Wednesday, March 18, 2009

French City Cheers London Olympics

The Pas-de-Calais area hopes to draw Olympians training for the 2012 London Games. Above, a stadium in the city of Liévin.

When Frenchman Dominique Dupilet heard four years ago that Paris had lost its bid for the 2012 Olympics to London, he hoisted a British flag on the roof of his office in this northern French city.

Calais is the entry point for the Eurostar train that crosses La Manche (the English Channel) via the Chunnel.

"London 2012 is our economic-stimulus plan," says Mr. Dupilet. "This is the beginning of our development as a sporting home."

When we crossed to France on the Eurostar, I remember seeing many trucks (lorries) and a wind farm.

Calais, the area's biggest city, is selling itself as the European gateway to London; indeed, it was ruled by the English from the 14th through the 16th centuries. Had Paris won the Olympics, Calais would have faced competition from a host of French regions closer to the capital. But it's just an hour by undersea train from London, so Mr. Dupilet hopes to attract tourists and athletes before and during the Games.

Why would people go to Calais?

"London would rather lose money to other parts of the U.K. than see it go overseas," says Ken Kelling, spokesman for Visit London, a tourist organization in the capital. "I doubt they [Calais] can compete."

That's the English point of view. The French? Well, the view from Calais?

"Who wants to go to Birmingham?" retorts Mr. Dupilet. "In Pas-de-Calais the French lifestyle is better. And as for the food over there, well, forget it."

Pas-de-Calais's Dominique Dupilet hopes to draw Olympians training for the London Games. His department has earmarked a budget to refurbish sports venues.

A spokesman for Locog, the committee organizing the London Olympics, said last month that he hadn't heard of Pas-de-Calais' Games-related plans. Mr. Dupilet says that thus far he's been careful not to advertise too much, lest Calais attract unnecessary attention -- and perhaps more competition. The Frenchman says his goal isn't to steal London's thunder. "I am an Anglophile," smiles Mr. Dupilet. "We just want to help out."

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