The greatest show on earth

Elissa Jobson

On 27 July, a worldwide TV audience of 1 billion people will tune in to the opening ceremony of the 30th Olym­piad. Viewers will see a pastiche of England’s green and pleasant land remade in miniature in the Olympic stadium, com­plete with real grass and live farmyard animals. The bucolic idyll that British film director Danny Boyle hopes to create is a far cry from the everyday reality of an increasingly urbanised (and subur­banised) Britain.

But does it matter that the pastoral dream of Shakespeare’s “sceptered isle” being conjured by Boyle bears little relation to the 21st-century city that is to be backdrop to the Games them­selves? No, of course not. The Olympics are all about dreams and striving to be the best you can be, as the Games’ motto – ‘Faster, Higher, Stronger’ – attests.

Triple gold medal-winning Paralympian Oscar Pistorius is perhaps the embodiment of the Olympic spirit. In August he is set to make history: Pistorius has been selected by South Africa to run in both the individual 400m and 4x400m relay in London and will be the first amputee runner ever to compete in the Olympic Games. In an exclusive interview with Global, he explains that he has always had the “passion and determination” to succeed. One of three children, his mother treated him exactly the same as his siblings, giving him the confidence he needed to pursue his dreams. While Pistorius doesn’t shy away from his disability, he insists that it doesn’t define him: “I always say that it’s about the abilities you have, not the disability.”

Without a doubt Pistorius is now one of the most recognisable sportsmen in the world; his image graces the back – and increasing­ly the front – pages of newspapers. His visibility is in stark contrast to the invisibility of the majority of the 1 billion people (15 percent of the world’s population) currently living with a disability. Jaspal Dhani, CEO of the UK Disabled People’s Council, believes that this marginalisation is the biggest challenge faced by disabled peo­ple in Britain today. A lack of role models in the mainstream media is compounded by the portrayal of negative stereotypes, he says.

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, which came into force in 2007, should help to strengthen the voice of disability activists and provide a platform from which to fight discrimination. Gerard Quinn documents the history of this groundbreaking treaty, which for the first time treats disabled people not as ‘objects’ to be cared for but as ‘subjects’ deserving of equality and respect. One of the convention’s key provisions is accessibility – to information and communication technology as well as physical access to buildings or buses.

Urban public transport is notoriously difficult to negotiate for people with disabilities, but the development of new infrastruc­ture projects like India’s growing Metro rail network and South Africa’s high-speed Gautrain provide an opportunity for the needs of disabled people to be built into the design. But the enormous in­vestments required to fund these high-end mass transit systems are prohibitively expensive – Glynn Davies puts the cost of Gautrain at ZAR28.9 billion ($3.4 billion), 13 times the original estimate of ZAR2.2 billion. Rachel Kyte, World Bank vice president for sustainable development, warns against the lure of such prestigious projects for countries with small transport budgets. Her colleague, O. P. Agarwal, however, has some suggestions for innovative sources of finance – from congestion charges to vehicle restrictions.

Which brings us back to London and the Olympics. Mark Evers, director of games transport at Transport for London (TfL), has to keep the city moving at a time when the tube system can expect to see up to 3 million extra passengers per day. He tells Global about the provisions TfL has made to minimise disrup­tions and details precisely what the £6.5 billion of UK taxpayers’ money, earmarked for improvements to the transport infrastruc­ture, have been spent on.

Add to that the £2 billion it costs to stage the Olympics, plus the £9.3 billion spent on regeneration in London’s East End, and that’s an awful lot of money – in this age of austerity – to be ploughing into a single sporting event, even if it is the world’s biggest. Forecasting record-breaking consumer spending during the Games, Sebastian Coe, chairman of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games, is convinced it’s money well spent. “We strongly believe the Games will bring lasting eco­nomic benefits to London and the rest of the UK.” A bold com­mitment, given that very few host cities have managed to turn a profit. We in Britain hope this Olympic dream becomes a reality.

About the author:

Elissa Jobson is the Editor of Global: the international briefing


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