The French peasantry wanted bread and Marie Antoinette suggested they be given cake. Londoners want a city where they can move and breathe. The government-backed proposal is that they be given the Olympics.
It is outlandish, even surreal, in that central contradiction, but there is something worse – massive hypocrisy.
The British government simply has no record of caring about sport. If it did we would not have had the embarrassment of the Pickett's Lock aborted-stadium fiasco, which forced the humiliating abandonment of plans to stage the World Athletics Championships in London.
We would not have the excruciating Wembley saga. We would not have Tony Banks and the incumbent, Richard Caborn, in our list of sports ministers. London would not be providing just a single Olympic-sized swimming pool – in ramshackle Crystal Palace – when French provincial towns offer one in their standard provision of sports facilities.
This is the central falsity of yesterday's enthusiasm for London's bid and the government's belated involvement. There is nothing organic about it. Or passionate. It is not the outcome of a measured policy to give the youth of this country the kind of incentives to participate in sport and have pride in their environment which is so common in most European and American cities. It carries all the hallmarks of a business decision, a cold assessment of all possibilities rather than a leap of faith. Of course, the practicalities require attention. But where is the passion?
It is – no one is making much of a secret of it – a lunge which might just help to re-generate an old city in danger of strangulation. Certainly it is of no great encouragement to hear that a key cabinet player in yesterday's decision was John Prescott, the man whose transport policy became indistinguishable from a pile of rubble. Nor does it thrill the blood to learn that a vital impetus for the project was Chancellor Gordon Brown's approval – if the money could be squeezed out of dwindling lottery resources and an extra donation by the London taxpayers.
There was much political self-congratulation here when Britain had one of its best Olympics at Sydney in 2000. At last some of our outstanding sportsmen and women had the resources to commit themselves to a proper training regime. But the money, which came from the lottery – which is again the dubious foundation of the government's commitment to the 2012 bid – was far from guaranteed and one of its chief beneficiaries, the gold medal-winning boxer Audley Harrison, sounded warnings which simply have not been addressed.
He said that it was all very well to get excited about a few gold medals, but if the British were serious about success on the world stage they had to re-examine the superstructure of sport in this country – and if they did that they would see that one did not exist. "You have to make a real environment for young sports people," he said. "You have to give them facilities at least as good as in other countries; you just cannot expect a few committed individuals to keep beating the odds."
Harrison's own professional boxing career has been something of an indictment of the use of public money, his £1m-plus contract from the BBC yielding a series of matches which might have drawn the attention of government watchdogs in a more sophisticated sporting culture. But the point he made in Sydney could not be detached from the triumphalism which surrounded yesterday's announcement that the government would at least back a bid.
The optimistic view must be that the government will stay the course and provide genuine, disinterested support – and indeed see it as the chance to correct so many years of neglect of sport by past governments, both Labour and Conservative.
But if you are Jacques Rogge, president of the International Olympic Committee, are you gripped by the seductive power of London's bid? Do you see the British government as the bedrock of support for a campaign which must get the better of leading rivals like Paris, New York and Madrid? Perhaps not – not when you think of Pickett's Lock and Wembley and the Dome, and make some kind of assessment of relative attitudes to sport exhibited by the other backing governments.
No doubt a powerful incentive for holding the Olympics has always been the chance to improve the infrastructure of a city and build in facilities for the youth of future generations. We have seen spectacular examples of this in places like Seoul and Barcelona and Sydney. But does London need an Olympics in the way that Manchester or Birmingham did so passionately, and which the former eventually got the chance to prove so magnificently on the more modest stage of the Commonwealth Games?
Staging the Olympics is a huge challenge filled with potential reward – and disaster – and until yesterday the inference which had to be drawn from the government's position was that it was more conscious of the risks than the opportunity. Now, having nursed itself past that point, it has an obligation to display entirely new levels of conviction.
While the government is doing that, or not, it has to understand why everyone was not reaching for the champagne yesterday. It has, apart from inviting David Beckham and Sven Goran Eriksson to No 10, no track record in sport, has displayed no feeling for it, no understanding of its impact on the spirit of a nation. In his first days in office, the sports minister performed abysmally when ambushed by a simple sports quiz on a radio show. Against this background, the laurel crown inevitably seems rather a long way away.Reuse content