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What will be the real legacy from these Olympics?

If the Olympics are all about national projection and image-making, then London 2012 has surely shattered one remaining national stereotype. We are not uptight purveyors of the stiff upper lip. We haven't been for years - probably not since the death of Diana - but this hasn't stopped Americans and others portraying us as such.

Two weeks ago, the Olympics were being denounced as chaos and fiasco. Then, in the twinkle of Danny Boyle's eye, the coverage shifted, culminating in ululations of joy in the papers which even the empty seats debacle couldn't drown out.

The truth is that these Olympics are showing the best and worst of Britain. The global financial model that has brought unparalleled wealth for some (and brought economies to their knees and social divisions to the fore) is on display everywhere in and around the Olympic village.

The juxtaposition of the huge public interest, in which many have struggled to find tickets even at inflated prices, and the rows of unoccupied places in which company executives cannot be bothered to turn up for their freebies, has served as an important symbol of a broader malaise.

And yet the positives have so far hugely outweighed the negatives. The opening ceremony displayed contemporary Britain at its best - inventive, ambitious, irreverent, diverse ... and just a bit bonkers.

Initially, it reminded me of the sunny-upland-moment of 1997 and the New Labour-meets-Cool Britannia victory, which would eventually turn so sour. The optimism of 15 years ago was accompanied by a hubris that gave way to economic and military recklessness. The 2012 variant was altogether more self-deprecating.

So will any of this last? Fast forward to the end of October, when the clocks move back, the long nights set in and the summer-that-wasn't disappears.

The economy will hover between stagnation and recession; spending cuts will bite harder than ever, the bankers will continue their rapacious ways with blithe indifference to the rest of society. Meanwhile, many of the factors that exploded with the riots in London and elsewhere last August will remain unresolved, indeed possibly sharpened.

I hope I am wrong and that something sustainable will emerge from these two weeks of celebration (followed, one hopes, by similar enthusiasm for the Paralympics at the end of the month).

Beyond sentiment and wishful thinking, where is the evidence that the Olympic spirit will be sustained in more normal times?

There are some threads of hope. Our eccentricity and originality has a successful outlet through our creative industries. Apart from the odd Right-winger, it seems that most of us are increasingly comfortable with social and demographic diversity.

All the while, however, economic inequality continues to sharpen. Westminster's attempts to address greed and the under-regulation of financial services and executive pay are proving no more successful, or sincere, than under the previous administration.

Unless - or until - our body politic and our public can find a way of reconciling the positive impulses of ambition and success, with a requirement to act responsibly to the rest of the society, then nothing will change.

This is the opportunity presented by these Olympics; where individual excellence is celebrated within the context of a broader purpose. But how do you achieve that reconciliation of these separate impulses?

Underlying that question may be the key to the economic re-balancing politicians talk about, but have so far failed to identify in concrete terms.

This is what has so frightened Labour since the mid-1980s.

From that point, it saw any form of meaningful intervention as political suicide, failing to appreciate that society has always been able to distinguish between success and avarice, between achievement and entitlement. I have enjoyed the three or four events I've been able to attend; learning about trampolining, diving, canoe sprinting and, yes, beach volleyball. I have enjoyed watching the crowds and soaking up the cacophony of sound and pink and purple signposts. It has been a small fix, a brief moment of escapism.

There has been much discussion about the Olympic legacy; more than one quango has been established to ensure that the construction projects of the past seven years do not go to waste. It is vital that the stadiums, Olympic Park and the landscaping are put to good use.

The other form of legacy is harder to measure. To what degree will the Olympics leave a lasting impression on our minds?

What will the thousands who have given up their time have to show for their efforts in, say, six months' time? I am not talking about financial recompense, but something far more valuable.

To what degree will they feel they have played their part, not just in putting on a great festival, but in changing their country for the better?

Or will they, come November, be continuing to scrimp and save and pay their taxes, while others make a mockery of the system.

The Olympics may very well slip out of our consciousness as quickly as they entered it. I hope I'm wrong.


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