GAMES FOR A LAUGH?
The Olympics is big news this week. The ragtag bunch of international bureaucrats and politicians that make-up the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) Evaluation Commission is in London to sniff around the various venues that together form the capital's bid to host the world's largest sporting festival in 2012.
While this eclectic band's most explicit objective in its four-day visit is to make sure that Britain will not make a hash of holding the Games themselves, there is also another aim. The visitors will always want to ensure that the good old British public is going to get something out of it - and that doesn't mean checking that we are fully prepared with a roster of cynical jokes to ease the pain when once again the Great Britain team comes somewhere between Chad and Monrovia in the final medal table.
The name of the game is regeneration.
This is not something completely new but, this time round, it is more important than ever before. Put simply, it is likely to make the difference between London picking up the Games or them heading to Paris instead.
The reasons for this are twofold: firstly, and most obviously, the IOC has dictated that regeneration is now one of its key priorities when picking the host; and secondly, London 2012 - Lord Coe's 'bid company' - has chosen to pin the capital's chances to radically transforming a massive swathe of east London's poorest area.
How else can the British bid, with its undeniably run-down infrastructure, be expected to compete with the likes of Paris, where the bid team can afford to take the IOC inspectors on a gleaming Metro train, happy in the knowledge that an 'incident' at Baker Street hasn't left the city's entire public-transport network paralysed?
To emphasise the point that a London Games in 2012 would make a genuine difference to the wealth and success of many of Britain's poorest people, organisers have dictated that the London Development Agency (LDA), Ken Livingstone's regeneration mob, plays a significant part in both this week's frivolity with the IOC and the wider bid itself.
Many who watch London's dash for Olympic glory argue, with a strong sense of cynicism, that the capital would gain almost nothing from hosting the Games in 2012, pointing to the white elephants littering Athens' landscape and the barren wasteland born from Atlanta's miserable effort. At the very centre of the push to prove to the IOC that this will not happen to London is Gareth Blacker, the LDA's 39year-old director of development.
For Blacker this is seemingly a very black and white debate - he comes into our conversation armed with a series of statistics that he believes proves outright that a victory for the capital will transform the Lea Valley out of all recognition. 'This will become the biggest regeneration project in Europe when we get going and that's what we have to remember, ' he says in a frighteningly confident manner.
'The project will create 9,000 new homes and create an incredible amount of new infrastructure. It will involve the construction of a massive new urban park - the first in London for over a century - and will leave the area transformed. We will have over £5 billion worth of spend to put into the project.
'But we do have to ensure that the venues do not become simply white elephants and that is why we have been brought in.
The Greek experience is something we have looked at a lot to help understand how to organise our bid. We have to ensure that this does not backfire, ' he adds.
Cynics also question why the Games are necessary for regeneration at all. Surely if the Lea Valley and its residents are that poor, it should be unnecessary for the Olympics to act as a trigger. Why not act now, throw money at the area and make sure that by 2012 every east Londoner has a 24-inch widescreen television on which to watch the beach volleyball final beamed in from Paris? It soon emerges that Blacker, however, has never seriously considered this cynical argument. In fact, the LDA was instrumental in making sure that a London bid was taken seriously in the upper echelons of the capital's government.
'We were instrumental in bringing the 2012 bid forward, ' Blackler says. 'The positive impact of bidding has focused people's minds on the area. It has made a difference already.
For example, we are already carrying out site assembly - bringing together a lot of derelict land that will be useful whether we win or not.' He also argues strenuously that the Lea Valley has missed out on other surrounding regeneration initiatives and that an Olympic Games would be just the kind of thing to put this right. 'Unemployment is twice the national average and yet Docklands and the City are really not far away, ' he adds. 'It is neighboured by some really improving areas and something needs to be done here as well. I do not doubt that if the Games take place, the economic benefits will definitely be a success.' However, just when I decide that Blacker has probably been brainwashed in some ghastly pro-Olympics machine in Livingstone's Greater London Authority headquarters, he slides a caveat into our conversation. 'We do need to ensure that the regeneration drivers are in place for the long term, not just during the Games themselves, ' he says. I, for one, am pleased that at least one person has spotted the blindingly obvious. Let's just hope he does something about it.