25 Amazing Places You Can’t Go To

 

Okay, we’ve often seen the lists of places on the verge of being the Next Big Thing, awaiting discovery. Think idyllic Mediterranean isles, forgotten tribal valleys or overlooked, off-grid cities now spruced up. -But what about those so far removed one needs way too much organisation, money or a deathwish to reach?  Indeed some of these may be possible with titanic perseverance, a briefcase of cash, a low regard for respecting the law, or an outright disguise, just have the luck on your side. Failing that, read it and weep:

 

  1. The world’s largest annual animal migration, South Sudan.

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When scientists flew over this vast region of savannah and swamp in 2007, in the midst of war they witnessed a never before seen spectacle on Earth: a darkening convoy of animals on the horizon – nearly 50km (over 30 miles) across, yet stretching 80km (50 miles) long. In short this may well be the biggest movement of large mammals on the planet, more so than the Serengeti, and made up of countless antelope, zebra, elephants, giraffes and buffalo, with the accordant beasts that stalk them. Unfortunately the country has been a warzone for most of the past 30 years, and currently a battleground in a new civil war for the world’s newest country. It may be the last time we ever see animals on this scale.

 

  1. Battleship Island, Japan.

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So called for its brutish profile on the horizon, Hashima island was one of the world’s densest ever pieces of urbanity – a tiny islet 9 miles off the coast from Nagasaki where 5,300  miners and their families lived on barely 16 acres (which equates to a population density of about 140,000 per sq km), till its closure in 1974. Hauntingly desolate, and with a dark past as a labour camp during the war, the ruins of the mines and apartments, and the left behind belongings of their hastily evacuated residents, stand testament to a forgotten community in strong isolation. Long barred access for 35 years, a trickle of visitors can finally see the place from a newly built walkway – but 95% of the island is still walled off as too dangerous to explore for its crumbling structures. You’ll just have to make do with the scenes from James Bond in Skyfall, where it doubled as a megalomaniacal lair.

 

  1. Chateau Miranda, Belgium.

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No, it’s not a Hollywood set, this really is the most spooky looking place you’ll likely ever see. A genuinely abandoned chateau, complete with ivy choked statuary, spiralling towers, 500 darkened windows, a roof open to all elements, and a rumoured child’s graveyard. Built as a country estate for French aristocrats fleeing the guillotine it fell into financial ruin over the century, shortly before being taken over as – you’ve guessed it – an orphanage for children in WWII, a ‘holiday camp’ where the children were worked to a strict regimen by authoritarian staff. Finally abandoned in 1991, the estate is currently off limits except to unexplained fires, vandalism and violent storms that are slowly dismantling the structure. In 2013 the owners formally applied for its demolition.

 

4. Kaesong, North Korea.

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This ancient dynastic capital miraculously survived the Korean War that levelled the other capitals on the peninsula, and has been preserved in aspic ever since by the Communist state. Surrounded by royal tombs and home to several universities, it’s famed for its sumptuous cuisine, caught-in-time streetscapes and enduring cultural relics, many of which are so priceless they’ve been shipped to fallout vaults in Pyongyang. On the new side it has all the socialist statuary, architecture, banners and posturing you could wish for. In short, medieval life unchanged, moving onto regimented modernism as you progress.

Visitors to the country require a guide at all times to strictly delineated areas, with a base rate of at least $1000 for 3-4 days minimum. However the current heightened tensions have effectively sealed off this real life diorama, with various travel bans in force, and a pioneering scheme of cross border factories now closed.

 

  1. The oldest living thing, California.

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Welcome to Methuselah, measured to be 4,849 years old and long thought to be the oldest living, non-cloned organism. That is until they found another bristlecone pine nearby that was 200 years older. This starkly beautiful landscape in Eastern California is made up of otherworldly rock and shale in the northernmost reaches of the Mojave desert, peppered with stands of hundreds of disfigured trees, all reached via a visitor trail that branches off to former mining sites. Why is it so unreachable? Well the oldest specimens are in secret, unmarked locations, for fear of vandalism. Good heed for in 2008 arsonists set fire to the visitor centre and its exhibits, destroying several of these rare giants.

 

  1. Scott’s Hut, Cape Evans, Antarctica.

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Built by the ill-fated 1917 expedition to reach the South Pole, this snapshot in time is hauntingly untouched as it was when they headed off for the last time, even the local fowl on the table they had readying for a meal, and the seal meat in the larder. Tables are scattered with lamps, cutlery, papers and bottles, the bunks slung informally with clothing, and wall to wall are never used supplies, including a cache of penguin eggs. Handmade tools hang off the ceiling and pillars, even a rusted bike mounted forever on the wall, while outside the bones of loyal dogs wait an eternity. Dug out of the ice in 1956 this is one place far, far removed from the rest of the world – that you’ll need to organise your own expedition to reach.

