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Glasgow 2014 will ‘create history’ claims Commonwealth Games chief exec

David Grevemberg, a former wrestler from New Orleans, is charged with making Glasgow 2014 a sporting event ‘for the people, by the people’. The Commonwealth Games chief executive speaks exclusively to Policy Review editor Dean Carroll about how he plans to turn the dream into a reality

First of all, could you outline the cost of the games and whether you are likely to come in on budget or not?

“Yes, our mission is to come in on budget – which is around £480m – by the time we reach July 23 next year when Glasgow 2014 commences. So far everything is going to plan and we are confident that we will hit the target.

“To give you a breakdown, some 80 per cent of the budget is supplied by the Scottish government and we are charged with raising £100m through our commercial programme of sponsorship, drug test rights, ticketing and merchandising.”

Let’s move on to the spin-off benefits, aside from the sporting achievements, for Glasgow 2014 – the regeneration, the legacy projects and so on?

“Sure, one of the things that drove me to Glasgow 2014 was the ambition behind the project. It has been an important part of the narrative and the decision-making project. There is a clearly defined legacy owned by local government and national government here in Scotland. It will essentially be plug and play. That gives you an idea of the themes and context we are working in.”

Yes, that is the theory but at a more granular level what are the big practical wins going to be? What are the greatest hits in terms of tangible projects?

“Well, what we were able to do from the very beginning was to create the scope for world class but community relevant venues. Glasgow had 70 per cent of the venues already in situ and 30 per cent needed to be built or refurbished. These venues will bring new and exciting events and community engagement to Glasgow way past 2014.

“Two shining examples of that are the Emirates Arena and the Hyrdro arena both of which have sustainable business and both of which have been delivered before and by the games but not necessarily only for the games.

“There are also infrastructure improvement with the new ring road, the M74 connection. That has also been set up, which has cut commuting times by up to 30 minutes for many residents; a significant contribution to people’s quality of life. It also gives you more versatility and agility when hosting major events in terms of a communication infrastructure.”

And is there an athletes village, which will become housing afterwards for those wanting to live in the area? And will any of these units be put aside for social housing?

“Yes, there is a huge regeneration project in the East End of Glasgow, which is building 720 units that will house 6,500 athletes and team officials from the 70 nations. After the games, 60 per cent of the homes will go to social housing. Another 30 per cent will be private housing and another 10 per cent will be a care home. We are talking about some of the United Kingdom’s most derelict land and some of the most deprived areas so it’s a huge investment from a socio-economic standpoint.”

We know that London 2012 was a high point for British morale given the economic crisis backdrop, which the Olympics took place against. How will you tap into that collective feeling of pride and wonder with Glasgow 2014 – are you looking to replicate the London experience or are you working within completely different parameters?

“Well, 2012 was a fantastic year for sport and there is no point competing with the momentum of the London games; instead, we wanted to complement it. Back in 2010, we started to work cooperatively with London 2012 as we were the next major multi-sporting event within the UK. We worked on a transfer of knowledge programme so from that standpoint it was quite powerful to coordinate our activity.

“In terms of managing people’s expectations, it was really important that we had a strong sense of confidence, identity and our own personality in terms of what it means to be a Commonwealth Games in a context which is Glasgow. We were very focused, at the same time, as distinguishing ourselves as a very separate brand and as a different experience. It is not less or more, it is what it is despite the natural comparisons.

“However, we certainly gained a lot of momentum from the double bounce of the Olympics and Paralympics. From the standpoint of volunteers, we had 50,800 completed applications for 15,000 slots. That is a new Commonwealth Games record in the sense that both Melbourne and Manchester’s total numbers combined didn’t even hit our total.”

Were there any other elements to the Olympic bounce beyond that?

“Yes, an example of that momentum and success has been our ticketing programme because people are more aware of the different sports. In the first phase, an unprecedented 92 per cent of our tickets were sold. This is absolutely remarkable. People are just more engaged with major sporting events now.

