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Back in 1948, at the original “austerity Olympic Games,” the economy was so dismal Britain was still running on war-time rationing. Some of the foreign athletes coming to London even brought their own food.
Really. The Danes apparently thought to bring 160,000 eggs. The Americans brought their own meat and fresh produce. The French brought wine. The Hungarians, for some reason, chose to bring lemons.
It isn’t quite that austere this time around, but for a great many Britons and foreign visitors here today life is no picnic.
Britain, like much of Europe, has been contending with a deep and persistent recession, and a couple of days before the Games began, there were indications it was getting worse.
The official figures came out and showed that Britain’s economy had shrunk by a further 0.7 per cent in the most recent period and the news couldn’t have been more ill-timed.
Hoping to ride the Olympic wave, the British government was gearing up to woo wavering foreign investors into putting more of their money here. Britain was open for business, Prime Minister David Cameron trumpeted.
The government was also at the height of a years-long PR campaign to persuade skeptics that hosting the $14.5-billion Olympic Games was good for London, and good for the U.K. economy as a whole. It would bring in tourists, elevate Britain’s brand in the world, and pay dividends for decades to come.
But it wouldn’t be quite that easy, allows John Lock, a development manager and director of the 2012 office at the University of East London.
“We’re in a hard place. I don’t think that’s going to change anytime soon,” he says. “Not even with the Olympics?
“The Olympics is not going to remove the eurozone [problems] but real life will reassert itself.”
A week into the Games, the skeptics are back at it, bolstered by reports that tourist numbers are actually down in comparison to other years. You can see this in some of London’s normally bustling spots.
Museums, theatres and hotels are reporting lower than expected visitors.
Businesses are putting the blame directly on the Olympics and its organizers for scaring people away.
Of course there are many Brits who are still keen on partaking in the Olympic excitement despite all the bad economic news.
But even if they could get tickets to the events, which proved to be trickier than was first thought, many simply couldn’t afford the trip to London. Hotel prices were enough to keep many of them at home, watching on television instead.
Thousands, though, found another solution: they have flocked to impromptu campsites around London, set up expressly for the Olympics, in an effort to cut their costs enough to allow them to witness sporting history.
For 10 pounds (about $15 Cdn) a night — and a little bit of roughing it — they too could be in London for the Olympic Games.
"The cheapest accommodation in London is campsite," said one woman who was setting up a tent with her two children. "And the way things are, people can't really afford it otherwise can they?"
There are just enough free events, such as cycling and the marathons, to allow frugal families to take part without a heavy cash outlay.
For those unwilling or unable to expend that kind of effort, there are cinemas and other public venues that have set up large screens to show the Games.
One church near Oxford Circus has done just that and thrown open its doors to spectators of all means looking for an easy and affordable Olympic experience.
Unsurprisingly it has proven quite popular.
These are austere times indeed. But at least athletes didn’t have to pay for their own uniforms, or bring their own food. Things could be far worse.