It’s easy to bandy around superlatives when the furnace has not yet cooled. London 2012 was a remarkable seventeen days which demonstrated the immense power of sport and its centrality to the human condition. It showcased our country in its most positive light, uplifted the spirit and energised the soul. But don’t we always feel this way in the aftermath of the Olympic carnival? This time, of course, its proximity to home engaged us more readily. The dispelling of the initial fears and apprehensions, the pride in our ability to stage such a monumental occasion and throw our arms around the world in warm embrace, and, not least, the reflected success of our competitors, all heighten the sensation of national contentment. The precious moments will last a lifetime but, in a sense, if any of this is to mean something, the real challenge begins now. Legacy is not memory, history is not reminiscence. Our temple of wonder will not stand for long if we neglect its foundations.
The cost of staging the Games is quantifiably enormous, the value uncertain. The temporary cessation of cynicism throughout the fortnight was predictable. The gathering is about the competition; if we could not enjoy that then it really was a pointless exercise. Yet the misgivings aired before the jamboree, and there were many areas in which I had serious concerns, are not invalidated just because it all progressed so magnificently. Solid organisation was a minimal expectation, the scale of home athletic achievement less so, but it would be dangerously complacent to declare the whole undertaking a glorious triumph before considering what its lasting benefits might be. This was a key component of the original bid. So many previous hosts have wasted a unique opportunity to effect real change. We like to think we are different. The time has come to prove it.
London stands apart from the rest of the United Kingdom. Its experiences are not necessarily those to which the rest of us can readily relate. One of the chief defining qualities of this Olympiad was its internationalism. Our capital is a truly global city. As such it is a comfortable environment for all citizens of the world. The hand of friendship was extended. Patriotism and support for those who represented our country did not come at the expense of equanimity, and this enhanced the atmosphere at the venues. This feeling of togetherness was internalised too. Our medallists came from across the spectrum of society, its rich tapestry illustrated in the faces and experiences of those who wore the colours. Scotland and Yorkshire in particular may seek to claim special credit for their contributions, but athletes of such heritage very often combined in boats, on bikes or as part of collective teams, with others of a separate provenance. Co-operation and unity of purpose is a rarity outside such artificial confines. Healthy rivalry lifts performance but the divisions can be corrosive. A first priority is to somehow roll out the benefits to all corners of the land.
These Games had an unmistakably feminine tinge. For the first time the ladies were able to compete in all fields but their prominence was an important feature. Engaging girls in sport, and turning their attentions from the malign influence of celebrity culture and all its anti-aspirational associations, is a tough proposition. Here, though, we were besieged with positive images of young women who had shown application and determination to deliver personal goals without compromising their looks or essential character. If this sounds condescending, I can only say that it is sad we still have to speak in such terms, but disassociating physical exertion from its rampantly masculine associations is a hurdle which still needs to be overcome. Role models such as Jessica Ennis, Laura Trott, Katherine Grainger and Jade Jones are worth a thousand Premiership footballers. Emancipation can never be complete unless it conquers one of the cornerstone aspects of our cultural being.
Most widely enjoyed games were codified, even if not actually invented, in Britain, but we have allowed our sporting landscape to be dominated by just one. I am a football fan yet have long been dismayed by its monstrous expansion. Hugely exploitative of its followers, it devours obscene sums for little tangible gain. The wages of just one of its average major league players would fund the growth and development of many of the Olympic disciplines we have recently been enjoying. Building on London must entail broadening the palate of the next generation, encouraging them to throw javelins, take to the water, race bikes or ride horses, introducing them to the joys of alternative team pursuits like hockey and handball, and improving the accessibility of all these options. Sensible investment can be good economics and yield dividends elsewhere; an active population ultimately reduces the strain on health budgets for instance. The competitive element is crucial but should not be to the detriment of developing skills. Schools need to have access to quality and qualified coaches. Taking out the politics is essential. Lord Coe should be given powers to take the project forward. Good intentions count for little without the means to deliver.
The media has a responsibility too. Instead of feeding us inconsequential drivel or saturated hype, how about a balanced and thoughtful portrayal more truly reflective of the vast kaleidoscope out there? It is dispiriting to see inane football transfer speculation occupying sports bulletins and the back pages of newspapers out of season, while cricket, golf and tennis languish amid the smallprint. For two weeks every four years when the circus rolls into town, the stories of cyclists, rowers, volleyball players and martial arts exponents are deemed worthy of our attention. Then the music stops and these peripheral concerns slink back into anonymity. Greater coverage would undoubtedly be a prodigious boost to these sports, promoting understanding and appreciation and stimulating participation levels. The BBC, having once more excelled in its public service role, might like to consider resurrecting its old flagship ‘Grandstand’ to provide a platform in this respect.
A sea change in attitudes is required if we are to capitalise on our Olympic odyssey. While the enthusiasm still bubbles, it is all too simple to suppose the future will take care of itself. So much that is good has been revealed in the febrile mood of intoxication, but a massive party is often followed by an equally massive hangover. As the thrill dissipates and the rhythms of everyday life reassert themselves, will we look back and think it has all been a dream? I hope not, but in so many ways I feel that what has happened so far has been the easy bit. So many athletes in London seized the moment and made a difference. We have seen where belief can take us. Now it is our turn to do the same.