Within a matter of days the eyes of the world will be on Sochi, the Russian city twinned with Cheltenham that is hosting the Winter Olympics.
And as skiers hurtle down the slopes, they will pass expensively-placed adverts designed to promote brands to a world audience. You can understand why. The last Olympics in Vancouver were broadcast to a global audience of 3.8bn people in 220 territories. Vancouver 2010 web coverage received more than 1.2 billion page hits worldwide.
Russia too is an increasingly important market it its own right. With a population bigger than France and Germany combined and an economy larger than Italy’s, Russian tourists spent a whopping $36.9bn abroad in 2011.
And yet despite our unique status as a twinned town, and with links going back to the Cold War, there will be no official Cheltenham presence at this special event. At this once-in-a-century opportunity to market our town to Russia and the world Cheltenham’s voice is silent. There will be no drive to promote Cheltenham as a tourist destination to big-spending Russians. There will be no participation by Cheltenham’s schoolchildren in the Cultural Olympiad. There will not even be a trade mission to establish ties we can build on once the circus has left town.
Instead, the Council’s position is “We’re hoping anyone attending will be able to take some pictures so the memories can be brought back to Cheltenham”. Is that it? Some may feel that a few snaps represent a rather measly return on sixty years of taxpayers’ investment in a council twinning officer.
Senior Lib Dems in the Council claim that Cheltenham shouldn’t be represented because of Putin’s attitudes towards gay people. That misses the point. If British athletes are going, Cheltenham’s boycott makes no statement at all. It just looks daft. And whilst I’m no fan of much of Russian policy, surely our representatives should have been prepared to hold their noses at this golden opportunity for Cheltenham?
If not, then what on earth is the point of the arrangement at all?
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