Something quite remarkable has happened to me in the past 10 days. Normally I find televised sport barely more exciting than watching paint dry and I share Dr Samuel Johnson’s view that patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.
Yet, somehow, I’ve found myself avidly watching sports events that, if I knew they existed (omnium, keirin?) I certainly didn’t understand the rules. Now I’m even beginning to understand what the judges are looking for in gymnastics, beyond not falling off the apparatus. So what has happened?
It began even before Danny Boyle’s fantastic opening ceremony. What an amazing surprise! But there was the clue. It was a surprise even though many thousands of people, the performers, the technicians, those present at the rehearsals, knew what was going to happen.
But they kept it to themselves so that they wouldn’t spoil the surprise for the rest of us. Not because they were threatened with arrest under the many powers that the British government now has to prevent freedom of speech. Rather, because Danny Boyle asked them to.
And what a surprise! A feat of sheer technical mastery, with the most amazing special effects presented with superb timing. A combination of seriousness (the tribute to the dead in the London bombings the day after London was awarded the Olympics, even if not shown in the version on NBC in the USA) and comedy (combining the queen – not Helen Mirren but the real one – and Mr Bean). But above all, a celebration of Britain, showing where it has come from but also where it is going.
There was something for everyone, with Chelsea pensioners alongside rap artists. Well, not quite everyone.
There was Aidan Burley, the Conservative MP who complained on Twitter of “multicultural crap” and a columnist in the Daily Mail who ridiculed the idea that one could find an ethnic minority father living with a white British family in a stable family union. He obviously didn’t know who Jessica Ennis was, but presumably he does now as the story has been removed from the paper’s website.
But the storm of protest that these comments provoked showed that, at a time when politicians are doing their best to divide us, vilifying migrants (perhaps we need a few more like Mo Farah), older people (like Hiroshi Hoketsu, the 71 year old Japanese equestrian team member who is at his last Olympics as his horse will be too old at Rio), and anyone who is different, the vast majority of the British people realises just how much we benefit from diversity and we will not tolerate those who seek to divide us.
And of course we have the actual events. For years it has seemed that there has been no association whatsoever between ability and fame in Britain. News stands are lined with “celebrity” magazines telling us the latest exploits of some sad individual plucked off the streets to be exploited by the producers of reality TV, the modern equivalent of the Victorian habit of going to Bedlam to laugh at the lunatics.
Now they are covered with images of people who really do have talent and, most importantly, have worked to develop it. The commitment that these athletes have made is remarkable. Interviewed after winning Gold in the 10,000 metres, Mo Farah said that running 120 miles a week was hard, and long distance running was lonely. What an understatement!
Yet, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in his book Outliers, real success at anything seems to require about 10,000 hours of work. What a difference from today’s celebrities with their 15 minutes of fame.
Of course, none of this could have happened without the volunteers. People of all ages, smiling and cheerful even in pouring rain, doing everything possible to welcome the world to this great cosmopolitan city. What a contrast to those who sought to exploit the games for profit.
The reputation of G4S, which so spectacularly failed to provide the security it promised is now in ruins. Coca-Cola and McDonald’s sponsorship of the games has simply attracted attention to the contrast between the health promoting focus of the games and the health damaging effects of their products.
The involvement of ATOS in the Paralympics, given its treatment of disabled people being assessed for work has appalled those who watched recent television investigations into their practices, is beyond parody.
But here I am rather more pessimistic. Will anything change? The idea that G4S should receive any money for its lamentable performance is bizarre and, if they do, it begs the question of what was going through the mind of whoever wrote the contract. How can they possibly be allowed to bid for another government contract for many years?
And now we must look forward to the legacy. These games have surely inspired countless young people to take up sport. Few will become the elite athletes winning medals at future Olympics (although some will). But that is not the point.
In a country with rapidly increasing rates of childhood obesity, what we need is simply to move us all up a notch on the activity scale. But this means investment. We are forever being told by ministers seeking to cut spending that “it is not simply a matter of money”.
Maybe not entirely. But Britain’s success (recall the one Gold medal at Atlanta) is very substantially about money. Yet there are now real fears that as soon as the Olympics are over the budget for sport will be slashed.
This would be a tragedy and the British people must not allow it to happen. What is more important – high quality sports facilities in every school or a nuclear deterrent almost entirely under American control and which no-one can suggest a realistic scenario in which it would ever be used?
This takes me to my final point. What the Olympics have shown is that government works, whether in its investment in athletes or its stepping in, with the armed forces, when a private corporation fails (yet again).
If a government funded sports strategy can work so well, why do we seem so determined to avoid a government funded industrial strategy? The reason that politicians were given brains was so that they could learn from experience. Now is the time to break the habit of a lifetime and do so.
Professor of European Public Health at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and Research Director at the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies. I manage a large research programme on health and health policy in the former Soviet Union.