With the largest gathering of world leaders at any single occasion, former Diplomatic Editor for The Times, Michael Binyon, explains why the Olympics will be a period of intense pressure and international rivalry for diplomats as well as athletes
It will not only be the athletes competing for gold in the coming London Olympics. Britain’s diplomats are also facing their biggest challenge for years and the best chance of winning medals on the competitive field of diplomacy. This summer’s Games have attracted more than 120 heads of state to London, as well as countless top businessmen, politicians and decision-makers from around the world. And the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is determined to make the most of this unique opportunity to project a new image of Britain, win new friends and tie up new economic and political deals when the visitors have finished watching their teams compete.
The Olympics, like other big non-political occasions such as state funerals and weddings, often offer the best chances for informal diplomacy because it can be done behind closed doors. While the cameras are focused on the games or the ceremonies, world leaders can have a quiet off-the-record chat about the most vexed and pressing issues. London 2012 offers David Cameron a once-in-a-lifetime chance to renew his contacts with world statesmen and press on them his own view of what needs to be done for global stability and prosperity.
More than 120 presidents, princes and heads of government have promised to come to the Games – by far the largest gathering of world leaders at any single occasion. It is the equivalent of four or five G20 summits, and since the Games are concentrated into a brief two weeks, many of the leaders will be here at the same time and able to use London to network. Indeed, most of the larger countries have set up temporary headquarters not in their embassies but in grander buildings specially rented for the occasion. These serve not only as a place to gather and welcome their own Olympic competitors but also to play host to cultural events, visiting ministers and travelling supporters. The Koreans, Nigerians, Belgians, Slovaks and many others have each taken special Olympic houses. The Russians, hoping to enlist the large and wealthy Russian community in London in support of the Russian team, have taken a building next to Kensington Palace. France has rented Old Billingsgate Market. And Brazil, as the next venue for the Games and with ambitious hopes for Olympic medals, is to make a splash and take over Somerset House, the grand classical building beside the Thames.
The visiting heads of state will, of course, all call on Mr Cameron and will all be received by the Queen. Several formal dinners and banquets are planned - though the occasion will not be a state visit for any of them, and so the strict rules of protocol do not apply. But the challenge for British diplomats is to fit in as many meetings as possible with key British decision-makers in the hope that if the visitors enjoy the Games, they will be in the mood to listen to opportunities for trade and investment in Britain. To ensure they get the message, the Government is sponsoring a conference for would-be investors in Lancaster House before the Games begin.
Much, of course, will depend on the Games being a success. And with 10,000 athletes from 204 countries, some 40,000 visiting journalists and more than a million visitors, the police, Olympic organisers and transport authorities will be hard pressed to ensure that things run smoothly and there are no logistic nightmares. Top of the agenda for the Government is security. There is a worry that terrorists will attempt to stage a spectacular atrocity during the Games, especially as Britain has been involved in wars around the world and is seen by extremists as a close ally of the United States and therefore a prime target. As important to the British Government will be the protection of the many visiting foreigners who are also seen by their own domestic enemies as top targets. Traditionally, the diplomatic protection squad is deployed to safeguard visiting dignitaries. But the police, security services and a host of others will also be needed to ensure safety - and to assure many worried guests that although most of the British police will not be armed, they will have the firepower, intelligence and numbers to meet any possible terrorist threat.
The diplomatic side of the Olympics also has a number of potential pitfalls to avoid. Several world leaders are not on good terms with Britain, and their presence would be either unwelcome or would provoke huge demonstrations. The official hosts are not the British Government but the International Olympic Committee. This is why Kosovo, for example, will not be competing, as Russia and Serbia vetoed the territory’s participation as an independent country. But it is Whitehall that controls entry and decides who will or will not be given a visa to attend. Several dictators, including President Alexander Lukashenko of Belarus and President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, are subject to international travel bans, and so will not be coming in any case. Other authoritarian leaders, including the presidents of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, are likely to stay away, and some dictators are probably afraid to leave their own countries for fear of a coup. There is no likelihood that President Assad of Syria will try to come to London, where he once worked as an eye doctor. But it would be extremely awkward if his British-born wife Asma chose to come. She holds a British passport, and cannot therefore be refused entry –although with her bank account frozen she would not be allowed to draw out any money here. Nevertheless, the head of the Syrian Olympic Committee has already been refused a visa. But Britain will probably be obliged to admit Ahmed Hamsho, a Syrian competing as a show-jumper who also happens to be the nephew of Assad’s brother Maher.
Another awkward point has arisen with Vladimir Putin. The Russian leader, who has cool relations with Britain and has long been incensed by the presence in London of prominent Russian fugitives such as Boris Berezovsky, has made it clear that he has no wish to attend officially as President. Instead, he has sent Dmitry Medvedev, the Prime Minister and former President, to represent the Kremlin. But Mr Putin will be the host at the next winter Olympics in Sochi, and his absence is a diplomatic snub, underlining the continuing tensions over the Litvinenko affair and Kremlin anger over calls by British politicians to ban senior Russians accused of human rights abuses.
Mr Putin, who attended the opening ceremonies of the 2008 Beijing Games, is known to want to attend the martial arts events (he himself holds a high rank in these sports). If he can be enticed to London in a ‘personal’ capacity, Mr Cameron would like to use a visit to discuss Syria, Iran and other world issues and initiate a thaw in relations with Moscow.
The Olympics will focus the world’s attention on London for two weeks - plus the Paralympics immediately following afterwards. The Games have traditionally been used to rebrand and burnish a country’s image. For the UK in 1948, in the aftermath of the second Work War, it was a statement of resilience. For Tokyo in 1964, it signalled Japan’s return to the mainstream, and for Beijing in 2008, it afforded the Chinese a stage to show their world power status. Britain knows that the opening ceremony will be all-important in making a splash. And despite the current austerity and an early declaration that London would not try to equal or outdo the spectacular Beijing ceremony, the Government recently announced a big increase in funding for the opening. The Games are already estimated to cost £11 billion. Mr Cameron has said he hopes they will earn some £13 billion for Britain. It looks as though Britain’s diplomats and officials will have to work very hard to recoup a sum of that size.