Belfast Telegraph

Sunday 23 November 2014

James Lawton: Will London Olympics deliver?

LONDON, ENGLAND - JULY 25: The Olympic Stadium is pictured in Olympic Park ahead of the London 2012 Olympic Games on July 25, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

It is the great moment now, the one that has finally arrived, blood-rushing and expectant that the London Olympics will be all that they were promised to be when they were stolen – yes, stolen with dazzling political opportunism by Lord Coe and that other slick operator, Tony Blair – from under the haughty nose of Paris in Singapore seven years ago.

There is indeed reason to believe that London can seize this moment as well as it worked the larceny on that dramatic day in the Far East when the French, armed with a bid that boasted an infinitely superior sports infrastructure and record of nurturing its young sports people, were left ashen-faced in their disbelief.



Why not London if you want a spectacular show? They have been going on here since a different Queen Elizabeth came up the Thames in a barge and Winston Churchill was taken to his rest in another one. Who touches us for a Royal Wedding or a Jubilee and who can doubt we have an impressive cast list of potential heroes and heroines?



Sir Chris Hoy, a ready-made knight, is plainly capable of acquiring more pieces of gold for a cycling team which won such honour in Beijing and which also unleashes the still vibrant ambition of Tour de France warrior Bradley Wiggins and the remorseless, brilliantly quirky Mark Cavendish.



Jessica Ennis has shown that she can compete at the highest level and says she is steeling herself for a life-time performance.



However controversial her presence in Beijing, Christine Ohuruogu, bred in the shadow of the Olympic Stadium, produced such a stunning effort over 400 metres in the Bird's Nest Stadium and now she asserts her ability to come bounding out of the shadows.



World champion Mo Farah, the adopted Briton who has been so warmly embraced for his dedication and the nerve that carried him to a new world to make a new life, may go in both the 5,000 and 10,000m – and face the challenge of resisting the latest wave of natural-born distance runners from his native Africa.



The rowers, heirs to Sir Steven Redgrave, will battle again at the highest level with reigning Olympic champions Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter at their head, and no team has less reason to envy the inspiration provided by any other tradition.



No, this is not the roll call of a bankrupt sports nation, by no means.



It gives more than a passing hint of its potential given the kind of support which down the years has been so much greater in rival European countries like France and Germany and Italy.



In Beijing, with the help of funds swollen by the desire for a competitive team when the world arrived on these shores, Britain won 47 medals, including 19 gold.



This was a statement of most serious intent and four years on there is reason to hope, despite the escalating pressure that inevitably attaches itself to a home competitor, of at least as significant an impact.



But then there is another shoe to drop in these Olympic Games and it will take years from the extinguishing of the Olympic flame for it to happen. Then, we can only hope that the politicians now picking up their free tickets for a peek at Usain Bolt in the 100m final and all the corporate hucksters booking their days out in an unfamiliar part of the city have retained at least some of their interest.



We are talking about the promises made so freely on that day of unexpected success in Singapore.



We are talking about what should be at the heart of this Olympic performance.



We are talking about the possibility that Britain, when the party is over, will be making genuine strides away from the status of one of the sick nations of European and world sport.



The indicators are not so good, it has to be accepted. Figures that were supposed to soar in the vital matter of coaching neglected young people have not been massaged into significant life. Indeed, the talk of the great Olympic legacy has stalled to the point of embarrassing silence.



It is a challenge that has to be put under the microscope when the hype has dwindled and all the tickets, including all those on the black market, have been sold.



In Singapore Blair talked about this great opportunity for the youth of the world, perhaps forgetting that the scandal of the school fields sell-off was quite as shocking under his government as those of the Tories.



Coe, who so adroitly worked his vast prestige within the Olympic movement, who picked up an ailing bid campaign that seemed quite remote from the realities of sport politics, went even further.



In the glow of victory he announced, "This is just the most fantastic opportunity to do everything we have ever dreamed of in British sport."



Many who work in the grass roots of British sport, who nurse the hope of some help in their effort to wean so many young people in the inner cities off the physical stagnation of lives denied the opportunities commonplace in the smallest towns of France, so many of which take pride in their Olympic-sized swimming pools and running tracks and football fields, would settle for something much less than Coe's big dream.



They would be happy with some sense that even in these financially straitened times the health of the nation's youth, its ability to find some horizons beyond the street corner, is given some rating beyond its potentially negative impact on the accounts of the local council.



Certainly the recent decision to impose VAT charges on the providers of five-a-side football pitches, which understandably outraged sports minister, Hugh Robertson, operating in the middle of a rising Olympic frenzy, struck the flattest of notes.



Its brings us back, sharply enough, to the question that over the next few weeks will be properly at the forefront of any debate that goes beyond the daily dramas of the swimming pool and the running track. It asks the historic question: what are the Olympics for?



Are they for political aggrandisement and corporate profit? Are they for the celebration of celebrities like David Beckham, around whom, Lord Coe announced, on-going discussions were seeking to "scope" a role more meaningful than that of a mere "ambassador"? This was about the time the army was being mobilised to fill a serious shortfall in Olympic security staff – and shortly after the British Olympic football manager Stuart Pearce had detonated the news that in all conscience he couldn't select Beckham as captain or player.



At such moments you have to wonder about the hardest purpose of this huge and emotion-whipped enterprise.



The critics of the Olympics, now waiting in ambush around every corner, will tell you quickly enough their views on what these Games are mostly about. They will say they are for the benefit of a great, moving city state which every four years stakes out new terrain for plunder.



They will say they are as much about money-grubbing as glory, they will point out the drug corruption that has lain behind so much of the success and that for many years was never truly engaged.



Yet, of course, they tell only half the story. They do not tell you how it is when a Usain Bolt or a Carl Lewis reaches out and achieves the impossible, they do not evoke the memory of a Redgrave making his last winning effort on a sunlit Sydney morning or all the emotions that crowd together when an Olympics is over, when the flame is shut down and all the hopes and the fears have been gathered in.



What we can only hope for now that the moment has come, and the value of the Singapore coup can begin to be assessed, is that indeed a neglected section of a great city will have a new sense of itself and a swagger that comes when you are part of great events.



We can hope too that the show goes well and carries all of those old redemptions, moments which are sealed in the memory for ever with the stride of a Bolt or maybe the leap or the throw of an Ennis, and that we can say, yes, maybe it was worth it.



And what would be the best measure of this? It would be the ultimate legacy, the kid inspired to change his life and see the world in an entirely different and infinitely more optimistic way.

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