WIMILLE, France (Reuters) - While the rest of France wailed in disappointment at losing the 2012 Olympic Games to Britain, the councillor in charge of port towns like Calais on the English Channel let out a cheer.
A self-confessed Anglophile, with Winston Churchill memorabilia littering his office, Dominique Dupilet got to work at once, renovating and building sports centres as he saw the chance to take his slice of the Olympic terrain.
Seven years and 115 million euros of investment later, he has 24 teams from nations as far-ranging as Pakistan and Senegal signed up to train here in 2012, and expects thousands of tourists to stay in the area and take the Eurostar in to the Games.
“In the minutes that followed London’s selection we hoisted the British flag,” Dupilet, council chief for the department of Pas-de-Calais, told Reuters.
“For the duration of the Olympic Games, we’re going to be a suburb of London,” he said.
Nine sports facilities have been extended and renovated in the area since 2005, and three built from scratch, including an 8.4 million euro gymnastics base in Arques, the biggest in Europe and one of the best in the world.
The council is also working with tour operators and creating a website to attract tourists, and will be organising cultural events, dances and shows every evening throughout the Games to keep holidaymakers happy.
The start of the 100-day countdown to London 2012 on April 18 will be marked with a torch-lit march onto the cliffs near Calais and a laser show visible from the nearby shores of Kent in England, a mere 34 kilometres (21 miles) away.
“It’s easier to get to the Olympics from here than from Birmingham or even from the suburbs of London,” said Dupilet.
What better way to enjoy the fun than to head away from London, he said, and sample the cultural and gastronomic delights of northern France? Among them Vieux Boulogne, voted the world’s smelliest cheese in 2004 by British scientists.
In the seaport of Boulogne-sur-Mer, the old canoeing and kayak centre has been replaced with a gleaming new building, jutting out onto the river Liane like the bow of a ship. The smell of fresh paint greets visitors as they enter, and tens of thousands of euros of high-tech training gear stand at the ready in the newly-renovated gym.
Through the windows though, in sharp contrast, row upon row of shabby, concrete council blocks crowd the skyline, testament to the economic motive behind Pas-de-Calais’s Olympic bid.
Cities fight tooth and nail each year for the Olympic Games, which drive billions of dollars of investment in infrastructure and can mean a huge boost to tourism revenues.
And in a region sapped of its once-thriving textile, coal and ship-building industries, left struggling with above-average unemployment of 12.5 percent, officials could not pass up the chance of a much-needed economic fillip.
“There’s no rivalry behind this at all. We needed to do this and to surf on the wave of the Olympic Games was the perfect time,” said British-born Diana Hounslow, head of the Pas-de-Calais tourism board.
She admits the strategy may have rankled the British at first, drawing press accusations that the department was playing games with geography to cash in on 2012.
Few have forgotten the disappointment in Paris over its defeat by London in its bid for the 2012 Olympics. So Mission 2012, as Pas-de-Calais’ initiative is called, was viewed as a cynical way of stealing some of the limelight.
But in London officials have taken the moves in good humour, with Games Chief Sebastian Coe accepting the competition as inevitable, and urging regions in England to follow suit.
The southern region of Kent has signed a partnership with Pas-de-Calais to market their tourism services jointly, and the British male gymnastics team is set to train at Arques centre in May and July.
“The facility is one of the best in the world... We wanted to remove ourselves from the press interest in Great Britain immediately prior to the games, and it’s very accessible being just across the Channel,” said Eddie Van Hoof, technical director for the team.
For Pas-de-Calais, meanwhile, the strategy is already paying off financially -- last year alone, 47 foreign delegations visited Pas-de-Calais to use the facilities. And in the town of St-Omer an extra 500,000 euros of turnover was generated in food and accommodation by gymnasts using the nearby sports facilities.
The 19th century British writer Douglas Jerrold said the best thing between England and France was the sea. But there is a shared history between Pas-de-Calais and Britain that makes Dupilet’s efforts to cosy up less eccentric than they appear.
Calais was captured by the English in the Hundred Years’ War and occupied for over 200 years before being retaken by the French in 1558. Evidence of a shared heritage is visible throughout the region, not least in the Cheddar cheese on sale at every cornershop.
“We have a record to be proud of. After more than 450 years since it was lost under Mary Tudor, we have recaptured Calais from the French,” London Mayor Boris Johnson joked at the Conservative Party Conference in October last year.
There’s another reason Pas-de-Calais feels a stronger affinity with Britain -- Parisians have always tended to look down on their poor northern neighbours with condescension, nicknaming them Ch’tis after their thick accent.
If Paris had been awarded the 2012 Games, Dupilet says, it’s doubtful his county would have got a look-in as travellers headed straight for the capital and the south.
Perhaps seeking to distance themselves from their snootier Parisian neighbours, officials are selling the county’s tourist services by focusing on the quality of service and friendliness of the locals.
While Parisians may be best-known for petulant waiters and grumpy hotel service, Hounslow has issued hotels in her region with a handy guide of how to cater to foreigners, including eating habits and cultural pointers to help break the ice.
Greeks are hard to please and quick to criticise, so smile and be patient, the book advises. Meanwhile frog legs, undercooked meat and offal are likely to send Americans running for the door.
Editing by Ossian Shine