Simon Kelner: How the celebrities gave way to the real achievers

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Take a room full of cynical hacks, professional show-offs, embittered comedians and been-there-done-it-all showbusiness types. Add a large quantity of free booze. Stir it all up in the glare of publicity, and you have a potentially lethal cocktail.

But then inject a big old measure of Olympian spirit into the atmosphere, and just watch the toxic fumes evaporate. This is what happened at the Royal Opera House the other night. The GQ Men of the Year awards have seen a fair bit of questionable behaviour down the years, ranging from co-presenters Elton John and Lily Allen having a foul-mouthed spat on stage, through Dom Joly heckling everyone who won an award and being banned for life, to Kate Moss storming off after a major sense of humour failure. But this year was different. The cynicism was replaced by wide-eyed admiration, and the imperative to misbehave was eclipsed by the desire to offer respect. That's because among the gathering were people whose achievements went beyond being able to cook a steak, or sing a song or tell a joke.

Men and women whose athletic endeavours captured the hearts of a nation, and who - seemingly - have effected a profound change in our outlook on life. The GQ awards have traditionally pulled in a stellar guest list, but there was a qualitative upgrade with the presence of a clutch of British Olympic heroes, including Bradley Wiggins, Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Greg Rutherford and, yes, The Mobot.

World-weary sorts went weak at the knees at the sight of Bradley Wiggins in his natty checked suit. And I even found myself in the unfamiliar position of being deeply affected by the words of Lord Coe. All this may be because sport moves people, and touches the spirit, in a way that very little else does. But I think there may be a more profound reason. I know the effect may not last long, but the whole Olympic experience has definitely changed things. Such evidence is clearly anecdotal, but I have detected a greater sense of civic pride in the capital, a wave that Boris Johnson is shamelessly surfing. ("I would have been blamed if it all had gone wrong," he said while receiving an award, "so I might as well take the credit for its success.")

Also, it's as if the achievements of our athletes and the accomplished staging of the Games has reflected on us all. Maybe we have become happier people as a result. Even if this is a temporary phenomenon, it was apparent on Tuesday night that among the accolades for eminent figures in their own field like Salman Rushdie, or Tom Jones or Sacha Baron Cohen, the biggest ovations were reserved for those who ran, or pedalled, or rowed or lifted. I was only surprised that Danny Boyle, who was present, did not receive an award.

I am sure we will look back on his opening ceremony as a significant moment in modern British history, setting in motion this ongoing celebration of humanity which may, just possibly, change the way we feel about ourselves for ever.