The irresistible human stories of the past weeks have simply erased the scepticism of the previous seven years
Just the victory parade to go, and then Britain’s summer of love will be over. London 2012, the capital’s greatest party in living memory, is done. At the risk of using up the entire annual quota of Guardian editorial schmaltz in one go, this past month it feels as if most of us have been (as Boris Johnson would have it) cropdusted with serotonin, the happiness hormone. The Olympics held the country rapt but, against all expectations, the Paralympics made them feel like a mere warm-up act. From July’s opening ceremony to the festival of flame, the venues have been packed and the TV audiences, national and global, have broken all records. There has surely been no comparable event in this country since the coronation nearly 60 years ago.
The athletes are the most obvious but far from the only factor in this success. In a world of professional sport where every aspect is commodified, the Olympic ideal is extraordinarily resilient. A handful of the global superstars – Usain Bolt and now Mo Farah – have enhanced their personal value, but most have driven themselves relentlessly for the glory alone. So they are interesting not as, say, some abstract transfer deal with a gambling habit, but as individuals who, like all true heroes, might be any one of us. The Paralympics have overlaid this already astonishing substance with their personal tales of sudden grief and disaster overcome – although their particular triumph has been to make us disregard altogether the athletes’ disabilities and shift the focus to their capacity to compete and win. Or to lose. For every victory there are a score of defeats, where the years of sacrifice have turned to ashes. These are more accessible tales, and the more telling. If sport can be said to have a moral purpose, it is that it can show it is worth more to try and fail than not to try at all, and the devastation and the fortitude of the losers is more moving even than the easier joy of the victors. The irresistible human stories of the past weeks have simply erased the scepticism of the previous seven years.
Of course, if you have £9bn to spend on a party, surely only a dolt could fail. But a single day of the widely anticipated public transport chaos or of fractious queues or malfunctioning lavatories would have soured the event. Instead, the least attractive aspects of London 2012, the ZiL lanes and the Visa-only policy and McDonald’s and Coca-Cola as purveyors of sustenance to a sporting nation, were smothered not only by the competition but by the ocean of good humour fostered by the joviality of the volunteers, the inspirational architecture and the attention given to the natural landscape (with apologies to those who had to move to make room for it all).
Now it is all about the legacy. Some things that once seemed improbable may now be within reach. Boris Johnson really could be in Downing Street within the decade, where perhaps the experience of being suspended on a zip wire might inform his attitude the frequent failings of public transport policy towards people in wheelchairs. Seb Coe has become an interesting candidate for mayor. More substantially, there is the promise on the local economic legacy, of regeneration of homes and recreation of jobs, and there is the equally important promise to translate the amplified passion for watching sport into an equal passion for doing it.
But there is more. Danny Boyle’s description of Britishness as something that is as much an achievement of its ordinary citizens as it is of empire and monarchy was exactly right for the festival of sport that followed because both are reminders of what the state can achieve. Britain’s athletes have been the beneficiaries of what amounts to an industrial policy for sport, millions channelled through expert organisations to find and train stars. London 2012 itself was initiated, orchestrated and largely funded by the state. It was a collective national effort, where successive governments of different political persuasions stuck to a common policy and showed just what, with imagination and ambition, can be done.