 

  1. Coming of Age Day, Japan.

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On a brisk January Monday in Japan you may witness gaggles of kimono clad young people on the train tapping on their phones – cue priceless sneaky travel shots. This is how Japan should look you think, a world of tradition melded with ultra-modernity. But then they are fleetingly gone, in droves to ceremonies at obscure prefectural offices, the insides of which you’ll never see, while everyone else looks on with a mixture of envy and regret. Later they will reappear, staggeringly drunk by evening, then back to Western dress and hangovers the next day. Why don’t more people wear this outstanding attire, many updated with modern accessories? Why can’t every Monday be beautiful, young and kimono-clad? Well, it takes an average 2 hours to fold themselves into those layers of silk, hair and makeup – not something you could prep on the daily commute. The exclusivity? Well to get with the in crowd, you have to be of 20 years in age and Japanese to join in the fun, on the one day they say goodbye to childhood and hello to the responsibilities of the adult world. Missed the boat? Leave maturity behind and go in disguise.

 

  1. The Red Forest, Ukraine.

Bumper cars at an amusement park in the abandoned city of Pripyat in Ukraine.

North of Kiev lies an untouched landscape despite being so close to the capital, full of forest life and brimming with natural diversity little seen elsewhere on the continent. By some counts the wolf population alone –  a sign of plenty of other animals and food – is six times higher than the norm, not to mention the counts on elk, deer, lynx, boar, bears and a carpet of new growth forest. You won’t see another human for miles, nor hear any sign of habitation – other than the occasional ghost town with trees growing in its streets and eerily abandoned playgrounds. For you are in a ‘zone of alienation’, and nearby lies Chernobyl, the power station that exploded in 1986, sending a nuclear cloud across Europe. The Red Forest was so called because the trees initially died en masse, along with local insect life and small animals, and is unsafe for human habitation for the next 20,000 years. Since 2011 radiation levels allow only a few die-hard tourists in on private tours for brief visits, provided they sign the disclaimers.

 

  1. The eternal fire, Democratic People’s Republic of Congo.

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The world’s largest lava lake lies deep in the jungles of Central Africa, in the crater of the highly active Mt Nyiragongo, and has been in existence since at least 1894 . Within human memory a lake of fire 2km wide and up to 10,660ft (3.25km) deep, it’s since shrunk to a mesmerising cone within a cone within a cone. Never mind the trekking through endless jungle nicknamed the ‘Green Hell’ by explorers, and the setting for the Heart of Darkness by Conrad (be prepared to be covered with thousands of tiny, stingless bees); never mind the fact the country is in a civil war that has claimed untold millions since 1998 – it’s the volcano you should worry about. With lava measured at a record-breaking 100 km (60 miles) p/h, and studded with pockets of odourless gases known as the deadly mazuku, this is the most dangerous volcano in the world. In 2002 several ‘spatter cones’ emerged to spread a molten stream up to a kilometre wide through the quake hit city of Goma, evacuating 400,000 people and rendering 120,000 homeless. Worse, a 1974 fracture of the crater emptied the entire lake in an hour, causing a fiery tsunami that killed 70 villagers nearby. Be warned.

 

  1. Vintgar Gorge, The Land of Rising Mist.

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So called because that’s what Slovenia is everywhere you look in winter, with this canyon in particular becoming an atmospheric vision of trees clinging to steep slopes, echoing off into the mists above an unearthly crystalline river. This woodsy, watery country bedecked with attractions in the sunnier months sees a sharp fall in numbers by December, but transforms into a landscape of purple mountains studded with castles, waterfalls and lakes, and cloaked in fairy tale forests and wooden architecture. The gorge, coming off Lake Bled is not hard to reach, where a pre-booked hostel room comes attached with a welcome note, keys taped to the front door (it’s that safe), and a suddenly emptied villa to yourself, not even a proprietor, as per course for that period. However the gorge is officially closed by then, due to the hazards of falling rocks, landslips blocking the path, and perpetual fog so close to the rapids, with no staff in low season to police the place – thus closing off one of the most romantic and ephemeral backdrops in Europe. Though local dog walkers, with helmets, are known to jump the barrier and warning signs. That’s all I’m saying.

 

  1. Middle Earth, China.

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Only ‘discovered’ in 2014 the titanic Er Wang cave is so large it has its own weather system, a cloud factory in a space that stretches 42 km into the earth, where mist rises, gets trapped and comes back down as waterfalls. The villagers even rely on the cave for their weather predictions, noticing when fog comes out, rain is expected. To reach it you’ll have to go far into rural China, finding a friendly local who will stump you up for the night (expect a pigsty toilet and a piece of ground), before rappelling the next day 820 ft into a giant sinkhole, crossing fast-flowing rivers and climbing through waterfalls to reach one of the caverns so large you won’t be able to see the sides. This geological area, the size of France and Spain combined, is made of soft karst limestone, eroded to produce the famous hump backed hills of Chinese paintings, but also honeycombed with gigantic unseen caves. Another nearby has recently been discovered with a cavern that’s the world’s largest, nearly 3km long, that a jumbo jet could fly down. And you’ll only have to reach that one by swimming up an underground river.

