governor-General have already passed through, shaken hands and sometimes signed documents.
“The Olympics is a great international attraction – it’s one of the few things left that really brings all the world together,” Mr. Campbell said. “And to have those head decision-makers in your country – once they’re here, they’re here. The Olympics are where you start the deals.”