But even if one is happy with the idea of creating athletes for the purposes of state propaganda, there are plenty of other reasons why a sportsman — or any citizen — should be sceptical about the Olympic movement. It has been, historically, extremely corrupt in the classic manner of international organisations. There has been corruption in the allocation of games, in the covering up of breaches of rules (including doping) and in the judging of events. The latter includes marking cartels to rival those of the Eurovision Song Contest. I won't dwell on the idea that £12 billion spent on hosting the games is a ridiculous way of spending money, much of it taken from sources that would have gone to grass roots sport and from places that needed money a lot more than London did. Also the "beneficial legacy" argument doesn't really get off the ground in terms of historical examples: the Athens site from 2004 is already derelict and the Barcelona site from 1992, which is considered the most successful and which I visited a few weeks ago, is a minor tourist attraction, but essentially a white elephant. Unless used for other sports, the core problem here is that a stadium with an athletics track is something for which there is demand only three weeks in every four years. There may be some hope that the legacy of London 2012 will be better than that of predecessors, but there isn't much to beat.
All of these criticisms of the games seem to me, at least, rational and informed, but rationality and information have little to do with reality. What is real is what the American sports sociologist Rick Gruneau calls "fairy dust", which turns dross into glamour. The overwhelming majority of people would not normally cross the road to watch gymnastics, weight-lifting or synchronised swimming if they were free — and even track and field athletics is essentially a small and declining sport, but give them the Olympic magic and there is a scramble for tickets, a longing for the chance to say "I was there". It is live attendance that matters; during previous games I have sat with cricket teams many a time in pubs when there has been Olympic sport on television and, although everybody present was interested in sport, nobody even bothered to turn their head to watch. Since this is the first Olympics in England in the television age it will be interesting to see the pattern of viewing figures.
In this context we should attribute a touch of genius and perhaps a bit of luck to the founder of the modern games, Pierre de Coubertin, who insisted on the Olympiad, but eschewed Olympia. Often accused of "Anglomania", he originally wanted his world games to be a tribute to the English public school system. The classical Greek reference proved to be a strong selling point, but it also threatened a kind of ownership by the modern Greeks, whom de Coubertin didn't much like. So after the opening games in Athens in 1896 one of his firmest principles was that they should circulate, even if that meant the games were fairly marginalised as they were, in different ways, in Paris in 1900 and St Louis in 1904. The Greeks held their own (now unacknowledged) games in Athens in 1906. Every four years in a different city means that most people have one chance a lifetime to attend an Olympics.
The Greek project for a permanent site for the games would have made much more economic sense than the system of circulating the games. When the IOC was essentially bankrupt after Montreal in 1976 and lacking potential hosts the Greek version was right back on the agenda. As envisaged by Constantin Karamanlis, then Greek Prime Minister, it would have involved an international sovereign territory with analogies to the Vatican and the United Nations. But in the end Peter Ueberroth's "free enterprise games" in Los Angeles in 1984 proved to be a decisive change of direction. Samaranch embraced the commercial and media potential of the games and now the world's leading cities compete to host and subsidise the games.
But fairy dust is not just a naturally-produced cultural substance. A good deal of effort goes into its manufacture. The BBC may be a balanced broadcaster interested in wide and challenging debate on some issues, but in its proud role of "the Olympic Broadcaster" it is anything but. The rest of our communicators aren't much better. We're all to become Soviet citizens now, if we aren't already, proud to see our men and women up on that podium, symbolising the superiority of our way of life. But though fairy dust is powerful magic, it does not last forever. The question is not what we will make of London 2012 in 2012, but what we will make of it in 2013 and thereafter.
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