 

  1. The Cave of Crystals, Mexico.

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Discovered in 2000 after the groundwater was drained in Naica mine, Chihauhau, this cavern is 980ft (300m) below ground and formed by 500,000 years of optimum temperatures and chemicals to create these huge crystals, including the world’s largest nearly 40ft (12m) long and 55 tons in weight. Such is the temperature (nearly 60C), and a humidity of 99%, visitors can only last ten minutes. The fragility of the crystals’ exposure, decaying in the air, meant that the caves were only ever temporarily open; allowing just for documentation for posterity and science. Mining operations have since closed this year, meaning the pumps are off and the caverns have refilled.

 

  1. The world’s oldest city, Iraq.

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Erbil is billed as possibly the world’s oldest existing settlement, dating back 7,000 years. A diverse population following 8 major religions reflects in its history being in at least 18 different empires, now dotted with mosques, minarets, churches, shrines, steeples and temples. The Ottoman citadel at its heart is nearly the size of the Forbidden City in Beijing (the world’s largest palace), and about 60% larger than Hradčany in Prague (Europe’s largest castle), plus being the site of the oldest town in existence. Waves of settlement outward from there reflect the continuing history, with bazaars, cafes, restaurants, modern day squares, fountains, shopping plazas and a network of Orientalist alleyways and Arabesque streets. This is the most stable and liveable part of Iraq, but still haunted by terrorism, and now facing heightened tensions as the Kurdish area moves toward independence. All travel is now advised against.

 

  1. Portobay Hotel roof, Rio de Janeiro, New Years Eve.

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This 19 storey hotel right on Copacabana Beach sells heavily priced tickets to its rooftop, once-in-a-lifetime view of the world’s largest New Year’s Eve celebrations. It’s that or staying at the 4* for a minimum 4 nights, but at preposterous mark ups. It’s not so much the prices, but the lottery of how few tickets are available if you choose to splash out on the night. If you do get in, be sure to tread in the time honoured tradition of wearing white, watching the epic, horizon filling fireworks (in both directions), then going down to the beach to jump 7 good luck waves (and make 7 wishes). But don’t look back, as that will anger Yemanjá, the Candomblé sea goddess.

 

  1. The last oasis, Chad

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Archei Gorge, populated solely  by camel caravans and Saharan crocodiles that will likely go extinct in our lifetimes, lies in a sculpted warzone a four day drive by 4×4 through unforgiving desert. The large crocs, who learnt to bury themselves in logs, sometimes for years, were found recently to be a unique subspecies to the Nile variety, and the last remnants of a population when the Sahara was green. They were also found to have so few numbers as to be unsupportable. Meanwhile the camel herds, stone age rock carvings, and exotic tribes who still trade in salt, haunt a landscape of sandstone arches and pinnacles, drifting dunes and dried river beds that is the Eneddi Plateau. An adventure writ in stone, it’s gruelling to reach and harder to return from.

 

  1. The lost tribe of the Enriva river, Brazil.

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Close to the border of Peru, in a federally barred area lives an uncontacted tribe – one of 77 in Brazil – whose name remains unknown. The plane which photographed this scene, a target for arrows and spears two years previous, is run by Brazil’s Indian protection agency, which tries to scare them every year, in order they keep their distance. For first contact may mean exposure to our microbes and diseases, that wiped out 90% of tribes in the rubber boom of the ’70s, not to mention murder and exploitation by cocaine farmers and miners after their land. Ever since, the survivors have avoided the outside world to great lengths, almost all constantly moving, with some coming out only at night. One tribe has systematically stopped having children, while another is down to the last man, who still hides from all attempts at communication. Since this photo was taken in 2010 this tribe is on the move again, fleeing massacres and takeover of their land by cartels.

 

  1. The balancing rocks of Julianatop, Suriname.

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The country’s highest peak is no easy matter to get to. Charter a plane from the capital to a dirt airstrip deep in the interior, then canoe downstream for a couple of days, including navigating several  dangerous rapids. Apparently the inlet fork you’re looking for is easy to miss, and after that it will be machete work for three days, with time to camp in malarial swamps – make sure you’ve had every shot possible. But then you will reach one of the world’s most biodiverse regions, rife with life, much of it unexplored and new to science, plus  a view to die for, literally. The hair raising journey to this gargantuan rock and its dangerously balancing boulders was only first forged in 2006 in order to climb it, and has not been attempted since.

 

  1. The vale of flowers, Pakistani Kashmir

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This is one of the most beautiful countries on Earth – that is if it was a country. Torn between Pakistan and India, Kashmir is in a situation far more complex than appears, with a painful history of political violence, war and terrorism.

