James Lawton: True Olympic legacy burns bright despite bid’s betrayal of our youth
If the bid was dubious, the consequences were glorious
The real Olympic legacy, not the one that so fraudulently underpinned the London bid that beat the infinitely more deserving one of Paris, was heard in the footsteps and felt in the hearts of those who filled the sold-out stadium this evening.
It was the legacy of performance, marvellous performance, and the moving of the spirit of all those who were there to see it and know, in a moment, they had an experience that would last for ever.
That was the gift of such as Bolt and Farah and Ennis-Hill – and it is one which is provided every four years by the Olympics.
This is the most compelling reason for anger at the plundering of a great institution, from within and without. It is also why the palpable collapse of those promises by the politicians and Lord Coe that, on top of the excitement of last summer, there would be lasting benefits for some of the most neglected youth in what we used to so cheerfully describe as the first world is another cause to feel some of the old angst.
Britain’s bid was fraudulent because it was couched as a gift for the youth of the country. The claim ignored the fact that Paris was the capital of a nation with a vastly superior sports infrastructure, one in which the young people had long been invited to enjoy Olympic-standard facilities.
But then if the campaign was founded so dubiously, who can say that the consequences were not glorious? The London Olympics took wing at the stunning opening ceremony, after which a French commentator shook his head and said, “My God, it was magnificent.”
It was indeed and remained so for two unflagging weeks and, last night in the Olympic Stadium, the instinct was not to disinter old arguments but to celebrate the enduring capacity of sport, however flawed and filled with doubt at times, to lift up the people, remind them more of what they share than what keeps them apart.
That was the dazzling achievement of 2012, and last night as you played back so many of the old Games, and even while allowing that London indeed had a powerful case to be seen as, if not the best, certainly a powerful contender, you were reminded more strongly than ever of the astounding durability of Olympic sport. Torn by huge levels of corruption, ravaged by terrorist attack, boycotted to the point of meaninglessness, usurped by Hitler, colonised at vast state expense by China, reduced almost to a cheap-jack bazaar in Atlanta in 1996, riddled with drugs – this evening a memorial was staged on its behalf, and the embrace could hardly have been more affectionate.
Such evidence of a genius for survival is re-enforced by a thousand memories.
Back in Montreal in 1976 some thought the Olympics had touched the bottom. The shadow of Munich four years earlier stretched everywhere. Security was oppressive, army snipers were stationed in the roof of a stadium which would be a burden on city taxpayers for decades, after allegedly providing huge profits for the Mafia, and the opening ceremony was decimated by the sudden boycott of African nations. At the stadium the music of Wagner filled the rafters. At the airport many young Africans wept.
Yet when you look back, the abiding images of Montreal are not of pain and disillusionment. They are of two of the greatest athletes the world had ever seen, Alberto Juantorena of Cuba and Irena Szewinska of Poland, striding to world record victories in the 800 and 400m. Szewinska was winning her fifth Olympic medal. Juantorena, who also won gold in the 400m, was considered an outsider for the longer distance but his stride was quite awesome – something, indeed, to be bracketed with that of last night’s supreme celebrity, Usain Bolt.
The true legacy of the Olympics will never, of course, have anything to do with the projections and the manipulations of political exploitation. If one day they change the way of government thinking, if they take it beyond the populist tricks of high-profile phone calls and premature knighthoods and photo opportunities, it will be another achievement to recognise and salute.
Meanwhile, we can only celebrate the meaning of last night’s pilgrimage to the Olympic Park, the revived ride on the rocket train to a place of such heightened expectation and extraordinary deeds.
We can sift through our memories and count all the times the Olympics have come scarred but not broken through the worst of their afflictions. We can remember the young Sebastian Coe, described as the Byron of the track by the American columnist Jim Murray, winning his second 1500m gold on a smog-smudged night in Los Angeles, and Steve Redgrave in all those Olympics and most especially on the early morning water outside Sydney, and we can understand that much more readily why tonight's tickets were snaffled up in an hour.
Now the memories were fresher and – if you could separate for a little while the great Usain’s need to assert his innocence beneath the latest drug clouds over his sport – perhaps less complicated. They were of deeds – and a special feeling – just a year old but, for anyone who held them, surely guaranteed for a lifetime.
You cannot bank such a legacy and maybe you will never see it in a neighbourhood sports field or swimming pool. But then in the real world it is no less valuable for that.
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