What if the Olympics hadn’t been staged in London and had been awarded to Paris or Moscow instead? What would it be like in London right now? How would we be feeling?
I think in our guts we know the answer: miserable. Because, if we’re honest, that’s how it’s been for quite some time. Miserable.
If the years of relentless media doom and gloom on the economy hadn’t already scraped the smiles off our faces, the bankers, MPs, tabloid journalists, rioters and footballers lined up one after the other to make sure the job was done properly. Still not miserable enough? Along came this Summer’s dodgy jet stream and a thick cow pat of sogginess blanketed the country for what seemed like a hundred years. By July, it really was getting to us. Mis-er-able.
And now? Well, let’s not get carried away. But let’s also not underestimate what has happened this last couple of weeks.
When you walk London’s streets, when you talk to people, there’s a peculiar scent in the air. First, a whiff of something distinctly un-British that I’ve not really experienced before. Pride? Then, distinct notes of something else, something altogether alien to most of us… unmistakably: optimism.
The Olympics has shown that we can achieve great things. We can stage the biggest show on earth with efficiency and panache. Roared on by us, our athletes have inspired us. We’re not losers, we can – if we put our backs in to it – actually win stuff. I know. I realise that’s a lot to take in, so I’ll repeat it: we are not losers.
Wiggins, Hoy, Pendleton, Trott, Farah, Ennis, that ginger lad from Milton Keynes. These are true role models; people who when you hear them speak fill you with pride and admiration. Thank God for them. Perhaps now our children have a real alternative to the over-indulged, self-obsessed X Factor contestants and Premiership footballers that have been so influential for so long.
‘Ha! You can’t snap us out of our miserablism that easily’, snarl our miserablist countrymen, ‘what about the squillions that have been shelled out? What about when the Olympi-party’s over and we’re on our hands and knees scrubbing the wine stains out of the carpets with our bleeding knuckles because we can’t afford a bucket and sponge? Look at Athens for chrissake!’
Well, to that I say: calm down, it’s an investment that we can well afford to make.
Estimates for the total cost of the Olympics are in the region of £10bn. Sounds a lot, right? It is a lot. But let’s put it in context. The budget of £10bn has been outlaid gradually over a seven-year period, three-quarters of which has gone on root and branch regeneration of one of the capital’s most polluted and deprived areas, where 60 years of desperately needed development has been achieved in less than six years.
What’s more, to put the cost of the Olympics in to a different kind of context, out of the UK’s £690bn annual public spending budget, each year we lay out £7bn on nuclear decommissioning, another £7bn on the NHS staff pension scheme and hand out over £20bn in housing benefits. We’re blowing £7bn on shiny new aircraft carriers and a cool £30bn on replacing Trident. Rest assured, dear Miserablists, the UK economy can manage the cost of the Olympics without too much trouble.
BUT, the key point that Daily Mail readers and black cab drivers fail to grasp is that the Olympics is potentially much, much more than merely a cost to be burdened. London 2012 may just end up being the best strategic investment the country’s ever made if it helps us shake off our negativity and extract ourselves from the quagmire of gloom that we’ve been flailing around in for so long.
I genuinely believe that the Olympics is capable of this and more. We saw what the Olympics did in Sydney (I was there and I felt it, but if you don’t believe me just ask any Sydney-sider), we saw it vividly in Beijing (again, just ask a Chinese person whether they thought the Olympics was worth it) and I believe we are seeing it now in London and the positive effects will be long-term and profound.
This last couple of weeks Great Britain may just have rediscovered the pride, optimism and self-confidence that we’d forgotten we had. London 2012 has the potential to be a powerful psychological stimulus for London and the country. We damn well needed it, we’ve got it, now let’s make the most of it.