August 22nd, 2008
04:24 PM GMT
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On Sunday the baton passes to London (sorry for the pun) for the 2012 Summer Games. But as we have seen in the 4×100 relay with both American squads, it's easy to fumble the exchange and suffer indignation for the next four years.

London's Olympic park will transform the city's east.
London's Olympic park will transform the city's east.

London 2012 organizers have sworn that the city will be ready - and ready a year early. Of course we've heard that before only to see venues finished with just weeks to go. I seem to recall the last minute renovations for beach volleyball in Athens.
London has a right to be confident of a gold medal. The International Olympic Committee said the progress on the Olympic Park is "truly outstanding" with four years to go. The park has been a massive building site for a year already. 

There is little else for London to build. Some of the rest of the venues are existing world-class structures (Wimbledon for tennis, Wembley for football, Eton Dorney for rowing). Then there is the usual temporary use of existing buildings (the ‘Dome' for gymnastics, Earls Court for volleyball, ExCel Centre for boxing, table tennis, weight lifting and martial arts). London is also proud that there will be the last minute transformation of iconic sites just for the games (the Queen's horses will be pushed aside at Horse Guards Parade for the barely-dressed Beach Volleyball participants).

The credit crunch has made it difficult for private contractors to get funding to build the athletics' housing. The money is coming from the existing budget for now, but will have to be paid back. At least that's the plan.

The British press continues to focus on this budget. It was set last year at £9.3bn ($17bn) and has not moved. It was a lot smaller when the 2012 Games were awarded in 2005, but tax and security was added along with a contingency cushion. Then there is the rise in steel prices.

The games themselves will cost a further $4bn and be paid for by corporations, TV rights, merchandise, ticket sales etc.)

That budget - much of which will be spent on lasting projects that will transform east London – has not moved once.

And that is why London won the games instead of Paris.

London promised to clean up an industrial wasteland. I was at the site two weeks ago and the biggest structures on site are massive machines that literally wash the soil for reuse. The rivers are also being cleaned up and the ugly power lines are being buried below the whole area. 90 percent of the industrial waste (bricks etc.) is staying on site to build foundations for the venues.

So now with the budget set and the building well underway, everyone is asking what will be left afterwards.

The stadium will be cut down from 80,000 seats to 25,000 and become the home for the country's athletics. The various cycling venues will be relocated next to the new velodrome being built near the stadium. Britain won four times as many medals in cycling in Beijing compared the next country and it wants to build on that success with a focused national cycling center.

But many people want to know how London will benefit beyond sports, particularly since tax payers, lottery players and local councils are footing much of the bill.

East London is ethically diverse with high unemployment, high crime, and few decent stores, even though it is just a few miles from the bank towers of Canary Wharf.

Organizers say the Olympic site will be transformed into to the biggest urban park constructed in Europe for 150 years. New transportation links will fill a region devoid of infrastructure and the Olympic Village will be sold off for thousands of homes. There is already a massive mall being built on the edge of the site.

But critics are worried that falling land values will be force the Olympic Delivery Authority to sell the land off to the highest bidder to help pay back some of the government's bills. They want the London's mayor to promise that some land will simply be handed over to local groups (as was hinted to years ago).

Britain has done much better than expected in the Beijing Olympics and that will put pressure of the organizers to get it right. Many people in Britain will judge that on whether the budget proves to be optimistic and whether the government continues to support Team GB with the amount of money needed to build on Beijing's success.

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August 21st, 2008
02:19 PM GMT
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You could call BAA the Microsoft of London's airspace; some 90 percent of all flights in and out of London go via one of its three airports - Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, while the company also owns Scotlands three main airports and one at Southampton, on England's south coast.

BAA is reluctant to sell any of its airports.
BAA is reluctant to sell any of its airports.

Virgin Atlantic and Ryanair have been complaining for years about poor service at London's airports.

They say BAA spends too much money, time and effort on Heathrow and, axiomatically, its biggest customer, British Airways (just look at Terminal Five).

Virgin wants more money spent on Gatwick while Ryanair wants to see Stansted renovated in a way that caters to the airport's predominently low cost carriers.

UK watchdog the Competition Commission agrees and wants BAA to sell off three airports, two in London and one in Scotland. A final report comes next year, but it wants these airports sold in 2009.

If you have flown through London, you can certainly understand the frustration of airlines and passengers. We have all circled over London because Heathrow is overcrowded while Stansted and Gatwick sit nearby. BAA says airlines and passengers want to use Heathrow since it's the UK's only real hub (you can catch connecting flights to anywhere without leaving the airport).

Critics say BAA has no incentive to create a competing hub. Now, it looks likely that a new airport operator could... if it makes sense.

By this time next year, BAA could be forced to put these three airports up for sale. No group will be allowed to buy more than one London airport, so Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick will eventually compete with each other.

