London 2012 – winners and losers

As the Games draw to a close, we take a look at some of the winners and losers.

“… from where I stand, I think we’re set for a really remarkable few weeks for Britain, when we welcome the world, say this is a great country to come to, enjoy the Olympics, but also think of all the other things we’ve got to offer.”

So said the Prime Minister just over two weeks ago, and so it has turned out.

Those of us who were unable to get tickets have been able to participate in spirit (if we wished), and our thanks go out to:

the athletes who delivered some great performances,
the spectators who helped to create great sporting events,
the volunteers who welcomed the world,
Transport for London who brought all three together, and confounded predictions of gridlock on the roads and a melt-down of public transport,
the UK construction industry who delivered the venues (more about them later),
the broadcasters who brought the Games into our homes (more about them later too),
and of course the organisers who ensured it all came together over the past two weeks.

The bid in 2005 to bring the Games to London included a promise to inspire a generation. There have certainly been many inspirational moments during the Games, and young people have many new role models to motivate and uplift them. What is more, the measures used in sport are the same measures used in teaching at school and in college, linking the inspirational world of sport to the sometimes-less-than-inspirational world of learning.

In our article on 27 July, we referred to the venues, delivered on time and within budget and 100% metric.  Our view now we have seen them in action is – Wow! What an advert for Britain’s design and construction skills in the two hundred or so metric countries around the world receiving video feeds of the Games. A sell-out for beach volleyball on Horse Guards Parade – who would have believed it?

The BBC took its video from Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and made no attempt to disguise the fact that the measures used in the Games are metric. Comments on previous Metric Views articles have drawn attention to occasional slip-ups, but the overwhelming impression has been that metric rules. “Think metric. Don’t convert” has generally been the principle. This over two TV channels, two extra Freeview channels, twenty four live channels, Radio 5, Five Live Olympics Extra and replay on line, covering thirty four different venues. The first real time media games.

This has made all of us in the UK potential winners. We have to earn our living in a metric world, and few who have viewed Games coverage can have been left in any doubt that imperial measures have had their day. We have also witnessed great sport.

So Metric Views’ nominations for winners are:

our younger generation,
the UK construction industry,
the BBC,
and us – the Great British public.

And losers?

These must include those who spent many hours on-line in unsuccessful attempts to obtain tickets, and also the reputation of the company that provided the ticketing software.

Our last article discussed metric myths and their demise. One myth is that the metric system has been imposed on the UK by Brussels. And on two hundred other countries competing in the Games, only 26 of which are in the EU? Surely not. Nor does being metric seem to have affected the performance of Team GB, now third in the medals table. How ironic too that Andy Murray lost at Wimbledon in June, when speeds were measured in mph, but won in August when these switched to km/h.

The reaction of the Permanent Secretary at the UK Department for Transport (DfT) when seeing service speeds at Wimbledon in metric would have been interesting to observe. Perhaps his coffee ended up in his lap. The DfT has, of course, maintained for forty years that road traffic signs can survive in an ever-shrinking bubble of imperial measures, while the country and most of the rest of world continues with the metric changeover. But the DfT is not entirely to blame. During “Question Time” on BBC1 on 23 February 2006, politicians of all parties scrambled over each other to rubbish the idea that Britain should bring its road traffic signs into line with its neighbours. Now saturation coverage of the Games has brought metric measures into almost every home – if this were a public information campaign it would be worth almost as much as any reasonable estimate of the cost of changing the UK’s road traffic signs. No wonder the DfT has taken a very low profile during the Games.

Philip Hammond, former Secretary of State for Transport, may also be regretting the remarks he made in June 2010 in connection with a proposal for dual height signage of over-bridges to reduce damage from vehicle collisions. He said:

“It’s bad enough that Labour were hell bent on replacing feet and inches with metres.”

Fortunately, Mr Hammond was not involved with the decision to bid to bring the 2012 Games to London.

We have already nominated the BBC as a winner. What about America’s NBC, which also took video feeds from OBS? It is rumoured that NBC paid $4.38 billion (yes billion) for the rights to broadcast the Games in the USA. In an effort to recover its outlay, NBC has danced to the advertisers’ tunes. It used metric for description but not for measurement. Thus it referred to Bolt’s 100 metres sprint, but to Rutherford’s long jump of 27 feet 3 inches. But America too must adapt to earn its living in a metric world, and NBC has wasted an opportunity to familiarise the American public with metric measures and to introduce them to the realities of international measurement. So we nominate the American public to the list of losers from the Games, even though the USA tops the medal table.

So Metric Views’ nominations for losers from the Games are:

those caught up in an unsuccessful quest for tickets,
anyone who hopes to benefit from metric myths,
the UK Department for Transport and its former Secretary of State Philip Hammond,
and the American public.

