Part 5: 8,000 Holes
In June 2011, when the design for the official Olympic torch was unveiled, the Chair of LOCOG Sebastian Coe had said:
“The Torch that carries the Olympic Flame during the Olympic Torch Relay is one of the most recognisable and significant symbols of an Olympic Games. Members of the public right across the UK are busy nominating inspiring people to be Torchbearers and I am thrilled we have a beautifully designed, engineered and crafted Torch for them to carry.
“Integral to the design are the 8,000 circles, a lasting representation of the Torchbearer stories of personal achievement or contribution to their local community that will be showcased with every step of the Relay.”
But too many of those 8,000 circles turned out to be merely holes where local heroes should have been. The “message of inclusion” which the torch was supposed to represent had been replaced with a repeated message of exclusion. At almost every point where places were split up, a proportion was siphoned for allocation through non-public processes, whether the 15% of Lloyds TSB places for staff; the 10% of Samsung’s places; Coca Cola’s nomination judges carrying the torch as Future Flames, or the corporate partners who rewarded board members and business partners.
Julie Hilling, an MP who raised the issue of torchbearer places in Parliament, and who nominated Ruth Madeley, an inspirational young wheelchair user who now works for the charity Whizzkids, says that:
“The torch relay has been a great success in bringing communities together to celebrate the Olympics, but it’s a real shame that LOCOG and the sponsors have not lived up to their duty to have torch-bearers selected because they are inspirational. It is disgraceful that people who have served their community or overcome adversity in their lives have been replaced by relations and executives of the sponsors. Where are their “inspirational stories”? LOCOG should have ensured they and the sponsors lived up to their promises. There are still many questions to be answered.”
Former DCMS minister Sion Simon goes further:
“Locog have comprehensively failed to keep the promises they made about who would carry the torch. They gave assurances about young people, about local heroes and about no nepotism. All have been systematically broken, apparently without shame or sanction. Sponsors have been allowed to use what was supposed to be a ‘people’s privilege’ as just another marketing tool to be bought and sold.
“This is a scandal just as surely as if it were financial. It is ultimately down to the government, who created Locog, to see that these questions are publicly answered. Only the Prime Minister can give the public the assurances they seek, and he should.”
Hi, we’re the replacements
When the Olympic flame passes through their borough on July 24 Jack Binstead’s family will be on a plane out of the country.
“We are not even going to be here to see the torch relay because I don’t think he wants to see it,” says Penny Binstead. “We are going to be on a plane at 7.30 – that is how we are going to deal with it. Jack is excited about the Paralympics – we are going to go and see David Weir race – but I did not want him to be around on the day the torch comes through.
“He has won gold medals for the Kingston borough in the London youth games; he has represented the Kingston borough four or five years on the trot now. He goes to the sports awards and he gets his medals and everyone knows him. He has won the mini London marathon three times for the Kingston borough – as I say, twice with injuries: once with a broken leg and once with ribs broken. So it just would have been nice for them to recognise that.
“Thinking that he was going to be part of this particular Olympics – even though he was not racing – it would have been something that he would have cherished. It would have been something that would have been special for him, something which may have spurred him on, thinking: ‘Great. I have done this. I have done something towards it, and I can look forwards now to the next Olympics’.”
Instead, on the day that Jack’s family flies out, the Olympic torch will be carried by Chai Patel – a former Labour Party donor previously caught up in the Cash for Peerages scandal and now one of the largest donors to the British Olympic Association. Sujith Weerasinghe, Olympics Operations Manager for BP, will carry the torch too, having written his own nomination story. The CEO of the BFI and Samsung’s UK Vice President were listed to carry that day, but as they have since disappeared from the site it’s not clear if they will. Joe Hemani has also disappeared from the site: he was due to carry the torch with the simple nomination story “Joe Hemani is the founder and single shareholder of Westcoast Ltd which was established in 1984.” The vice president of Visa Europe runs with a story written by herself, as does the assistant manager of Carphone Warehouse Leeds – it says “Using video technology, I took it upon myself to enhance and personalise the service customers get at Carphone Warehouse and Best Buy Europe.” The head of the company designing the Coca Cola pavilion carries a torch on that day, and while chefs who graduated from Jamie Oliver’s inspirational apprentice programme Fifteen are running – so is the Marketing and Commercial Manager for Jamie Oliver Ltd. And running without any story at all is Paul Eccleston, managing director at techhnology distributor SDG.
If there was ever a genuine desire for the Torch Relay to be “for everybody” with a focus on youth, “connecting everyone to the Games through the stories of young people”, that desire has been left unfulfilled: instead of half of torchbearers being aged 12-24, by the time 7,000 stories had been published barely a third of those were under 25.
With only three promises to deliver – 90% of places going to the ‘general public'; half of places given to young people between 12 and 24; and “8,000 inspirational stories” – the organisers of the 2012 Olympic torch relay had failed to meet any of them.
Outside of the public campaigns run by LOCOG and the three presenting partners, responsible for 76% of places – hundreds of which had never been offered publicly – LOCOG could provide no details of which members of the general public had been nominated, or whether any processes existed to ensure that the 90% claim could be met.
Meanwhile, over 1,500 nomination stories were missing from the website, and continuing investigation of those names published without stories found many linked to people holding senior positions in companies connected to sponsors, at sponsor organisations themselves, or covering the industries the sponsors operated in.
Ultimately, this not only left many deserving individuals without their ‘moment to shine’, it also affected those that did carry the torch.
Geoff Holt was one of those. Nominated to carry the torch by Yachtswoman Dame Ellen MacArthur because he “epitomised courage”, Geoff is the first quadriplegic to sail single-handed across the Atlantic Ocean. Over the last few years he has been voted BBC South Sports Personality of the Year, received a British Airways Great Briton Award, and been awarded an MBE for services to disabled sailing. In her nomination Dame Ellen said: “He is always positive and always smiling ñ a really nice person.”
But Geoff thinks that the handling of torchbearer places by sponsors and LOCOG has damaged the experience of carrying the torch.
“It sours it. I think it’s inevitable. If you’re asking yourself why the other torchbearers are there, it’s not right.
“One torchbearer number on my bus, for example, had eight people with that number. They got off and passed the torch round in a circle. They were from a cash and carry warehouse in Portsmouth, nominated by Coca Cola – they sell their drinks.
“And when you have people from different countries [carrying the torch] you start to ask yourself why they are here. Now if that person has saved a life in Beijing or raised £100,000, or helped people, then bring it on. But because it happens to be an executive who the sponsors want to do business with in future it seems – well, you realise you are looking at the coalface of corporate reality.
“Then if you can’t find out from the internet what their story is, then – because it’s supposed to be open and transparent – you wonder: this is our Olympics. What are they trying to keep from us?”
All proceeds of 8,000 Holes go to the Brittle Bone Society.