Midweek sport special – Greenwich Olympics replay

So, what did you do tonight, then? Settle down to watch the clash of the managerial titans – Sir Alex Ferguson v Jose Mourinho – did you? I wish I’d been able to see this week’s Champions League matches, but it’s been a week where priorities have been elsewhere, tying up loose ends and getting ready for imminent big changes. But I did take time out see a classic clash tonight – yes, it’s Greenwich Council versus the Anti-Olympics XI! None of the respect for each other showed by Lord Ferg and the Special One tonight – this was a grudge match, where the tackles were agricultural and the language sometimes abusive. This wasn’t one to be discussed civilly over a bottle of red, as both football masterminds are fond of doing. I might have had the better deal tonight.

Tonight’s match followed the encounter earlier this season, the Greenwich Olympics meeting held at the O2 arena in December, where the Anti-Olympics XI, wearing the kit of their patrons NOGOE, ranted, raved, and swore against the staging of 2012’s equestrian events in Greenwich Park. Greenwich Council, meanwhile – who the opposition alleged were aided by plenty of ringers in the last meeting – turned out in the kit of their second eleven, the Greenwich and Woolwich Labour Party.

It was a GWLP open meeting to discuss the implications/legacy of the Olympics in the borough. As far as I know, it received very little publicity, but the New Labour types must have been prepared for some cuckoos to pop up in their nest. It was good of Councillor John Fahy to do it – it’s much more than I’ve seen his colleagues do, but then he is the council’s cabinet member for the Olympics. It was just our ruddy-faced councillor and a mysterious chairwoman facing the 30-or-so-strong audience tonight in a booked room in a community centre in Blackheath – a long way from the slick show at the Dome.

Before kick-off, NOGOE had attempted to rachet up the pressure on the council and 2012 organisers by a releasing a report on the true costs of the Olympics in Greenwich Park. It’s a weighty document and I’ve not had a chance to read it in depth, but from my quick scan through it does make a couple of interesting points about how the original maps produced may have contained serious errors, and how LOCOG organisers may not have seen feedback from a recent public consultation on the games in the park. But NOGOE’s document has its holes too – like claiming the proposed equestrian arena (capacity: 23,000) could be moved to Leyton Orient FC’s Brisbane Road ground, which has a capacity of 9,271 and is surrounded by recently-built housing in each corner. The smell of NIMBYism, unfortunately, hasn’t gone away.

But anyhow, all’s square when the ref’s whistle blows at the start of the match, and John Fahy – who looks like the kind of chap who’s devoted most of his life to this kind of thing – made a few thoughtful opening remarks, and said the council was operating on three key principles: to create a long-term legacy, to see an improvement in people’s health, and to ensure there would be lasting economic benefits. The council had secured £5m in government funding for sports facilities in schools, and from next month all children and older people would be able to swim for free in the borough’s pools. There would be a swimming strategy with a director of swimming (is there a director of street sweeping?) and the creation of an “elite squad” of young swimmers who could aim for success in future Olympics. There was also cash for Deptford’s Ahoy yachting club and for Greenwich’s Trafalgar Rowing Club. There was £1m for Eltham town centre to help it through the recession, and 26 Chinese firms were due to tour the borough next week, and hopefully two or three would locate their business on Greenwich Council turf. All, it was said, was due to the Olympics. An announcement was awaited on whether Woolwich would remain the venue for shooting – but a move could cause trouble with the IOC, and he said the big issues yet to be debated would be security at the Games and the Olympic Road Network, which has the potential to cause a shedload of disruption (my words, not his).

And then, time for questions. First up, NOGOE founder Michael Goldman, who put his point about the allegedly cocked-up maps to Mr Fahy. And here’s the problem. He works for the council. He doesn’t draw the maps. He can’t answer it. “That’s his problem,” he said, naming a LOCOG person. “We can argue until Doomsday, but the fact is the equivalent event in Hong Kong was [in a venue] half the size of Greenwich Park,” he added, anticipating a rough ride from the NOGOE gang. “If the equestrian events were at Hickstead, we’d have the grandees of the equestrian world heaving off there in their Range Rovers heading off there and the benefits to an inner-city borough would be missed.”

So far, so spiky. And it was good to see the councillor debate for what he believed in. Heavens, he even conceded that organisers “needed to do better” in dealing with traffic issues – “we don’t want Greenwich to be a no go zone in 2012”, and that further debate was needed. But the same courtesy wasn’t to be extended to the NOGOE-rs, who found interjections cut off by the mystery hoarse-voiced chairwoman, to what looked like Mr Fahy’s embarrassment. At this point, things started to get weird. Someone shouted something about “Labour Party rules”. One NOGOE-r got particularly irritated at not being allowed to debate the issues.

Senior Labour man: “If you’re fed up with this, leave!”
NOGOE-r: “Piss off!”

He did get to ask his question, though, which was: “How do you feel about an Olympic event taking place over Saxon graves?”