16 thoughts on “London 2012 – winners and losers”

  1. @derekp

    As an American, I agree completely with your remarks on NBC’s coverage. Worst were all field events, and the marathon. All field events were converted to feet and inches, while we were watching officials measure against a backdrop of metric markings on the field; VERY confusing. The marathon coverage heavily emphasized the mile markers and cut to commercials to avoid most of the 5 km markers. I wish you guys hadn’t put up mile markers; that might have confounded NBC. Other coverage could be described as mostly metric with occasional slip-ups. If the event (not the athlete’s performance) was measured ONLY in metric, NBC mostly “went along.”

    As to the bid, NBC paid $4.38B for 2014, 2016, 2018, 2020 Olympics.
    Per a WSJ article, NBC paid $2.2B for 2010 and 2012 some years ago. I couldn’t find a split, but based on ratios in the above bid, around $800M for 2010, $1.4B for 2012; approximately $4 for every man, woman, and child in the US and we endured a LOT of commercials to pay for it.

    I am glad that I live near the Canadian border and that CBC regains broadcast rights in 2014. I presently get marginal reception of CBC-Windsor, and shall improve my antenna to avoid NBC in 2014. I am not a Twitter user, but there is apparently widespread discussion/criticism about NBC coverage under hashtags #NBCsucks and #NBCfail. However, it is mostly about tape delays and time spent away from the game on commercials and pre-recorded “puff pieces.”


  2. I would like to join Derekp in paying tribute to all those who made the games such a success and provided wonderful entertainment for people all over the world. The list of people who deserve credit is endless but I think *all* the competitors are worthy of praise for their efforts irrespective of whether they won medals. They had to perform under enormous pressure and just qualifying for the games is no mean feat.

    For me, one of the nicest things about the whole event was the coming together of people from all over the planet in friendly, civilised competition. It shows that we can do it when we try.

    I have no idea what the British public will take away from it in terms of measurement but I very much hope there will be some spark of recognition that metres, kilometres kilograms etc work perfectly without conversion and using them takes nothing away from us in terms of our Britishness.


  3. Well, the British public may have some spark of recognition that using metric is perfectly natural and normal, but it looks like we Americans still have a terribly long way to go:

    So sad. Looks like we’ll still be looking to you Brits to finally show us the way. Once road signs finally get converted … which they will … and the mass media consistently use metric in the press and on radio and television, perhaps then American visitors, press, government and business folks, etc. will really be convinced that our former mother country and source of our own hodge-podge of measurement units has abandoned that folly once and for all. That might just be enough to make us start to realize we’d better wake up and catch the metric train, too!


  4. @ Ezra,
    We certainly have a ways to go with Mike Pesca (the author). I would note the comments are mostly “against” which is a good sign. However, I must be honest, the more recent comments DO reflect some ballot box stuffing by USMA contributors. Even the the early comments were mostly against, though. Maybe there is hope.


  5. I guess I come out as one of the winners. 16 days of saturation media coverage and I managed to miss every single minute of it. I did not even need my stockpile of food either.
    Now, if only a tiny fraction of that 12 000 million pounds could be spent on metricating our road signs (which of course we cannot afford) I guess we would all be bigger winners.


  6. @BrianAC:

    The BBC website shows that the Games cost £8.824 billion (£8 824 000 000). The Games also had an overall duration of 27 360 minutes. That works out to just over £322 500 per minute.

    I’ve always said (and others have come up with similar numbers) that every roadsign in Britain could be converted for an overall cost of approximately £60 million. Or, to put it in the context of the Games, just over three hours of the Games would pay for converting every single speed limit and distance sign in the UK.


  7. The Olympics was a great occasion and surely put all those sceptics in their place. The atmosphere around the park was fantastic (we didn’t get tickets).
    Watching the games on the BBC just shows how lucky we are to have such a good service. I congratulated the BBC on a couple of occasions on the pronunciation of kilometre by the cycling commentator (don’t know his name), Sue Barker and even Gary Lineker! The athletics commentators didn’t do so well, talking of xxx metres and yy centimetres, xxx metres and yy, xxx metres yy but never xxx point yy metres. The only commentator I heard using the word point was on Euronews! I asked the BBC via their ‘contact us’ page whether their commentators were scared of using the word. No reply of course.
    I have just been reminded by my daughter (a wonderful user and promoter of metric measures) that the marathon commentators mixed up their measures. Brendan Foster (I think it was him) seemed to have to force himself to talk metric.
    Maybe one legacy of London 2012 will be that people will more often refer to metric measures than imperial and that broadcasters will eventually follow!


