2012 Olympics: London tests itself for a third time

LONDON is the first city to host the modern Olympics three times. In 1908, it was as proxy for financially straitened Rome. In 1948, it was to balm a world still feeling war’s pinch. In 2012, it will be – however inadvertently – to distract the world, especially Europe, from recession. Somehow, the role of the Olympics in London always is to provide cheerful relief.

1948 was called the Austerity Games. In 2012, about £11 billion ($33.5 billion) has been lavished on infrastructure, security and staging. London, we know, will do pomp and ceremony well, and the right thing dutifully; in Olympic Park, there will be official boxes for peacock princes, but also 650 coops for birds and bats.

Running the sports is the easiest part. Logistics is the hardest. London in summer is a crowded city anyway, and at the peak of the Olympics will be teeming as Beijing never was. On a normal day, there are 3.5 million public transport trips. On the busiest Olympic day, there will be 3 million more. The marathon could not be routed across the Thames for fear of gridlock, and so will finish not in the stadium as usual, but Pall Mall. Visitors will have to learn to adopt a stiff upper lip.

Otherwise, seemingly, London has outlived the standard Olympian coniptions: a ticketing fiasco, grumblings of disaffected locals and concerns about unreadiness. Suave Lord Sebastian Coe is as presentable face as any the Olympic movement has recently had.

Australia will be, as ever, nakedly ambitious. This will chafe against two forces. One is the certainty of its gradual slide down the medals table since Sydney 2000. The Olympics have become an arms race, and Australia cannot win it. The AOC’s position is the default of all Australians who don’t get what they want: it blames the government.

The other force is Great Britain’s ambition, for once as bare-faced as Australia’s. Replete with lottery money, figuring on a 10 per cent home ground advantage, the Brits are in it to win it, or at least beat Germany and France. Australia wants at least to beat Great Britain. This Ashes-style Olympics is Australia’s new reality, consummated by an exotic bet between the sports ministers of the countries that will humiliate the loser.

Typically, the Olympics bring out the best and worst in mankind. Both have been on display. The worst is pretentious rhetoric, bombast and venality, specifically petty selection squabbles and the low rumble of drugs, a nerve that Lance Armstrong pricked hypodermically. More tests than ever will be conducted in London, but the unanswerable question remains: is finding nothing more damning than finding something?

The same could be asked about the Olympics’ other serial stalker, security, in London a £2 billion operation, styled as intensive but subtle.

The best is that the Olympics do cast a spell, able in its time and place to melt the heart of even the most grumpy curmudgeon. To feel it is to know it. This is all the more remarkable for the fact that the Olympics are the embodiment of Warholian 15-minute fame. Though consisting mostly of ephemeral people and events, each Olympics leaving an indelible mark. Some part of Paul Sheahan, Test cricketer, headmaster and MCC president, still wants to be a triple jumper.

The Olympics and their host cities rub off on each other, and neither is quite the same afterwards. Sydney fell into a 10-year fug, Europe’s banks have all but foreclosed on Athens and Beijing has disappeared again behind its shroud. For now, London is thinking only about a £2 billion, 0.5 per cent nudge to the economy. The world should hope at least that when the last Olympic echo has died, it is still good old London town.

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