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When the (Fairy) Dust has Settled

My own magic moment – and everybody was, surely asked about their own best moment? – was Mo Farah’s second gold medal, in the 5000 metres. It just so happened that all twelve members of our immediate family were present and we were able to share the common illusion, remarked by no less a figure than the Mayor of London, that we were yelling and willing his acceleration from the pack and over the line. But the magic moments came thick and fast: the goddess Jessica storming home in her final event, her fellow Yorkshirewoman Nicola Adams winning the first women’s boxing medal, a horse dancing it’s way to dressage victory to patriotic music. Not to mention the constant evidence that British cyclists are faster than French . . . or than anyone else for that matter.

The “feelgood factor” of a home Olympics was surely at a level never experienced at any event before in this country. As the fairy dust descended cynical journalists rolled over and became patriotic puppies. This was “us” as we had always wanted to be: charming and eccentric, but efficient and victorious as well. It was the cosmopolitan, global-imperial us, the Britain of a hundred ethnicities. Mo arrived from Somalia, Jess’s dad from Jamaica and the genius behind British dressage gold was a German immigrant, Dr. Wilfried Bechtelsheimer.

In fact a kind of millenarium optimism began to flavour the news coverage of the Olympics. Nothing would ever be the same again. This was our redefinition as a nation. Fat, lazy people would be stirred into action. Footballers and other professional sportsmen would be shamed by the nobility of Olympians into behaving decently. Women’s sport would finally be recognised as the equal of men’s. Nobody would ever sell off a playing field or cancel a games lesson again. If we could only make the gold medalists the cabinet we would be able to live in peace and prosperity for a thousand years. If you weren’t part of this level of enthusiasm you weren’t in spirit with the times.

Nobody could deny the success of the event. There was no terrorism, very little crime and the transport system worked well. There were only three positive doping tests and only one of those, the women’s shot put winner, Nadzeya Ostapchuk from Belarus, involved medals changing hands. The British haul of medals was quite unprecedented, the gold tally up 2800% in 16 years, to put it in appropriate Stalinist terminology. Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony was a success: though it baffled and annoyed Americans, especially Republicans, and was considered very Anglocentric in the Hispanophone world, it was widely admired elsewhere. The closing ceremony was boring and there is surely something that can be done to improve ticketing, even when dealing with an organisation as corrupt and inefficient as the International Olympic Committee: try making the “Olympic family” buy options on tickets, for instance. Even so, 8 out of 10 for the event would seem a bit mean; give the benefit of the doubt for the wonderful excited atmosphere and call it a 9.

But if the Games were real and the “feelgood factor” only marginally less so, it is a far more complex question to ask what will be their real consequences. As a supposed expert on the politics of sport I have been asked about this incessantly by journalists, as if my speculation could be definitive in ways that their’s weren’t; the debate goes back at least to Harold Wilson and his speculations about the relationship between the election and the football World Cup in 1970. One current debate is about whether the “real winner” of the games was Boris Johnson rather than David Cameron. But it is only speculation. The feelgood is at least double value when you hold a succesful games and do very well in the medals table. But who would it benefit? Rationally, it should be past prime ministers. Tony Blair secured the games, but in many ways their presiding genius was a man who was hardly mentioned or seen: John Major instituted an important learning experience in the failed bid for Manchester and in that city’s successful securing of the Commonwealth Games (eventually held in 2002), but even more so by establishing the lottery in 1994 which has seen £1.5B spent on sport. This is what really mattered; to state briefly a point I originally made in Standpoint, since quite widely quoted, nobody who understands sport is really going to regard China as a greater sporting nation than Spain, despite the gold medal tally being 38-3; nor does Kazakhstan’s 7-1 superiority over Argentina denote anything other than an a greater investment in programmes of sports development oriented towards the Olympics.

The “legacy” of a games might have several dimensions: the physical plant and its use, the reputation of the city and country and the “inspiration” of future generations are among the most important. In general it is generally agreed among scholars that the legacy of previous games has been more or less derisory. It is to be hoped that London 2012 will be different, but it certainly won’t live up to some of the wilder optimism that has been expressed. Boris Johnson’s sudden enthusiasm for two hours of compulsory games every day in schools seems to me likely to raise rather than diminish the number of plump girls who conveniently “forget” their games kit when going to school or pester the doctor for a “sickie”. Mo and Jess did everything that could possibly be asked of them, but even their inspiration cannot seriously be expected to arrest a decline in participatory sport which is rooted in the nature of contemporary social change. Of the USA’s gold medals 29 out of 46 went to women. Like so much else in the world of the Olympics this is because of a government policy, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972, which bans gender discrimination in state schools and colleges and has been interpreted to require equal sports facilities (including coaching) for male and female students. But the success of American women and their prominence for two weeks will do nothing to change the situation in which more than 90% of the coverage and resources in American professional sport go to men.

In Which We Triumph was a wonderful experience for the heart, but the head says it doesn’t change anything. The Olympic movement continues to be an organisation whose history is steeped in every form of corruption and which thrives because it has generated patriotic feelgood factors for every type of political regime, good and bad, but mostly bad. Having said that, the whole “feelgood” issue has to be laced with a sceptical approach to the epistemology of social science: it’s not just that we don’t know, but that we can’t know. For instance, what did all that celebration (and redefinition) of “Britishness” do for the Union and for Scotland’s place in it? Possibly nothing, but not necessarily nothing. I am prepared to argue – and have researched the case – that the Soviet Union’s Olympic success did have a positive, if temporary, beneficial effect on their union, but in this case the streams of communication and influence are far too complex to judge. We would like to know, but we can’t and it will be fifty years or so before historians can make best guesses.

Lincoln Allison