The hopes and dreams fostered by the London Olympics have turned to dust

The euphoria of that August of ten years ago make the excesses of such claims largely understandable as people were carried along by a wave of delight, hope and pride. Now, however, when reading the reports of that glorious summer of 2012, there is reminder after reminder of just how much has changed in Britain
The hopes and dreams fostered by the London Olympics have turned to dust

LEGACY: The closing ceremony at the London Olympics.

Today is the tenth anniversary of the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games. 

Even before the ceremony had finished the London Olympics were being celebrated as a triumph.

This claim was rooted, of course, in the fact that Great Britain had come third in the overall medal table, beaten only by America and China.

But it was not just the medal count that allowed for the Games to be considered a success. It was also because of the manner in which the infrastructure of London – that which existed already and that which was constructed for the Games – facilitated the spectacle.

More than that, the work of professionals and volunteers allowed for a level of organisation that was an immense source of satisfaction to all who were involved.

In alignment with this, the motto of the Games was “Inspire a Generation” and there were extensive commentaries in the aftermath of the Games that the legacy of London would indeed allow for such inspiration to expand access to sport and to create a sense of possibility through sport that would prove transformative.

It is true that Olympic Games are awarded to cities rather than to countries, but the London Olympics were cast as a celebration of Britishness. And it could be said that the triumph of the Games was a demonstration of the very best of Britain: a modern multicultural society which, allowing for its enduring problems, was secure and prosperous.

The euphoria of that August of ten years ago make the excesses of such claims largely understandable as people were carried along by a wave of delight, hope and pride.

Now, however, when reading the reports of that glorious summer of 2012, there is reminder after reminder of just how much has changed in Britain.

Indeed, so much of this sense of unity of purpose and pleasure has been squandered that it appears almost delusional to have even considered it to be possible in the first place, let alone believed it to be true.

It is, of course, the case that the idea that all was well in Britain at the time is a nonsense; it was too glib a claim for it to be sustainable, not least given the austerity of the post-financial crash years.

And it is always the case that successive Olympic Games are used by countries to present an image of themselves that is very carefully curated. Look at the Beijing Olympics of 2008 or the Sochi Winter Olympics of 2014. This was autocracy dressed to present a modern sophistication and the illusion of very particular values.

But, allowing for that, it is a stunning fact that it is exceptionally difficult to see how a London Olympics now could conceivably draw Britain or Britishness together, even in a mirage; such is the disunity on the island that all pretence of otherwise would collapse.

It is one of the great ironies of the London Olympics that one of the people most associated with their success should also be one of the great architects of the crisis which is now gripping Britain: Boris Johnson.

It is obvious that the Olympic Games were the perfect political vehicle for Johnson. It allowed for an apparently endless carnival of photo opportunities and inconsequential speechifying. He got to appear energetic and eloquent and in charge. He could bathe in the glory of the hour.

But he was singularly incapable of using his office as Mayor of London in the years after 2012 to live up to the legacy promised by the Games. In everything from urban regeneration to widening participation in sport, Johnson failed.

To be fair, this is the type of failure that is commonplace after Olympic Games in host cities across the world for decades; the amount of money that is spent does not ever translate in the scale of wider social benefits and developments that are routinely promised in the rhetoric.

But where Johnson most brutally destroyed any potential legacy of 2012 was in his pre-eminent role as one of the extraordinarily arrogant Etonian Brexiteers whose incompetence and disregard for the lives of others continues to reveal itself more fully by the day.

In the cynicism of his Brexiteer pose and in the manipulations which saw him elected prime minister, Johnson behaved in ways that have proven deeply divisive. That he has lied repeatedly is long established fact. That he is leaving high office in disgrace, exposed time and again as unfit for the role, is a cause for celebration in that he has been revealed for what he is – but the damage he has wrought will not be undone any time soon, and most likely not at all.

Johnson’s successor as Prime Minister seems sure to be Liz Truss. Where do you begin with her except to say that the Tory Party seems set fair to foist yet one more incapable opportunist on the country it rules.

It says much about Truss that she has said: “We need to revive the Olympic 2012 spirit – a modern, patriotic, enterprising vision of Britain and we need to use Brexit to achieve that.” 

It takes some fairly extraordinary contortions to produce a sentence like that. Although if you have seen the YouTube clip of the speech she gave on cheese, pork and apples in 2014 to the Tory Party annual conference, it will not come as a major surprise. There is something so profoundly vacuous about that speech that is a small bit terrifying.

Although the closing ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games did not gather the sort of spectacular reviews that Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony received, it nonetheless contained brilliance. In particular, the “Symphony of British Music” that ran for more than an hour drew together the music of David Bowie, The Who, Fatboy Slim, and The Spice Girls, among many others. The music was a powerful reminder of the prestige and global resonance of British popular culture. In short, it was an exuberant way to finish the London 2012 Olympic Games.

But when you look at the performances now, they are changed utterly by context. History has a way of rendering absurd so much of what we once believed might be about to unfold. Looking forward from the 2012 London Olympics, it would not have seemed plausible that Britain would leave the European Union, or that Boris Johnson would be elected its Prime Minister. But working away beneath the surface were the elements of dissonance that have caused such upheaval. And it is not so much that the Tory Party was unable to manage these elements, rather they helped create them, fostered them and then allowed them control.

Paul Rouse is professor of history at University College Dublin

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