It was like that. Petty questions, pettily-handled. No side did itself any favours. A few voices of reason stood out for either side – a Labour man pointing out that Maze Hill station doesn’t have disabled access, a bit of a boo-boo for the Paralympics; and a quietly-spoken man asserted that Greenwich Park was only chosen for television, and couldn’t another venue be found in the borough for equestrian events?

But slowly, it all descended into a bit of a farce. The hoarse-voiced mystery chairwoman seemed to lose it with the NOGOE-rs, at one point banging her fist on the desk – “NO! NO! NO! NO!” Mr Fahy answered one question about a particular aspect of the legacy with “wait and see” – fine for an avuncular mayoral type, not good enough for a council which looks complacent and arrogant. Indeed, after too few questions (around 10?) it was decided Greenwich Park should be off-limits to questioners.

Ah, yes, time I asked a question – what were his observations on the council’s handling of the public and the Olympics? After all, there were a lot of friendly organisations guaranteed to ask friendly questions at the public meeting at the O2, and the council’s paper is always glowing in its handling of matters 2012? What were his observations?

This is the point where my notes go a bit haywire – never be part of the story? Ooops. Mr Fahy thought aloud for a moment, and then answered that the council had signed up to support the Olympics, so it was natural that it’d be publicly enthusiastic (yup, yup…) but ask anyone in Charlton and they dread match-days –

Actually, I live in Charlton, and I’m a season-ticket holder, I replied, but I took his point, but then just as I was hoping he’d warm to his theme… another question cut in from behind.

“THIS IS NOT A DEBATE!” yelled mystery hoarse-voiced chairwoman. The questioner? Celebrity scribe Andrew Gilligan, of the Evening Standard, in a tracksuit and fetching yellow t-shirt. Mr Fahy tried to take him on – “I suspect that what you write is your own opinion anyway!” – but then the chairwoman tried to steer him back to my question.

“The gentleman says many people feel disenfranchised…-“ and then she was cut off by Gilligan. I never did get my question answered in the end. Senior Labour Man at the front motioned at her to wind up the meeting. A triumph for democracy. Funny, because my question clearly helped inspire one of Gilligan’s blog entries for greenwich.co.uk last year and I would have thought he would have liked to have heard the opposing point of view. Never mind.

“On 3 September 2012, come and walk in the park with me and let’s see how it retains its glory,” Mr Fahy said a couple of times, suggesting the losers in the debate purchase champagne for the winners when all’s said and done. He’s by no means on the right side in this, but he does at least have a sense of how the debate is – it cuts across party lines and, frankly, each side is implacably opposed to the other. He knows he won’t change their minds. And I can’t see NOGOE changing many others. “We are not a minority! We have 5,000 supporters on Facebook!,” shouted Mr Goldman. “Where’s your opinion poll into support for the Olympics in Greenwich Park?,” asked Andrew Gilligan. But where’s NOGOE’s opinion poll? Indeed, the Greenwich Society, the kind of body from where you’d think NOGOE would draw its support, doesn’t back it and is involved in pushing for improvements to Greenwich Park after 2012.

Community website greenwich.co.uk, which plays host to Gilligan’s weekly blog, trumpeted NOGOE’s report as “turning up the heat on Olympic organisers” – but heat’s not what’s needed. It’s light – and that’s still in precious little supply, either fron Greenwich Council or NOGOE. And at the end of the day, if this goes on, football (and horse riding, and shooting, and gymastics, and the people of Greenwich) will be the loser, Brian.

8 comments

  1. Great post; fear I will be entering a similar dragon’s den tonight when I go to a public meeting on proposals for a new school in Lewisham. Does Andrew Gilligan live in Greenwich then?

  2. He certainly does, close to the park and the heath in West Greenwich. The NOGOE types certainly feel the need to vent, and they’re entitled to do it – but the “questions to the chair” format wasn’t really appropriate for something which has stirred such strong emotions. I hope your evening is more civilised!

  3. A very well written and balanced piece. I think the bottom line is, meetings like this are only to placate the nay sayers, the Olympic plans will go ahead as, they must. It’s a bigger issue than a couple of weeks in 2012, it’s about promoting Greenwich as a good place to come for leisure, business and life. This represents a second bite at the cherry after the ham fisted way the area was promoted in 2000, what with the dome fiasco, the constant knocks from the media and ultimately the damp squib that was New Years Eve 2000. It’s about time we all got behind the scheme to make it work for everyone.

  4. What a wearisome farce that must have been.

    Being rubbish I only just realised that it was, ahem, last night, but in many ways I’m glad I wasn’t there. I’d have found the whole thing depressing in the extreme. When people only want to shout each other down (including a chairperson) I don’t see the point of debate.

    Nice feature though – well-balanced and thoughtful. And the closest I want to get to meetings like that.

  5. Im sick of being done over by these labour pigs. greenwich park regular, JR pupil, im starting to think some Direct AcTion is needed. lets get a black bloc going and march through east greenwich, or we could chain ourselves to the gates of the observatory? dont think the local gau would like the tourists to see that.

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