But what a stunning battleground – alpine landscapes of pinnacle peaks, rippling glaciers, thickly wooded hillsides, brilliant lakes, clear rushing streams and famous wildflower meadows, at times dominating every inch of land. Dotted with traditional villages, welcoming locals and rare animals this is a place of crystalline air and scented vessels laden with blooms, slowly journeying to floating markets. Although travel is possible, especially from the India side of the Line of Control, the Pakistani half with much of the heartstopping scenery -such as the Neelam Valley, for all appearances a version of Switzerland in ancient times – is especially restricted. Foreigners are not allowed within 10  miles of the unofficial border, with almost all foreign governments advising against any travel to the province. Plus you’d have to traverse the lawless areas of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, rife with banditry and curfew. Good luck.

 

  1. The fairy tale forest, Nagorno-Karabakh.

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A disputed enclave of Armenians in Azerbaijan this heavily wooded area of great oaks and birches, replete with isolated villages, hilltop churches, natural springs and ruined shrines, glowering over haunting steppe landscapes is like discovering a much older version of Europe (or is that Asia?). Where one keeps to the path in the forest for fear of wolves, bears, witches, and the odd few thousand land mines. Government advice warns against all travel to the region, due to recently heightened tensions between the powers, plus one needs clearance to visit from the Azerbaijani government – internationally recognised as the state in power – yet not in control since 1994. Effectively islanded, NK is trapped in circumstance, and time.

 

20. Bioko Island, Equatorial Guinea.

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Welcome to an island so thick with virgin rainforest you can see the huge size of the old growth canopy and clarity of the water from the air, as it cascades off the mountain (the Luba Crater Scientific Reserve) in a series of waterfalls, finally dropping in a rare cataract straight onto the beach. Even more surprising is that this untouched forest shares its slopes with the nation’s capital. The country is (in)famous for the recent discovery of oil that has propelled its GDP per capita to surpass many European nations overnight,  yet with resultant inequality, corruption and coups, many funded by international businessmen. To even enter the country one needs a letter of invitation from a citizen, such is the precariousness  of its politics.

 

21. A seat at Paris Fashion Week

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Okay the ‘easy’ way to do it for the average mortal is to go to the https://fhcm.paris/en/ website (formerly modeaparis.com) and peruse the list of shows. Pick your party, and send an email to the organisers, stating who you are, who you’re with, and how simply fabulous it would be if your presence should grace their little get together. If you’re not a tried and tested, lean, mean and utterly clean fashion journo/ editor, A-list celeb that the French have actually heard of, or another high up industry professional, you could always try blogger extraordinaire with a following of millions, at which point you might get a stab at getting the ‘standing invitation’, rather than a seat. And don’t even think about Haute Couture, darling.

 

22. The greatest life on Earth

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At the bottom of the Antarctic lies undersea volcanic vents, brimming with life. As the ocean floor cracks open with tectonic activity, it creates fissures that dot our oceans, that may have been the original source of life on the planet. A chemical soup of startling temperature change, life has sprung about these deep sea towers, some over 300ft (100m) in height. And in such abundance they are possibly the most diverse spots of Earth, with up to 30 million lives in a square metre -these are the coral reefs of the ocean floor, populated with entirely unique species and ecosystems, and utterly dependent on whether the vents continue to spout. Wavering ‘bushes’ of 6.5ft (2 metre) long worms, encrustations of crustaceans, and armies of shrimps and weird fish dodge in and out of freezing temperatures and fiery seas in complete darkness. Inches away from being instantly cooked in pressures and chemicals that allow for water at higher temperatures than boiling and lower than freezing. For this scene you’d need to be a scientist, oceanographer or member of a film crew to traverse the roughest seas on the planet, the Southern Ocean, that spans the globe devoid of landmass to break up the winds and currents, then charter a submersible to reach the bottom of the subzero sea.

 

23. The Grand Corridor, Windsor Castle

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Used exclusively by the Queen, this is one part of the royal residences that is off limit to the snapping tourists – usually the grandest State rooms used for wining and dining visiting royalty are for show. The 550ft (170m) walkway, filled with priceless treasures – rumours of lost Canalettos, portraits of famous royals through history, cabinets of Burmese jade and other pilfered artefacts from the age of empire – was designed by Jeffrey Wyatville in an 1820s remodelling of the east and south wings. It connects the private quarters of the monarch, including her entirely single bedroom, with the guests quarters (look out too for the elegant White Drawing Room and the restored Private Chapel, with it’s stained glass depiction of a fireman dousing the 1992 fire). An area so exclusive, even finding a photograph of the thing is a rarity. So make do with an 1846 painting, and depiction of what they think is the 27 year old Queen Victoria.