“We can provide a familiar but different event because the home nations are competing against each other. It’s not Team GB and that produces a slightly different narrative.”

Jumping back to the ticketing issue – what is the average ticket price and how have you gone about avoiding the London 2012 situation whereby all the best seats went to the big corporate sponsors and the average Joe on the street was at the back of the queue?

“After Delhi 2010, the feel and vibe out there was to find out exactly what this brand ‘the Commonwealth’ was and what did it mean today. Well, one of the staggering statistics we found was that of the populace of 2.3 Commonwealth citizens, 1.3bn were young people under the age of 24. So we thought ‘we have to make this an engaging, inspiring and exciting experience’ and inclusive and accessible ticketing was a way of doing that. It was a hot priority and that is why we have concession prices.”

So what is the cheapest ticket available and what is the most expensive?

“The lowest adult ticket price is £15 but with a 50 per cent concession rate for under 16s and over 60s, it takes it down to £7.50. Two thirds of the tickets are £25 or less. This includes public transport on the day. And the highest ticket price for one session of sport is £120 for the boxing finals at ringside. With those prices, we have appealed to a large audience with a real focus on young people. We will also meet our target revenues and achieve full stadia, at the same time.”

Your predecessor was forced to resign over a breach of the gifts and gratuities policy. Does managing one of these big projects feel like a minefield sometimes?

“It’s certainly not boring, it is absolutely amazing how much an event like this touches every aspect of society. It is positioned as a panacea and everyone is excited about the games, all with their own expectations for Glasgow 2014. It means something different to everyone.

“The critical element to managing an event like this is to make sure you have a compelling narrative that is genuine, challenging, relevant and far removed from empty rhetoric. It’s a call of action of sorts that is bigger than you and so you have to take a very selfless approach. These games are for the people, by the people. We are going to try and do as much good for Glasgow, the UK and sport as is humanly possible during our privileged journey.

“You take on the task with an idealistic but not naïve way of working. The important thing is to hold on to your ideals and stay true to you principles. We have apprenticeship programmes and an inspirational 12-year-old designed our mascot. And our approach towards including young people is now being replicated by organising committees across the world. This signifies our best practice models and values. The maxim is ‘we are trustworthy, we keep raising the bar, we win together, we constantly deliver’ and if we do all that right we will create history.”

If the ambition really is to create a ‘games for the people, by the people’, there are still external issues to overcome. For example, there are reports of hotels increasing their room rates by 400 per cent during the games – meaning accommodation will be unaffordable to the young demographic you are attempting to engage with. What can be done about such profiteering?

“We are working closely with the public, private and third sectors to ensure that people are living the principles of Glasgow. There are some hotels that will try that but we hope that most people will think of the city’s reputation over the long term rather than trying to make some quick money. Ultimately, these businesses will have to work here after the games.”

You mention the private sector and this week we learned that G4S might be contracted to work on Glasgow 2014 despite the London 2012 debacle. That will not sit well with citizens – will it?

“Police Scotland is running the security and safety option for the games, holding the budget and driving the strategy. But unlike London we have done things differently; we have not put all of our eggs in one basket. We have a diversified framework model that looks to a number of companies to meet our needs.”

But G4S will have a part to play then?

“Yes, exactly, G4S is on a framework right now. It’s important to understand that G4S has been working here for many years and it is an enormous employer in Scotland. The company is already doing lots of events on a weekly basis in Glasgow, it delivers a lot in the market.”

Looking to the Scottish independence debate, what effect might the games have? Could it potentially solidify support for the union or turn things the other way?

“It’s a common question I get but I have a wonderful vantage point whereby I don’t have to take any particular position. My mission is to deliver a great Commonwealth Games. Ultimately, the independence decision comes down to the people of Scotland. It is a time of rigorous debate and discussion in Scotland but we will not be going into that political realm. Glasgow 2014 is not in that political space and so should not be used in that way.”

