I just heard John Major, speaking from the rowing venue, asserting the Olympics were certain to be good for Britain. I hope he’s right but it is hope rather than expectation.
First, the good news, there is no doubting the fever of enthusiasm sweeping the country. As I argued on Moral Maze the other night, in our individualistic culture it is great to see so many people united by the success of a group of impressive athletes, each of whom is at pains to emphasise the extra incentive of competing for their nation.
Also, the whole thing seems pretty well organised as a popular event. The resentment towards those who have not taken up their ticket allocation has underlined how many of us are desperate to get first hand experience of the Games. These Olympics will surely be record breaking in terms of the proportion of full or nearly full crowds. The last minute ticket sales will also help with the closing financial balance for the event and, as all the ticket money apparently gets allocated to economic activity in this financial quarter, there will be a boost to GDP figures.
This is just as well for George Osborne as the knock on effects of the Games on retail, hospitality and catering – particularly in central and East London - are looking pretty grim. If it wasn’t for watching the sport I would be tempted to spend the week in the West End enjoying the unusually quiet streets and shops.
The Coalition also has reason to be glad the Games are dominating the news agenda. Although there is a surge in confidence about the Euro-zone, domestic economic news has been bleak with terrible manufacturing figures and falling house prices.
Meanwhile, there have been various other reminders of economic and social malaise. Particularly catching my eye this week were figures showing high and rising rates of anti-depressant prescription, and this powerful analysis of a 10% real terms decline in young people’s earnings over the last decade: both reminders that many of our problems started before the credit crunch and will continue even if we eventually get back to something resembling trend growth.
But while it is hardly fair to dampen Olympic enthusiasm by describing unrelated problems, there is a more pointed critique. Implicit in John Major’s claim is that the Olympics will bring a new sense of purpose to the country and send a positive message to the rest of the world.
The problem here, I think, is that although we are showing London can successfully stage a very big event and that the British people are sports mad, a core symbolic narrative about the 2012 Games is missing. Barcelona used hosting in 1992 to demonstrate that Spain had moved out of the shadow of dictatorship and into the mainstream of Europe. Sydney in 2000 underlined Australia’s youthfulness and confidence. And in 2008 China powerfully symbolised its superpower status.
When the UK won the Olympic bid the emphasis was on inclusion and diversity. These were themes of the Opening ceremony but there is little or no evidence the Games has increased sporting participation, while funding cuts have dealt a hard blow to school sport. The news that the GB Olympic team is dominated by private school pupils doesn’t exactly help. The contribution of the very diverse army of Olympic volunteers is impressive, but friends of mine who have been to the Games say the crowds have a very middle class feel; hardly surprising given the ticket prices.
There was another attempt to provide a distinctive 2012 narrative. Represented by the double-decker bus and Boris’ bumbling brilliance in Beijing, it was the idea that these Games would - in stark contrast to its predecessor - be on a friendly, modest, human scale. But given the bureaucracy, corporate sponsorship, security and high technology demanded by modern sport this idea is even harder to sustain in practice.
if the Games were to do more than confirm London as a great city and Britain as a pleasant and civilised – of somewhat jingoistic - country it needed a clear and consistent narrative. But this has been lacking and it may be key reason the longer term benefits may not be what we hope.
Perhaps in these instrumental times the the thing we should enjoy is precisely the disconnect between the Olympics and the rest of our lives. Maybe it does speak to a deeper idea of resilience; our Blitz spirit capacity to have a great time even when things are tough.
I’d like to spend more times exploring this thought but the evening athletics has just started….