 

24. Wadi Do, Yemen

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Welcome to Yemen, a land filled with medieval cities, and horrors. One of the most beautiful and untouched destinations, this is a place of pre-modern life in all its colours, antiquity and romanticism that you could shake an incensed hookah at. But currently enduring a civil war that’s now got Saudi Arabia sending in its hi-tech troops and satellite bombs, and Islamist insurgencies that see tourist buses attacked, killing four in the very picture above in 2008. Wadi Do is an oasis traditionally reached through camel caravans across the shifting deserts, traversing the passes of the immense plateau and gorge akin to the Grand Canyon. It’s sides are studded with multi storey, stained glass mud brick architecture that was a pre-cursor to the skyscraper up to 700 years ago.

 

25. The top of the world, Mount Everest.

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Whether you climb up the Chinese side or from the Nepalese base camp, you’ll need a cool $35,000 start off fee for the 32lbs of allowable gear and the $10,000 permits, getting higher depending on the size of your party. And you’ll need to be super fit, for after a certain altitude your body starts DYING (unless you’re a Sherpa who is biologically evolved to intake more oxygen at these altitudes), and you’ll only have a short window of time to reach the top and get back down again before you succumb to the elements. The death rate is a full 10%, although it improved in recent years with better tech and safety, including ladders to traverse the worst of the ravines, some recent deadly avalanches have raised the casualty rate again. Base camp at a lowly 17,600ft (5380m), is popular with tourists, looking at the mountain which looks surprisingly smaller than its neighbours, and mingling enviously with the teams about to set off or returning with looks of war in their eyes. It’s just climbing the last 11,430ft (3470m) to really look down on the world that’s the issue.

 

 

Got to the end? Any other suggestions or experiences for hard to reach places, for the next brochure? Post below.

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The Olympicked Chalice

Who wants to win the Olympics?

That moment when your host city beams to the world its assertions of civilisation, finds its cultural identity out of a globalised melting pot, celebrates its diversity, reminds us of its historical achievements, and wheels out its mystery celebs. All in a lovely package of inclusiveness, modern thinking, and children. Lots of children – alone, in groups, singing, dancing, being disabled; smiling for months till their cute little faces wrinkle preternaturally for the rest of their lives.

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www.dailyrepublic.com

But squint again and behind those dazzling teeth and choreographed lightshows is a helluva lot of worry. Will that vast stage behold an architectural and community legacy? Or be a money sucking, windblown embarrassment for decades to come? Will the computers work the show faultlessly, or mechanical breakdown create an epic, global case of schadenfreude? Will we spend too much, drawing negative criticism by the tax indentured populace, or too little, drawing the dubbing of an ‘austerity Olympics’? Or worse – spending loads but having nothing to wow with despite.

Will terrorism raise its underlying head, or freak accidents mar the history? Will corruption claim millions, or worse, be publicly found out to have claimed millions? Will the Olympic spirit die beneath the spotlights?

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^Helen Sharman and the Olympic flame, World Universiade 1991. Helen is from Slough.

In short the Olympics is like sitting a difficult exam or a lesson in complex public speaking, but with the world watching (and all of history), where every fault is indelible, will cost millions, and draw waves of unabashed laughter and criticism, with people paid to heckle. A merciless stage. Even beforehand the vast roving interest of the world, not unlike the Great Eye of Sauron, will beam down at your preparations, go through your friends list (and ex-friends) launching investigations, reading your old diary and spending a good few hours chortling at your fat photos, or sharing the bit where you admitted to stealing a Boyzone mag off Chantelle Norris.

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It is in short a poisoned chalice, your chance to shine, and fall, all over youtube. And it’ll cost you in crippling loans, cancelled holidays, stress, and psychiatrists for the foreseeable future no matter the outcome.

The turning point can be attributed to Athens 2004. Beforehand the huge burning eye of the world’s press was more or less politely unbecoming, or too bored to really pay attention until the big day, with a flurry of activity  before everyone sodded off again. But their own chance to shine came with the increasing spotlight on the delayed construction of the Olympic venues as the big day came ever closer. Olympic Committees arrived to study the progress, or lack of, and came away tutting with some stern words on taking it all away, and never investing in olive oil again.

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Like a countdown, the papers could get more and more clicks with every update, wallowing in the Greek mess of infrastructure woes, bureaucratic red tape, lazy work ethic and employment rights (the much frowned upon opportunity to strike). Ignoring the fact Greeks work the longest hours in the West, were one of the poorest members of the EU, and have a damned right to have rights (what with the birth of democracy and all that), it was all too sordid and sardonic not to shake ones head or roll our cultural eyes. Even after they completed on time, launched a highly artistic, emotive and epic opening ceremony that’s the template for every one after, and went more or less without global incident or stage blooper (except the bit where the marathon runner from Brazil got rugby tackled by a mad Irish priest, and lost his lead). Still the effortlessly gorgeous conversion of the national stadium by Santiago Calatrava has been the most beautiful yet devised and a testament for decades to come- a lesson in geometry, natural lines and low cost.