BAA says its nonsense. It says London as a whole competes with one airport in each of Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam. BAA admits the service at its London airports frustrates many customers, but blames most of that on the government for delaying new runways at Heathrow and Stansted. It will be years before those are built, if ever.

BAA will probably fight this, but it has few friends. The government is likely to promise prospective new owners that they will get more runways. However, if you are a regular flyer through London don't expect much relief before 2015 at the earliest.

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August 20th, 2008
11:51 AM GMT
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When Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang limped off the track the other day, millions of Chinese were shocked and saddened. So were the international companies that have been using the track star to build their brands in China for the past several years.

Liu Xiang pulled out of his race with an agonizing injury.
Liu Xiang pulled out of his race with an agonizing injury.

U.S. sportswear giant Nike quickly took out ads in seven newspapers around the country expressing empathy for Liu.

The ad features a photo of Liu and reads:



I don't know about you but, as a former hurdler myself, I found that last line gut-wrenching.

Most people who have competed in sports, at one point or another, know first hand the disappointment that comes with injury or the sickening feeling of defeat.

I can only imagine how much worse it would feel if a billion people were equating the success of the nation with your performance.

Talk about pressure.

Obviously, Liu's sponsors are showing him a lot of support and say they plan to stand by him. But for how long?

Marketers I spoke to said that the the most important criteria for these brands is to find players that perform.
And sad as it is for Liu and his fans, this time he didn't.

In addition, the games this summer have created a new generation of Chinese medalists from which big international firms can choose to market their brand.

Until now, marketers say, Liu Xiang and basketball star Yao Ming were really the only choices.

So, as a brand, at what point do you pull the plug?

And one more question: who do you think are going to be the next big sports superstars in China or otherwise? Which athletes during the Beijing games stand out to you?

August 19th, 2008
06:35 PM GMT
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This week Rupert Murdoch's Fox News Channel is slated to unveil a new profile page on Facebook. Not surprising considering almost every media company is scrambling to reclaim the eyeballs that are leaving traditional TV.

What is odd is that Fox's parent, Newscorp, owns one of Facebook's main rivals MySpace. In fact they paid $580 million for the social networking site back in 2005.

Why would they turn to the competitor? Joel Cheatwood, senior vice president for development, told Wired magazine among others that Facebook's users were "a little older and more sophisticated."

Is this true? I am asking because I am thinking of finally dipping my toe in.

As some of you may have already guessed from my previous blogs, I am falling miserably behind the times.

The digital hub in my home consists of an alarm clock. I barely I have time to load my iPod and I can't work the camera on my cell phone. This can't continue.

Facebook took over the global lead among social networking sites back in April. I know a few people who have recently joined and helped nudged those numbers up.

But there is a lot of competition. According to comScore, Hi5 has been growing rapidly. MySpace, Friendster and Bebo are also up there.

And hitting U.S. shores in the next couple of weeks is a new social networking site tailored to specifically to sports fans, Created by David Katz, an alumnus of Yahoo, the site promises extensive news and fun features like one that will allow users to track bars where fans are gathering to cheer on teams.

Do you have any advice on which to choose? Does Facebook have the most sophisticated audience? Or is the fact that I am finally thinking about joining up a sign that social networking is already past it?

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August 15th, 2008
11:28 AM GMT
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In France, if you try to get into the country with a fake Louis Vuitton handbag, customs officials will confiscate it from you and slash it to shreds before your eyes.If you tote the same bag around in China, no one will even blink. Despite China's efforts to improve intellectual property rights protection, buying fakes is still not against Chinese law. But should it be?

A shopworker in Beijing holds up a handbag based on a Louis Vuitton design.
A shopworker in Beijing holds up a handbag based on a Louis Vuitton design.

The government has been cracking down on counterfeiting operations especially for the Olympics. Authorities have been carrying out raids in cities such as Shenzhen, an industrial town renowned for its plethora of copied goods like fake DVDs, Prada knock-offs and now even bogus iPhones.

The recent crackdown by authorities has sellers skittish for sure. When we made the 45-minute trip there from Hong Kong, one of the touts took us to a shop operating out of a dodgy hotel. Another showed us his secret chamber in a mall where he displayed his best stuff - all of it safely tucked away from inspectors.

The bottom line is the goods were still on sale.

The counterfeit trade employs a lot of people in China. Lawyers hired by multinational companies have complained to me that the economies of entire towns rely on the manufacturing of illegal products so officials are reluctant to step up their efforts to shut these unlawful factories down.

Some buyers I have spoken to have justified their purchases of fakes, saying the international brands are just greedy and shouldn't be charging so much in the first place.

At the end of the day, everyone agrees it's the buyer who is driving demand. So should the buyer be punished? How embarrassed would you be if your fake LV was ripped to pieces in public? Would it stop you from buying a copied product again?

