So, the great carnival of celebration that will climax in five and a half years’ time with the London Olympics is now under way. This week the former rower Sir Steve Redgrave is launching a campaign to find some quite tall schoolchildren who might be interested in playing for Britain’s beach volleyball team in 2012. Former 400m world champion Roger Black has been encouraging sport at primary schools in a Radio 4 series. In the background, beyond these initiatives, is the suave, neat figure of Lord Coe.
Somehow, as a lead-up to the first global sporting event to take place in Britain for more than 40 years, these pre-Olympic campaigns fail to set the pulse racing. Even if the worthy figures of Sir Steve, Lord Seb and Roger were joined by other sporting stars – Dame Kelly Holmes to encourage girl athletes, perhaps, Zara Phillips to tour pony clubs – the impression would remain that, right now, the flame of British enthusiasm for the Games burns about as brightly as a knackered cigarette lighter.
By contrast, the anti-Olympic movement is limbering up like a potential winner. Lord Coe’s unofficial opposite number, the columnist and thinker Sir Simon Jenkins, has been highly effective in spreading a spirit of pessimism about the London Games. They are a waste of resources. They will do nothing to regenerate parts of the East End. The spiralling costs will hurl the country into a dark pit of debt. London, unlike Atlanta or Barcelona, has no need to boost its image in the world. The Games themselves are tarnished and pointless. “The once-noble Olympic concept has gone rotten in the hands of the International Olympics Committee,” according to Sir Simon. “The Olympiad is the white elephant in a maharajah’s stable.”
The government and the British Olympic Association have not only had no reply to these allegations; they have added to the all-pervasive gloom by exuding an air of shiftiness and impotence as the cost of the Games has seemed to increase by millions every week. When the bid for London succeeded, its budget was £2.375bn. Now there are reports that it has reached £6bn. Even that figure, apparently, does not include costs such as security or VAT. No contingency figure has been included. A report in the London Evening Standard this week suggested that the revised budget is now at £10bn, and rising.
To add to the sense that matters are out of control, it remains unclear where the additional money will be found. A statement is not expected from the government until July.
Because in Britain, the miserabilists are first to the microphone and receive the warmest reception in the press, the various doomsday scenarios on offer – the country in penury, London a global laughing-stock, the Games a ludicrous flop – have effectively doused what Olympic enthusiasm there once was. The more the talk of failure, the more inevitable failure becomes.
It is time to counter the gloom-merchants and recognise that, to re-kindle a sense of excitement about the Games, we need more than the sincere efforts of yesterday’s athletes, touring the country in their tracksuits.
The true regeneration that an event like the Olympics can offer is to the spirit of a nation. It can offer a reminder that life can be fun, that the country in which they take place has much to offer the rest of the world. It can break the cycle of defeatism which has caused generations of Britons to view sport in whipped-cur mode, associating it with excess, money, drugs, violence and – this above all – disappointment.
It is no coincidence that the last great sporting events to take place in Britain, in 1948 and in 1966, coincided with a time of national optimism. Before too many fretters and gloom-merchants gather under the white flag of Sir Simon Jenkins, a counter-offensive is needed within the British Olympic movement. The government might deploy its well-oiled spin machine; a useful start would be to wrest cabinet responsibility for the Games away from Tessa Jowell, the minister for casinos, and give it to somebody suitably young and bouncy.
Rather than becoming yet another cause for despair, the London Olympics should be something to anticipate. Just as the Beatles and the Kings Road came to represent, with the World Cup, the spirit of ’66, so there must be someone, in the world of music, or advertising, or film, or TV, who can whip up the interest of the generation that matters for 2012.
This is an event which has the potential to lift the spirit of a nation for years before and after it takes place. It would be a shame if the cynical defeatism which has eaten its way into the British soul over the past 20 years should be allowed to cast a pall of greyness over what should be a terrific national party.