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Yet we cannot bring ourselves to ignore the perceived ruination of a nation. The Olympic legacy, costing 10,000 Euros of upkeep a week for some buildings to lie vacant, sun-stunned and overgrown. The Handball Arena is now littered with UNHCR tents as use for a refugee camp, while the iconic diving pools lie empty. Or rather we prefer to look at that and ignore the other legacies (such as a highway network, a sparkling new metro and airport etc). Also to look at Greece’s current debt crisis, and put the blame on the elaborate staging, rather than the cook-the-books routine that we all partook in pre-Crisis. To this day news still report on the weed grown facilities looking much like the Classical ruins a metro ride away, despite that countdown long having finished. They will also report unfailingly on libertine passengers not paying on that new metro route.

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www.dailymail.co.uk

Then came Beijing 2008, China’s much heralded coming out party with all the fanfare and billions to invest on her make up. And if you thought Greece went through a PR disaster before her debut, China went through a real test of fire, complete with flamethrowers and paparazzi fast on her Jimmy Choo heels. The year according to Chinese astrology would not be a good one from the outset, despite 8 being the number of choice for luck. The Olympic mascots – the Fuwa, or good luck dolls symbolising the ancient Chinese elements of Water, Earth, Fire, Wood and Air- rather became sinister, cursed symbols of disaster that year. The Five Horsemen:

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Jingjing the Earth panda, native to Sichuan province, was quickly associated with the devastating earthquake that Spring that wiped out 90,000 lives there. Nini the Air swallow, who looks like a kite, was portent of doom to a highly embarrassing train crash, that killed 40 on the country’s much lauded new HSR (High Speed Rail) network – in Weifang, the ‘kite city’. Yingying the Tibetan Wood antelope saw in the biggest wave of protest and race riots in Tibet since occupation, while Watery Beibei the South Chinese sturgeon, saw in flooding in South China that killed 150 and displaced a whopping 1.5 million. All that remained was Huanhuan the Olympic Fire torch cutey and the protests that dogged him throughout the world, so much so they effectively banned foreign flame routes from thereon. China was literally introducing herself to each member state with a round of publicity to her (in)human rights record; and the Fuwa would forever be known as ‘wuwa’ or witch-dolls after.

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As for PR, Beijing did indeed wow the world with a glorious, elaborately staged opening ceremony that gave a soft touch to totalitarian synchronisation, and became the benchmark for all that followed. But even that soon drew criticism. ‘Live’ footage of the fireworks marking out 29 huge footprints across the city to the stadium was widely reported as being faked, thanks to the noticeable onscreen graphics (in reality the fireworks did go off but couldn’t be filmed from above due to danger to the choppers). The insectoid little girl singing the national anthem was found not only to have been miming, but mouthing along to another not-as-sweetie’s voice after a politburo member deemed the vocals substandard (though the girl in Sydney’s previous ceremony, and the norm for all the others, would have been guilty of the same).

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Video Grab/Kent News & Pictures Ltd

They did go off, capitalist dogs:

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Further controversy followed when it was revealed some members of China’s 56 minority groups showing off national dress were Han Chinese, and not the stated ethnicity (though bear in mind ‘colour-blind casting’ was employed in every ceremony since, from London’s Victorian opening theme to Rio’s historical journey of race). For all China’s trump and glory, it became obvious her  detractors would not be missing a beat from the get go.

The Olympics was indeed an overall success: the capital cleaned up and laced herself with state of the art infrastructure, the weather held off, and a memorable Games as could possibly be was beamed to the largest ever global audience of 5 billion. But it also heralded the officialisation of an anti-Chinese rhetoric in the world’s media that continued after the poppers ended. After that mixed year Beijing’s leading Google association became tied to ‘pollution’, rather than being an ancient capital of the world’s biggest population or richest country. Beijing was smog, China was totalitarianism, and its economic rise one to fear, or belittle; its culture aping, uncivilised and enchained. That looked funny and talked funny. It wasn’t the ‘lifting of the sky’ of a billion people on some far off horizon, more a inviting your bling-bedecked Auntie Shazza to a Tuscan wedding.

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When London’s turn was up, envisaged protests to Britain’s involvement in the Iraq War to its extensive colonial er, legacy saw its Olympic torch route kept strictly within the host nation for the first time. It was initially dubbed the Austerity Olympics to be held during the global financial crisis  -London would be the first city to hold it a third time, but both times before were after the world wars and had effectively defaulted there for minimalised costs. The original plans were billed far lower, despite increasing realisation this would be a last once-in-a-lifetime chance to hold a fully fledged Olympic thingy, rather than yet another bare bones offering involving a big pie to go round and some spirited bunting.

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Luckily, it appears the politicians ‘forgot’ to include tax, inflation, infrastructure or contingency funds in their public bid. Nevertheless local protest to the increasing cost of the Games began to garner as the plans began to balloon. Then someone went out and bought a really big bell. In the end it worked out as the second most expensive after Beijing, climbing from initial budgets of under $4 billion to a $15 billion whopper (not including infrastructure).