Let me know how you feel.

August 14th, 2008
04:09 PM GMT
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I went on a holiday to a remote beach resort in Egypt a few years ago. It was the best holiday I've had - because my husband's BlackBerry did not work there.

OK, I admit, this was before I got a BlackBerry from my office. And, since getting one, I am quite hooked as well.

Do I check it at home? Yes. Do I check it on weekends? Just a few times. Do I take it on holiday? Yes. Do I sleep with it under my pillow? NO!

That's what one worker from London's business district told me when I stopped him on the street to ask him if he uses a BlackBerry.

"Incessantly" was his reply. He said it never leaves his side, that he takes it on vacation, and that he sleeps with under his pillow.

Surprised? Perhaps this statistic will surprise you more: 83 percent of people surveyed in London's financial district by Credant Technologies admitted they're taking their BlackBerries or office mobile phones along with them on holiday this year.

Almost two thirds of London brokers said they contacted their office while they were vacationing.

Life coach Rebekah Fensome, whose office is a stone's throw away from London's financial area, says the numbers don't surprise her.

It's a reflection of the times we are in, she says. The financial downturn means people are insecure about their jobs, worried they will be made redundant, concerned about their salaries and bonuses - so they feel the need to constantly check in with their offices.

"We call it the city paranoia," says Yvonne Eskenzi of Credant.

"With the recession, people are far more keen to check their emails at work, to make sure colleagues are not muscling in on their work, to make sure they're not missing any work in the office," she says.

Fensome says she understands why some people feel the need to check their BlackBerries all the time. People tell her it helps them succeed at work. That if they are able to check their emails while on holiday, it means less stress when they return to the office.

Others, like the city worker who sleeps with his BlackBerry under his pillow, say they thrive on it.

Burnout. That's what will happen, warns Fensome, if BlackBerry users aren't careful about how many times they check for that flashing red light.

"To be really successful in your work life, you need to understand you also need to take breaks," she warns. Otherwise, it could lead to psychosomatic issues such as fear, worries, insominia which comes through stress.

Also, wider issues around relationship breakups and problems with being able to engage in family life when you go back home."

With that, I think Fensome is right on the mark. I know so many grumbling spouses/partners who want to chuck an unwelcome BlackBerry into the deep end of the pool or off a mountain when it comes along on a holiday.

Do you feel the same way? Or do you take your BlackBerry along as well?

"She gets pretty irate with me, my girlfriend when I am supposed to be on holiday on the beach and I am checking my BlackBerry," said another City worker to me. Do you blame his girlfriend? I'd love to know what you think.

As for the City man who sleeps with his BlackBerry under his pillow? I forgot to ask him if he has a partner.

And if my husband tried that? Well, the BlackBerry would be under the couch. Because that's where he'd be!

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August 12th, 2008
05:14 PM GMT
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Will investors scare of Russia? Get real. Why would any company already in Russia pull out over a quick regional conflict?

Any person or company that has already invested there knows the risks, and many have done extremely well.

Some facts.   Russia has vast energy potential. Oil companies are not going to ignore that. Its auto market has surpassed Germany to become Europe's biggest. GM for example has nearly 10 percent of the Russian market and will open a new plant in St. Petersburg in the autumn.

Sure, there is TNK-BP. But analysts stress to point out that it is a boardroom spat that could happen anywhere and does not involve the Kremlin. While BP is battling with its oligarch partners, the London-based oil giant still makes a lot of money from its joint venture.

Now, the recent conflict in Georgia will surely give pause to those not brave enough to have already invested in Russia. Add to that the nearly 27 percent fall in the country's main stock index since the highs of May (thanks in part to the fall in oil prices.)

As Russia grows in confidence and uses its might, in the boardroom or elsewhere, western funds may choose to put their money elsewhere. The recent fall in commodity prices might mean Russia loses its appeal. Others feel it's a great time to bottom feed on a few Russian stocks.

Either way, companies are going nowhere.

Russia has reformed in tax and customs laws to attract foreign investment. Not that it needs it much. In June, Russia posted a near $19 billion trade surplus. It is using its oil wealth to invest outside the country. A reason, some say, why the Kremlin is not shy about flexing its military muscle. That of course could change if oil prices continue to fall and with that, might go Russia's boldness.

Of course companies are often asked why they invest here or don't pull out of there.

Myanmar and Zimbabwe are perhaps more extreme cases. Still a press spokesman from Barclays Bank said to me it doesn't ask people their politics when taking deposits in Zimbabwe (or anywhere else for that matter.)

When asked about some other conflict, BP said to me, "We don't do regime change."

Companies invest in all kinds of unpalatable places despite pressure to set some sort of example. Russia would have to go a long way before firms think twice.

Watch my report on investing in Russia

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