Olympics 2012: What the Pundits Got Wrong

 

As the London 2012 Olympic Games heads into its final weekend, it's interesting to note that the XXX Olympiad, far from being the disaster widely predicted by media pundits, has instead been an almost unalloyed triumph.

Forecasts both fearful (terrorists would attack London) and frivolous (bikinied beach volleyball players would cover up in the British rain) turned out to be as wrong as those Olympic naysayers who predicted Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt could never defend his 100- and 200-meter gold medals.

Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney said London's pre-Olympic preparations, or lack thereof, were "disconcerting." The New York Times quoted locals calling the event a "fiasco" and “disaster” before it had even begun. And German newsmagazine Der Spiegel -- citing Britain's crumbling infrastructure, its notoriously wet weather and recession-hit economy -- predicted a "gigantic, soggy mess," concluding "London and the Olympic Games are clearly not made for each other."

Expecting the worst is a long tradition among journalists covering the Olympics. Remember the Beijing smog that was supposed to choke the athletes at the 2008 Games or those "unfinished" stadiums in Athens 2004? It didn't and they weren't. Every four years, we are told that this time the Olympics will end in disaster. And every four years, it doesn't. No doubt similar predictions of collapse and chaos will feature in the lead-up to the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro.

But as the London Olympics draw to a close, here's a look back at where the "experts" got it all wrong.

Prediction 1: The Opening Ceremony Will Be a Low-Budget Let-Down

The pundits were certain Zhang Yimou's superlative kickoff to Beijing 2008 would be an impossible act to follow.  Oscar-winning director Danny Boyle (Slumdog Millionaire) had just $42 million to spend on the Opening Ceremony for London 2012, less than half the $100 million-plus the Chinese government gave Zhang to direct his gargantuan spectacle. Even Boyle admitted he was "bound to fail" in his attempt to appeal to both a British audience and the more than 1 billion viewers watching around the globe.

Instead, Boyle's "Isles of Wonder" ceremony was a triumph. "Magnificent, inventive and offbeat" cheered Le Parisien in France, while The New York Times called the show, which featured Mr. Bean, James Bond and a skydiving Queen Elizabeth II, "hilariously quirky" if "sometimes slightly insane." British viewers had no such reservations. In the first week of the Games, the most retweeted comment about the Olympics was from #TeamGB: "RT if you think Danny Boyle, thousands of volunteers & all associated with 'Isles of Wonder' did us proud tonight."

Prediction 2: London's Public Transport System Will Collapse

Der Spiegel warned that the flood of Olympic visitors would cause London's "clattering" Tube and aging public transport system to collapse under the strain. Everyone predicted long lines at passport controls at Heathrow Airport and "traffic chaos" as soon as the Games got underway. While there were a few transport hiccups -- including a 20 minute shutdown of one of the main stations after a fire alert -- the bulk of London commuters appeared to follow organizers' advice to avoid the peak times and stations most popular with the Olympics crowds. Even the athletes gave London Transport a thumbs-up. The USA basketball squad, including multimillionaire stars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, swapped their chauffeur-driven cars for the London underground, posting pictures on Twitter of themselves riding on the Tube.

Prediction 3: Over-zealous Security Will Turn London Into a Police State

Media reports of missiles mounted on London rooftops and warships moored in and outside the city made it seem London 2012 would be closer to a draconian Hunger Games than a peaceful celebration of sport and international goodwill. This seemed to pan out after private security firm G4S failed to deliver the promised number of staff for the Games and the government ordered up to 3,500 extra troops to London to help out. The prospect of soldiers, many of them veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, patting down tourists drew gasps of alarm from opposition politicians and civil rights activists. But instead of being heavy-handed, the men in uniform were friendly and unobtrusive, with no major problems reported.

Prediction 4: The Brits Will Turn London Into the Griping Olympics

"While the world athletes limber up at the Olympic Park, Londoners are practicing some of their own favorite sports: complaining, expecting the worst and cursing the authorities," wrote Sarah Lyall in The New York TImes before London 2012 kicked off. Others concurred, noting calling griping "Britain's national pastime."

Even Londoner Nick Hornby, the sports-obsessed author of Fever Pitch, admitted in his Wall Street Journal article that he had an "utter lack of Olympic spirit" going into these Games, citing recent British failures at Wimbledon and the European Soccer Championships. And true to form, a few days in, with Britain still without a medal, the national papers began to complain of an "Olympic drought."

But griping quickly turned to cheering as Britain started to win gold. Olympic champions including heptathlon winner Jessica Ennis and cyclist Sir Chris Hoy were hailed as heroes. Tennis ace Andy Murray beat Roger Federer in the men's singles final, becoming the first Brit to win at Wimbledon in 75 years (Federer had beaten Murray in the Wimbledon final less than a month earlier). If anything, the Brits have been too enthusiastic. Pop singer Morrissey complained of the "blustering jingoism" from British commentators at this year's Olympics, and even BBC director general Mark Thompson reportedly told news executives to focus less on Team GB's success in bulletins.

Prediction 5: Unsold Tickets and Unused VIP Passes Will Mean Thousands of Empty Seats

This is the one prediction that did come true, at least initially. Viewers watching the first Olympic events were struck and angered by the rows of empty seats -- thousands of VIP tickets, mostly free passes for athletic associations and national Olympic committees, left unused. But London organizers responded, reclaiming unused tickets and handing them out to soldiers, school groups and sports fans. While there have been some complaints that London's official website is slow and inefficient, the stadiums started filling up, with most events playing to capacity crowds.

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