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In the run up to the opening, more criticism – and laughs – came, thicker, leaner, faster. The beds to gangly athletes in the Olympic Village were found to be too short. Northern drivers, bussed in by private firms and refusing to use newfangled technologies such as er, satnav, were lost for hours trying to transport athletes from the airport, as their captives launched their ordeal on social media.

The worst fiasco came when the world’s largest private security firm, G4S, completely failed to deliver for such a sensitive, highly scaled event, with the army stepping in at the 11th hour to cover the shortfalls. The firm had seen its personnel requirements doubled to 23,000- and subsequently demanded a payrise from £7.3 million to £60 million, half of which it spent on its gold leafed, water-walking management and only £2.8 million on the extra recruitment, to utter ineffect.

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http://www.theguardian.com

A further show of unbridled commercialisation at the expense of Olympic spirit came when viewers noticed the legions of empty seats at many events, despite all tickets having sold out. They were of course the large amount given over to sponsors and associated members, who never bothered to attend, or spent their time at the bar watching footie or dancing like fat twats in suits.

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A final pluck at the strings came with another instance of breakdown. A clock froze during the fencing at the start of the Games, which lead to Shin A Lam unfairly losing a medal, made worse by the decision to uphold the result despite the cause being mechanical failure. It not only exposed the Olympic flaws, but its embarrassing propriety when they muttered painfully to the South Koreans that one has to pay to have an appeal considered. The view of a lone player sitting on an emptied stage, to half an hour of a visibly slow-clapping crowd (to leave the arena means you accept the decision), leaves an imprint.

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All in all London did manage to pull off an inordinately successful campaign – the Opening Ceremony – the first section especially- was one of the most memorable of all time, the Games went off without further hitch, and the PR armies of gurning volunteers, an array of citywide cultural events and fun facilities meant it was one of the most enjoyable ever. The legacy of mixed use buildings, and a deprived district now becoming a polished hub ensured no international follow-ups. They even turned a marginal profit thanks to £1 billion of the contingency fund not being needed, and the following year London became the world’s most visited city. As a sign of its confidence, even in the closing ceremony, they included a poignant shot of Shin A Lam sitting in silence as her world burned. Like the Opening Ceremony, it showed not just the rosy image of revision, but the blood, sweat and tears also.

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In reality the legacy  was a mixed one. For all the much lauded intentions, much of which won London the Games in the first place, they have not been the complete success as widely reported. The route to the Olympic Park remains from day one, as through the city’s largest shopping mall, a festival of money parting and commercialisation; as apt today as it has ever been. The stadium itself was intended to be downscaled and kept for athletics, but the unjustified cost to keep it running led to a complete renege on that idea. And at further cost – adversely dismantling the permanent features while keeping the temporary ones, to the tune of $1 billion, to change it into a football arena as first proposed. FFS.

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The legacy of turning a nation to sports – the ‘Singapore Promise’ to “Inspire a generation” was neither fulfilled. The heartrendingly humble video they played at the bidding, of children from all over Britain and the world seeing the Games and one day becoming Olympians, thus underlying the importance of investment in public sport, does not seem to have transpired. Public facilities across the country have closed, school budgets have been axed and sports participation is dramatically down (people playing sport once a week, shrinking by over 200,000 every six months), despite £325 million invested in getting their dimpled arses off the sofa each year by the state quango.

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At the end of the day London was a success and an English apple of the eye, but behind closed doors not as amazing as trumpeted. The city does have a legacy, just not so much the one it promised about you know, not staring at the fridge, and changing society n crap. More about lining the pockets of investors and landlords, and fulfilling that raison d’etre of sticking two fingers up at the French.

Neither do the Winter Olympics escape, especially if it’s a non-Western country. Although Western countries do get noticeable concessions. Vancouver 2010 garnered its fair share of critique even before it started  following the tragic death of 21 year old Nodar Kumaritashvili of Georgia a few days into practice. Following  driver error he hit a steel support pole that should have been protected, on a luge track that was 12% faster than its intended limit. Also marring preparations was opposition from certain First Nations members, advocates to the colonial record of one of the major sponsors – the Hudson Bay Company, the repeated vandalism of the Olympic flame, and the plight of the low-income families displaced by the building projects, none of which were beautiful thanks to budget. These were little reported outside national papers, though the British press did castigate the games as overly nationalistic, in a purported attempt at embellishing London’s follow up.

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Vancouver’s opening ceremony heavily featured mechanical failure in a rather sketchy opening show – overall beautiful, alluding to the virginal nature of the First Nations plus a mesmeric song by KD Lang, but also involving an er, stand up comedy sketch, Donald Sutherland as the be-all and end-all of Canadian fame, and a malfunctioning arm of the Olympic flame that denied the opportunity for LeMay Doan to light it. But never mind that, and don’t worry too much about the Georgian unpronounceable either – they gave his family $10,000 to renovate their house in a ‘goodwill gesture’, and Canada’s a nice, civilised Western country anyway, like Britain or Australia. Sydney was great, that was the bestest games ever before all this controversy began (just don’t mention the bribes during the bidding process).

