Culture of the loser

spiked editor Mick Hume in The Times (London).

Mick Hume

Mick Hume

Topics Politics

Two Olympian questions are up for debate in Westminster this week. Should Britain bid to bring the 2012 Games to London? And should Britain send the Elgin Marbles back to Greece, in time for next year’s Athens Olympics?

For those who hope to live in a society that sets its sights high, the right answers are ‘Yes’ and ‘No’, respectively. But these are miserabilist times. Even when the Government seems ready to give the right answer, it has less to do with raising horizons than with lowering costs. Accountancy triumphs over aspiration every time.

As the Cabinet prepares to decide on the London bid, reports have it that ministers are suddenly keener on a proposal that they seemed to have ruled out. But despite his famous spirituality, Mr Blair does not appear to have been moved by the Olympic spirit. The Government is more open to a bid because somebody else has promised to foot the bill. The deal is that costs would be covered by council taxpayers, the national lottery, the International Olympic Committee and television companies, making the Olympics effectively cost-free for the Government.

An extra 20 quid a year for seven years on my council tax bill seems a small enough price to pay for the Olympics. The more positive vibes about the bid should be something to get excited about, especially for us residents of northeast London where much of the redevelopment is planned to take place. Yet there is something depressing about the penny-pinching, make-do-and-mend tone of the discussion.

Take the vexed question of transport in London. An Olympic bid could be the hammer to beat the city’s transport infrastructure into shape, forcing through major projects. It seems more likely, however, that the Olympics would be bolted on to the existing systemic chaos. One report notes that ministers now think they can cope with the extra half-a-million spectators a day, simply by ‘holding the Games in August, increasing buses, changing the traffic lights and altering the congestion charging’. Why not just stage all of the events in the middle of the night, when there is far less traffic and no trains to worry about?

Many have suggested that the Government’s reluctance to back an Olympic bid reflects its fear of creating ‘another Dome’ by building expensive stadiums that turn into unused white elephants. But the difference between the projects is striking. Nobody ever knew what the Dome was for. It seemed useless even when it was open. By contrast, everybody knows what the Olympics are about. Yet a Government that poured millions into the Greenwich money pit seems desperate to avoid spending a penny on a solid gold event such as the Olympic Games.

Yesterday Mr Blair announced that the Cabinet’s decision would depend on two factors: ‘affordability’ and ‘winnability’. In other words, we won’t bid unless it can be done on the cheap, and we won’t risk entering the race if there is any chance of being beaten, especially by the French. Would he advise Olympic competitors to take the same attitude?

And it’s not just the Government. Last week Ken Livingstone, London’s Mayor, championed an Olympic bid as a blow against Britain’s ‘we can’t do this’ culture. Which sounded a little rich, coming from a leader who cannot organise a fireworks display in a capital city, and whose office describes New Year’s Eve as ‘not an event, it’s a public order problem’.

Meanwhile, at a reception elsewhere in Westminster today, British politicians, Olympic medallists, actors and actresses will call for the Parthenon Marbles to be returned to Athens. The Marbles debate embodies much the same spirit of low expectations as the discussion about the London Olympics. The tone is increasingly set by a defeatist campaign that looks upon the presence of these antiquities, at the heart of the British Museum’s unique display of human history, as if it were an object of national shame. Perhaps they should call themselves ‘Luvvies for Self-Loathing’. It remains to be seen how firmly the Government – which has defended the Marbles’ presence more on pragmatic than principled grounds – will hold the line.

Britain should bid to get the Olympics, and fight to hold on to the Marbles, for similar reasons: to demonstrate that our society values something higher than the bottom line, and that it believes not only in itself but in our universal human culture.

It might be easier to thrash out these issues if both debates were not quite so clogged up with quotes from sporting celebrities, reading from somebody else’s script about everything from social inclusion to cultural imperialism. Never mind keeping politics out of sport, let’s kick sportspeople out of politics.

This article is republished from The Times (London)

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Topics Politics


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