How the Olympics killed the killjoys
In London 2012, elite cynicism was wrestled and defeated by a mass, democratic thirst for spectacle.
As Britain, fuelled by end-of-year retrospectives, continues to bask in the warm afterglow of the Olympics, it may seem difficult to imagine that there was a time when London 2012 was going to be anything but a glorious, lycra-clad success. But, yes, it’s true. Before the event started, there was no shortage of Olympics refuseniks, the type of people who saw the Games as their very own Mayan apocalypse. For this elite constituency, London 2012 loomed on the horizon as the source of a whole host of problems, a prompt, in effect, to imagine the worst in the worst of all possible worlds. And imagine they did.
At the mundane end of the anti-Olympics spectrum, it was simply going to be a massive inconvenience. Transport for London (TfL), fearful of overcrowding on the Tube, even asked the Olympics organisers, Locog, to reduce the number of spectators scheduled to watch an equestrian event by 25,000.
TfL’s fearmongering was positively uplifting compared with the plague-ridden fantasies of the public-health lobby. In the words of one self-styled expert quoted by BBC News: ‘Mass gatherings have been associated with death and destruction – catastrophic stampedes, collapse of venues, crowd violence and damage to political and commercial infrastructure.’ Others preferred to warn of the heightened risk of pandemics, or as one report put it, ‘events such as London 2012 can be a hotbed of diseases from across the world’.
And if the pox didn’t get you, a terrorist probably would. In the words of the Home Office’s Olympic Safety and Security Strategic Risk Assessment: ‘As a high-profile event, the Games are likely to present an appealing target to individuals or terrorist groups.’ This was presumably why it was deemed sensible to place surface-to-air missiles on top of some London tower blocks.
Just as prominent a pre-2012 narrative was that of the miserablists and cynics. Their central concern was cost. As one grumpster wrote in the Guardian in 2008: ‘It cannot make sense with the approach of national austerity to continue to pour crazy sums of money – £9.3 billion – into two weeks of sport.’ Others, more cynical than miserable, did see the sense. The state was shelling out loads of money to keep us, the daft populace, in denial, apparently; it was about stymying our incipient 99 per cent-style class consciousness. The whole Olympics shebang, like the Diamond Jubilee, was no more than ‘bread and circuses’, concluded one self-styled leftie, ‘scheduled to keep the British public happy and obedient’.
Fear, cynicism and a sheer overwhelming desire to piss all over the Olympics parade; these were the key themes of the dominant story that prefaced London 2012. And what was so staggering about the pre-Olympics snipes and snides was that they were effectively green lit by the overt defensiveness of successive governments, both Labour and Lib-Con.
That is, right from the original bidding process onwards, the government and its Olympic quangos were intent on justifying the costs of the Olympics in terms of anything other than elite sport. It was as if they had internalised and pre-empted the snipes about cost, the barbs about utility. As the UK Department of Culture, Media and Sport outlined in 2008, London 2012 would realise a whole host of policy objectives, from ‘transform[ing] the heart of east London’ to ‘inspir[ing] a new generation of young people to take part in volunteering, cultural and physical activity’. This was the point of London 2012, its raison d’être. Forget all that guff about the Olympics being the greatest sporting spectacle on Earth; it was all about the legacy, the social and economic returns on investment. Not that this defensive posturing by officialdom deterred the critics, who thought the Olympics a colossal waste of cash, a big distraction for the easily distracted; rather, it merely spurred them on.
So you see, there was a time, before the sun shone on Stratford, before an audience of billions revelled in an extraordinary spectacle, when the Olympics was the focal point for little more than fear and loathing. A fear of what happens when large numbers of people gather together, and a loathing of the type of high-cost ambition embodied in the staging of an Olympics. In the years after 2005, when London won the bid, the anxieties and prejudices of a narrow stratum of British society, composed mainly of the political and media classes, shaped and formed the pre-Olympics narrative into a tale of hubris and imminent misery and woe.
Then it happened. From the Games’ opening ceremony onwards, another narrative erupted into life, a story drawn from the excitement and enthusiasm of the millions who simply loved what the Olympics is actually about: the sinewy drama of competition, the ceaseless, tenuous striving, and of course, for some athletes, the glory. Mo Farah’s double distance gold, Usain Bolt (enough said), David Rudisha’s 800 metres supremacy… the list goes on.
As the public buzzed, the elite cynics, the miserable pseudo-radical killjoys and the endless panicmongers, simply melted away. A Financial Times journalist revealed the shift in perspective by taking a linguistic look at the coverage: ‘A quick trawl through Factiva’s database of new articles produces 10,314 instances of writers, athletes or spectators using the word “amazing” in an Olympic context since the Games opened on 27 July. That is on top of 6,185 “incredibles” and 3,142 “unbelievables”.’ Confirmed killjoys were converted overnight into overjoys. Sneery, sweary columnist Charlie Brooker admitted that his ‘eyeballs are eating up the Games’. Even that foremost chronicler of urban decay and Olympian misery Iain Sinclair declared himself in awe of cyclist Bradley Wiggins’ ‘mechanical perfection’.
So, in the summer of 2012, the miserable fatalism of an all-too-familiar elite narrative met up with its popular adversary: the smiling, sun-burnished enthusiasm of the public. ‘It was the best experience of my life’, said an Olympics volunteer from Mansfield, near Nottingham. To the low horizons of those in power, London 2012 responded by giving voice to the aspirations of those who want more from life and society. It also seems we can think big, that we are able to mount and pull off a huge hi-tech and organisationally difficult operation like the Olympics. What stands in the way of other big projects, be it a runway, an airport or a high-speed rail link, is not the public – it’s the prejudices, the fears and the low horizons of that narrow stratum of society who were absolutely convinced that London 2012 would be disaster. They were wrong this time. And they will be again.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.