And in relation to Glasgow as a location, anyone who has been there will know what a great cultural destination it is. But outsiders who have never been often talk pejoratively of Glasgow being one of Europe’s most violent cities and, indeed, the high crime rate could be used to make that case. What has been your own experience of the city and will the games help to dispel the myths?

“Glasgow is a daring city with a rich history. We have been able to shine a light back on the compelling narrative of the city. It is dynamic, diverse and brilliant on so many different levels. It is a real cultural hub. Glaswegians know that but it is not always recognised.”

So what would you say to those critics who might take a very different view of the city?

“We want you to come and experience the history and the vibrancy. People often come here for the first time and say ‘wow, I didn’t know’. This is the first city that recognised Nelson Mandela as a free man back in 1983 when he was imprisoned on Robben Island. It was a symbolic notion of solidarity.

“And then, of course, you have all of the shipbuilding and all of the steam engines and all of those other elements that connect this city with the Commonwealth and the rest of the world in a very special way. The city also has one of the greatest art collections and beautiful Victorian architecture. When you unpeel all of the layers of the onion, it becomes a very interesting place to hang about for a while. I discover something new about this city everyday.”

My research revealed that you are American. What part of the United States are you from and how does it compare to Glasgow?

“I’m originally from New Orleans and there are actually a lot of similarities with Glasgow. We share the brutal honesty and aggressive friendliness approach to life that you witness in Glaswegians. And the love for music, culture and food is a shared one. Both places are United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation cities of music – although the weather is slightly different, you might say.”

In terms of cultural experiences, the opening and closing ceremonies of London 2012 involving the likes of Danny Boyle went down a storm with the public. What can we expect on that front from Glasgow 2014?

“Something unique, innately Scottish and Glaswegian. I can tell you that it will be a mix between the contemporary and the historical but that’s as far as I can go. Jack Morton is the company running the show. It has lots of experience with major events both here in the UK and internationally.”

Speaking more generally, are you satisfied with the level of funding for sport in the United Kingdom? Some key athletes and clubs have warned that sport has actually gone backward since London 2012 due to the funding cuts.

“That’s a great question. I look at this in a holistic manner – taking into account the funding from the public, private and third sectors. Linking up and connecting programmes is key. We have to ask ourselves – should we penalise those that are successful by stopping giving them government money as soon as they start receiving commercial funding? Many of these elements can continue to be refined but that is universal and not unique to the UK.

“While sport is a right, it is also a privilege. Since London 2012, the awareness of and expectations on sport have risen. What we have to do now is make sure that the private, public and third sectors are working smarter when it comes to their total investment in sport at all levels – from the grassroots to the elite.”

So who would you say is your own personal sporting hero then David?

“You have someone like Tommie Smith, a man who stood up for his principles at the 1968 Mexico Olympics. That was very powerful. But on reflection I would have to say Sir Chris Hoy. The humility and graciousness with which he concluded his career was something special. He continues to engage and inspire, remaining true to who he is. Glasgow 2014 is lucky enough to have him as an ambassador but he truly is a great guy. I’m really, really impressed by him.”

In terms of citizen engagement, Glasgow 2014 has 63,000 Twitter followers. Just how useful have the social networks been when spreading the word on the games?

“Both Facebook and Twitter have been critical in terms of the tone and tempo of our events. There is an enormous fan dynamic whereby people are connected to athletes and so you have a praising but critical audience. There is a real connection there and you must take notice of it.”

Finally, could just tell us a bit about your own personal story and the journey in terms of career development from New Orleans to Glasgow?

“Well, I’m 41 now and until the age of 23 I was an international wrestler. A career-ending injury at such a young age led me into working with Paralympians. In 1999, I became the first professional director of the International Paralympic Committee. Since then, I’ve worked on eight Olympics and four Commonwealth Games in various management positions so it has certainly been an interesting journey.”

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