Olympic year is almost upon us. Gird yourself for stories of waste, danger, congestion, elitism and corruption. We are living in an age of anxiety.
The likelihood of things going wrong, and a vivid sense of the venality and incompetence of those in charge, has gripped the public imagination. Optimism withers. Pessimism is hunched in every corner, waiting to pounce, and “London 2012” will be no exception.
The two previous London Olympics, in 1908 and 1948, are so long ago that they would seem almost useless comparisons. Both were planned late, delivered cheaply and in a spirit of vigorous amateurism. Neither was without their political problems but they are now marinated in warm, sepia nostalgia. What lies ahead will be very different.
Today, winning and organising an Olympics is about national power, political status and big money. At times it will feel like “us and them”. When, two days before the start of the Games, the special Olympic lanes begin, some will find them opening and some will find them closing: the lanes are for sponsors, media, organisers and athletes.
Lines of dark limos will streak across town while the rest find humdrum journeys north and south almost impossible. Already there are dire warnings of 40-minute waits to get into tube stations and firms are being urged to get their central London staff to stay at home.
Cash-strapped families will ruminate, no doubt, on the £9.3-billion cost of the Games — though Labour’s Margaret Hodge, chairing the public accounts committee, has already said she thinks the real public cost, including the legacy company and land costs, will be about £11-billion.
To put this in context, the real-terms cut in the education department budget by 2013-2014 was announced at £6.17-billion and the total overseas aid budget this year is £8-billion.
These costs push the agreed London Olympics budget to its very edges, even though tickets have been hugely popular — demand is running at about 24% ahead of earlier projections. Among the many things the money goes on will be very expensive opening ceremonies for both the Olympics and the Paralympics, costing about £90-million and the vast security operation.
That’s now supposed to cost £553-million and will involve 13 500 troops, numerous missiles, helicopters and warplanes and a security staff which has jumped from 10 000 to 23 700.
Think of all that, and add the inevitable arguments that will sour aspects of the Games. Who’s really entitled to be on which national team? Which countries have given their athletes such extra coaching advantages that it’s “unfair”?
Meanwhile, cross your fingers and hope that nothing really bad happens. Reflect that, even after the obvious threats, Hugh Robertson, the sports minister raised the possibility of Irish republican terrorism. Shudder at the memory of the Munich Olympic massacre, when 11 died.
Seethe at the secretive cabal of the IOC itself, with its history of bribery scandals and of evasion of basic human rights issues, as when dissidents were rounded up ahead of the Beijing Games.
Ask yourself, while you’re at it, whether the mysterious grandees of the IOC are any better than the secretive cabals that have led Fifa and motor racing into such trouble. Recall that sometimes they turn out to be the same people. The former Fifa president João Havelange resigned days before an IOC ethics hearing was due to take place — though to be fair, he was 95 at the time.
No, it will be easy to work up a hyperventilating pant of outrage about the 2012 Olympics. The simple “hooray” on 6 July 2005 which greeted the announcement that London had beaten Paris for the Games — a day before the bombings — now seems a long time ago.
That was before the banking crisis, before the euro meltdown, before the years of austerity cuts. Today’s psychological backdrop frames a very different age of anxiety.
And yet all around Britain, people are going to love these Games. I was jumping up and down receiving three not very glamorous tickets to a swimming event. There will be days ahead of horrible traffic, officiously unpleasant security staff and watching corporate fat-cats and grandees swan past, to the best seats, down the fast lanes.
It matters, and yet somehow not enough. However cluttered with sponsorship and national rivalry, however undemocratic the system and however irritating the spectacle of David Cameron and Boris Johnson basking in the global spotlight, the magic of the Games will win through. Or so I hope. But why?
It’s not because they are fair. Life isn’t. The Games remind us that we are born differently, with different backgrounds, physiques and abilities.
However hard you train, if you don’t have the right frame you won’t be a champion. We know too that athletes from some of the poorer countries have huge barriers in their training facilities and support, which put them at a disadvantage.
The dream remains because the Games are about people testing themselves to their limits. Biology and geography, luck and financing, all these matter; but without determination, hard work and self-belief, they are nothing. And when we whoop, we’re celebrating that determination.
London 2012 will give us examples of people who have come from the toughest backgrounds, who have coped with reverses of all kinds but who, following their dream, find themselves touching the end of the pool first, or passing a finishing line, or dancing over a bar. And for a split second, we’ll share their triumph.
Some of that will be about national pride. We’ll root for British athletes, riders and sailors. But as with Dorando Pietri, the gutsy Italian who won the hearts of the British in 1908 when he collapsed five times at the end of the marathon before being helped over the line, there will be people from all round the world who become heroes.
Why look forward, this Boxing Day, to July? Because then, for a while, hope will seem stronger than experience. And in the year ahead, we’re all going to need something stronger than anxiety. —