So London 2012 has begun and finally the British public seems to have got behind the Games. Some journalists are still niggling away, although the BBC, which is covering all events 24/7, is now taking a positive, not to say positively mawkish, stand. The traffic is still awful but who expected it to be otherwise? There have been a few blunders, like the American athletes’ 4-hour bus journey to the Olympic Village because their bus driver got lost; or the video showing the North Korean women’s football team against the South Korean flag; and one feels very sorry for the Canadian and Australian basketball players who caught the norovirus bug at their pre-Games hotel. The reputation of security firm G4S has been tarnished beyond repair but I suspect that most people are probably quite relieved that British troops and police are guarding the venues rather than a bunch of school leavers with 4 hours training. Le Monde has already had a little dig at the facilities and the Indian Sports Minister has tweeted that some Indian athletes have declared the accommodation at the Delhi Commonwealth Games 2010 superior to London 2012. But these blips will be forgotten in no time and the British can wallow in nationalistic fervour that they know how to put on a memorable show, confident that the Games will be declared the best ever, as Beijing was in 2008 and Rio will be in 2014.
Mitt Romney did GB a favour when he questioned the British public’s support for the Games, describing London’s preparations as ‘disconcerting’. He had clearly been reading The Daily Mail which has been untiringly pessimistic, at least until Mr Romney put his foot in it. How dare a foreigner come over here and tell us that we’re going to make a mess of the Olympics? PM David Cameron’s terse put-down will have struck a chord with many, even those who usually disagree with everything he represents. London’s controversial Mayor Boris Johnson is no doubt feeling pretty grateful to Mr Romney for the cheers from the 60,000- strong crowd at London’s Hyde Park the evening before the opening. But all kidding aside, the public turnout for the Olympic Torch Relay has been remarkable, no doubt helped by some of the celebrities, sights and downright gimmicks that have accompanied the Torch on its way around the UK, but primarily because of the inspired decision to select as torch bearers members of the general public nominated by their local communities.
So what does hosting the Games mean for Britain? One hears complaints about the over-commercialisation and the waste of public money, and the predictable responses about the economic benefits from the regeneration of the East End, new employment opportunities, increased tourism, etc. But the Olympics are about more than money. They are about showing off to the rest of the world, your country’s ‘moment to shine’ to quote the Torch Relay motto.
The Guardian’s Jonathan Freedland asked yesterday whether it was ‘‘time to find out who we are’. I am no longer privy to the guidance on the official message to the outside world but I would guess that it goes something like this. For the UK, this is an opportunity to display not only that that it deserves its reputation for super-efficient planning and organisation, but that it is capable of extraordinary inventiveness and idiosyncrasy; that it is not only a country of traditions and pageantry but also a country with a ‘quirky’and contemporary approach to life; that it may be a historically ancient nation but it celebrates the diversity of a modern cosmopolitan state. This is not a bad message and with luck, the observers of London 2012 will come to agree.
The chance to show case national assets is not restricted to the host country. Many other countries have set up Hospitality Houses where their own citizens can watch live broadcasts of events, and others can visit to sample national food and drink or experience a piece of that nation’s culture. Kenya meanwhile is using London 2012 as a ready-made marketing opportunity, inviting both foreign investors and Kenyan diaspora to come and meet Kenya’s famed long-distance runners and learn about the country’s future potential at the same time.
And finally, of course, there’s the sport. We have invited some 17,000 athletes, the famous and the less known, from over 200 countries to enjoy our hospitality, our culture, our food, and, yes, our unique brand of humour, and in turn they through their own endeavours will make our own Olympic experience unforgettable. So, whoever we are, it’s time to ‘sit back and let the Games cast their spell’.