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However, Sochi 2014 in Russia truly marked the shining benchmark of public(ised) criticism, the El Dorado for reporters from rival trade blocs the world over. The world’s most exorbitantly spent-on Olympics, costing $51 billion (tick), in a non-Western (tick) populace that can ill afford it (tick), under a charmless dictator-in-all-but-name (tick), with problems with democracy (tick), a lack of gay rights (tick), garnering accordant social media campaign (tick), in a place more famed for its palm trees and the warmest location yet devised (tick). And an unimaginable amount of graft with billions siphoned off to fellow cronies and friends of Putin (tick). Oh and unfinished buildings in the run-up (tick). And of course, a questionable legacy, with which the story can still be milked for decades to come (tick). Let’s just entirely ignore how great, artistic and well organised the show actually was in the end…

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Oh Russia, you glorious summit for cultural disdain, you embellished standard of socio-economic disaster, you God’s gift to dash-cam Youtube, you. Oh mystical horizon of fur-lined intrigue and chemical factories, how we have missed you. When one of your Olympic rings failed to bloom in the Opening ceremony our collective hearts swilled with drunken love, and bloomed with laughter. Oh the mirth, uniting peoples the world over, in Olympic based spirit. Add to that the cherry on top of the current doping scandal banning much of the team, and replacing medals all the way back to 2014 – and you’ve got the best ever tally won by a single country, now being taken down by a rung or three. Thank you so much. We feel so much better for ourselves.

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Now Rio, you seductress of the south. With your teeming, drug fueled favelas, high profile kidnappings and police shootings. Where to turn the world’s eye – the blinding inequality? Racial politics? High homicide rate and petty crime? The nationwide protests at rising costs and price hikes? The indentured former terrorist / torture victim/ President being impeached? The deepening recession, crumbling the dreams of much of the Developing World? The bacterial gardens of the Guanabara Bay? The unfinished construction? And full circle to Olympic Committee threats to take the Games elsewhere (and never to hold it in a Developing country again)? So much to choose from, so little airtime.

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Okay, the ceremony went without a hitch – though there was that little girl, now summarily executed, talking the whole time behind the first Oympic Laureate making his speech. It was evocative, emotive, fun and held its message for a Green Games, plus it’s amazing, eco-friendly Olympic cauldron shining like a gorgeous, mirrored beacon. And the marathon man who got rugby tackled by that Irish priest in Athens 2004, and who lost his winning medal as a result, got to light the flame. Heart warming. Classy like.

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But then one of the Olympic pools just turned fart-smelling GREEN, inexplicably so, so wa-hey! We’re back on.

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What can we expect from Tokyo 2020? The Japanese are a nice bunch, they’re the sweetest, most polite of peoples, eminently civilised and welcoming, economically great, with a winning allure (food, arts, media) and defining popular culture. Low inequality, high social justice, low crime, high environmentalism. Bullet trains, geishas, anime, Michelin stars, forest cover, zen, bamboo, shrines, cherry blossom, sushi, cat cafes, bunny islands. What could possibly go wrong?

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Well the whales, the war, the yakuza, the comfort women, the weirdness. The suicide rate, the groping, the live food, the history textbooks, the depopulation, the porn, the radiation, the homogeneity, the ageing, the Senkaku Islands. Actually this is gonna be fantastic! It may be a time to put down arms, but to take up more civilised, cultured weaponry instead, from social media to trade wars, hacking to drones.

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It’s a telling sign their inital logo already got sued by Belgian designer Olivier Debie, forcing a later redrawing:

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As we all know the Olympics has traditionally been the time when we all lay down arms and the world stops fighting for the duration of the Games (except in er, WWI, and er, II, and er, every war after that). But anyhoo it’s the thought that counts. The Games are apolitical, yeah. No, I mean no. It’s not a forum to bring up injustice, failure, a few billion dollars, prejudice or scorn. Nosiree.

It’s just our media are increasingly finding the Olympics as a useful tool to promote our  own rhetoric, and the superiority of whatever is the regional demagogue du jour. Start off with a good kilo of global audience, add 100g of competition, 100g of emotion, a generous sprinkling of national pride (hell just throw the damn box in), and feed it through a tight nozzle of media interpretation. In hindsight Hitler’s attempt at making the 1936 Olympics a [failed] promotion of his political ideals was a masterstroke so to speak. We’re just here for the mutherfucking cake.

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So just think, one day… one day… America just might get it again. Another misty, headline grabbing land  ripe with opportunity, hegemony and questionable choices. And what a seasoned gift to the world that would be, inspiring generations of tabloid stories, internet forums and culture bloggers, long in the running. We, as a global community, can once again, dare to dream.

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Got to the end? Do comment.

What would you think would happen if your country were picked to host the Olympics? What would your city do well or not so well?