  8. Unfortunately, there may be no lasting legacy of the London Olympics if David Cameron has his way:

    Looks like the UK is a approaching a “make or break” m oment when it comes to the EU. If voters re-elect him, the metric muddle is likely to last indefinitely; if they reject the Tories and re-elect Labour, that would imply (at least in part) a commitment on the part of the voting majority to the renegotiated EU treaty (in 2014), which would hopefully mean a willingness on the part of the new government in Whitehall to advance integration with Europe, including completion of metrication in the UK (metric road signs, use of SI only on the BBC, etc.)

    I can’t wait for 2015! 🙂


  9. @Ezra
    Metrication in the UK is not linked to European integration. We started it back in the 60s for the same reason as other Commonwealth countries like Canada and Australia. It is about trading with the rest of the world not just Europe.

    It is important to dispel the myth that Britain started going metric because of our commitment to the EU.

    In or out of the EU the case for a single rational system remains. Cameron’s speech is a non-issue for us.


  10. @philh
    While your history is correct, in the current climate Cameron is exploiting the anti-EU sentiment among some (many?) in the UK. And in those people’s minds there is now (today) a connection (no matter how erroneous in fact or historically) between metrication and those mindless autocrats in Brussels.


  11. I should have made clear: “mindless autocrats in Brussels” is how the anti-EU folks see them … not my own personal opinion. 🙂


  12. This is just a thought – I wonder if it’s worth making it clear (to members of the public, including Eurosceptics), perhaps with publicity, that:

    – Metrication has nothing to do with European integration and vice versa. The UK started going metric well before joining the EEC.
    – People’s views on British membership of the EU do not need to have anything to do with their views on metrication either.
    – Specifically, that it’s perfectly okay (and not a contradiction) to be pro-metrication and politically Eurosceptic. One doesn’t have to be pro-EU to support metrication.
    – The vast majority of fully metric countries (including most of the rest of the commonwealth) are not even geographically in Europe.
    – There are countries which are in Europe but not in the EU – all are metric.

    I think that we need to de-couple these two distinct issues from the point of view of both the general public and Eurosceptics. In my opinion, the government ought to be doing this too, as they are supposed to be showing leadership on this issue.

    Back to the topic at hand, I think the 2012 Olympics were a great success overall. But at a cost of nearly £9 billion, less than 1% of that (using reasonable estimates) would have paid for fully metric road signs – that will really benefit us.


  13. Although Britain initially went metric long before it joined time before it joined the EEC, every piece of legislation relating to metrication has been an EU directive or has hailed from the continent since the 1990s. You cannot reasonably argue the EU has nothing to do with metrication.


  14. @James
    Not true. I am afraid you have accepted the propaganda of the various eurosceptic tabloids and politicians who try to link the unpopularity of the EU with their irrational prejudice against the world system of measurement.

    The various EU Directives have always allowed the UK a “derogation” permitting the UK to set its own timetable for completing metrication, and the 2009 amendment actually permits the UK to retain certain imperial measures indefinitely (mainly road signs and draught beer). Unfortunately, and to their great discredit, successive Ministers have failed to try to explain or justify the various steps toward metrication (such as the amendments to the UK’s Units of Measurement regulations) and instead have (quite wrongly) blamed it on the EU. Contrary to what the Daily Mail prints, the reality is that there has never been any pressure from the Commission to complete metrication. In fact there is no reason why the EU should be interested in what measurement units the UK uses as long as it does not affect cross-border trade.

    I would argue that the involvement of the EU has seriously damaged metrication in the UK, since it has been possible to portray the issue as “Brussels Bureaucrats vs honest British traders”, and the unpopularity of the EU has thus been identified with metrication.


  15. James, the question that you should be asking is why it is necessary for the EU to drag Britain kicking and screaming into the 20th (yes 20th) century? If one examines the history of metrication, one will see that British scientists have probably contributed more to the development of the metric system than the scientists of any other nation, yet their work has been persistently undermined by British politicians. Yes, a small amount of metrication has been due to EU regulations – the bulk of the metrication program, largely unseen, was completed before the UK joined the EU.

    If you visit this website – (written in German), you will see pages and pages of conversion tables between the units of measure of various European countries (as they existed in 1842). A hundred years later this book was largely irrelevant as almost all countries apart from the UK had adopted the metric system. This might explain where the EU is coming from.


  16. I’m going to be honest – seeing these arguments in favour of metrication have convinced me to use metric. The only times I use imperial are for pints (in pubs) and pounds and ounces for newborn weights (I just cannot visualise kilos in this area, much as I’ve tried). But as much as I have converted to the metric system, I do not think Britain will ever fully convert, regardless of whether the Tories, Labour or UKIP are in number ten.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: