James Lawton: While return of Henry is exciting, Our Games can be 2012's star turn


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The Independent Online

One hope for the new year of sport has to be rooted in the meaning of a glorious past – the sublime gift brought to English football by Thierry Henry.

The desire must be that Arsène Wenger's decision to bring him back briefly to Arsenal does not end in embarrassing misadventure, another piece of forlorn evidence that some magic must be treasured in the strong-room of memory rather than risked in the minefield of recreation.

Better, surely, to accept that if Wenger is exposing himself to the hazards of wishful thinking, if he is in danger of reaching too perilously back to days that may well be gone forever, few football men are more entitled to invest in their own judgement of what still constitutes viable and superior talent.

Elsewhere there has to be considerable doubt about Henry's capacity, at 34, to reinvent at least some of the past as his former acolyte Robin van Persie carries such a burden in Wenger's attempts to re-animate a team which seemed to be broken so profoundly a few months ago.

It may also be hard for some to forget the damage caused to Henry's mystique when he resorted to the most blatant cheating while helping France to qualify for the World Cup at the expense of Ireland. There is still, however, a huge debt owed to the Frenchman by English football.

There were days when whole forests might have been denuded of birds by the pull of his charm. He gave to football some of its most beautiful expression and it is only the most miserable of partisans who would now begrudge him at least a few new hurrahs. Who would say no to the possibility of an encore, however fleeting?

Any yearnings, though, on behalf of Henry will be overtaken soon enough by the promptings of national pride. We can say what we like about the coming Olympics. We can raise all the usual questions about the institution itself, its intrigues and its avarice, and we can retain a healthy scepticism about our right to be hosts given Britain's derelict record of supporting young athletes of all disciplines over so many decades leading up to the current burst of enthusiasm and hype.

But they are Our Games, our offering to the world, and we should not forget for a moment the chasm between the legacies of a job well done and the sour taste of a failure of collective will and cohesion.

There are daily reports now of the day-by-day mechanics of the operation. One solemn logistical projection follows another. But the most vital question that has to be asked of the people need not be asked of the athletes because, as always, they have their own singular motivations, as was observed at the Munich Olympics of 1972 when some high profile performers saw the slaughter of the Israeli athletes and coaches not so much as a tragedy as an interruption of training patterns.

The people have to respond to a moment in their history, as their predecessors did in 1948 when the Austerity Games were seen as a triumph for determination and optimism over the desperately thin means imposed by the years of war.

It is of course ironic that London should again get the job when money is so tight and the future so problematical – and that on a second occasion the challenge is also to follow the spectacular Olympics produced by a nation rich in its ability to tap undisclosed state resources.

London '48 came after the Hitler Games. London 2012 is in the shadow of the behemoth production of Beijing. It means that if London is again to impress the world – as Seoul did in 1998, Barcelona in 1992 and Sydney in 2000 – it will be because of something that money can't buy, a possibility that prime minister David Cameron may have overlooked when the other day he took a fretful look at the plans for the opening ceremony and promptly doubled a budget already standing at £40m.

The fireworks at the Bird's Nest stadium and across Beijing possibly cost as much for the blue paper but no amount of glitz and superb choreography could disguise the fact that this was a behemoth state production.

Coming away from the closing ceremony – another mind-boggling display of sumptuous showmanship – in the company of a veteran Olympian, was to be reminded of the extent of the pressure London 2012 was required to endure.

According to Nicola Pallisard, a competitor and observer at 16 summer Olympics, London had found itself in an extremely exposed position. First, it would never be able to compete with the grandeur of Beijing. Secondly, there was the widespread belief that London's defeat of her native, and hot favourite, Paris was something of a fraud.

Her compatriot Arsène Wenger made the same point, at least implicitly, when he declared, "I have been watching the Olympics and the British success is amazing because you have no structure. In France every village has sports facilities provided for the public. Here there is hardly anything. Where do they all go to train?

"In Paris there are 50 competitive swimming pools and in London two, and yet you got the Olympics."

But if the the 76-year-old Pallisard, who finished fourth from the diving springboard in 1948, echoed Wenger in those criticisms, she also believed that London might – as it did so long ago – seize another moment in sports history.

She said, "I finished fourth in London – I won the 'chocolate' medal – but I loved being there and I loved London for staging those Games despite the austere times. A lot of people made great sacrifices for their love of sport and you can never forget that. But I do believe my country should be staging the next Olympics. The Paris campaign went very, very wrong. Maybe there was arrogance. But if you look at our countries and have to say who have put most into sport, who have cared most to give facilities to the young and made them value participation the most, well, that is very simple. Over so many years since the London Olympics of 1948, obviously it is France."

That is one reality. Another is that the very people who have seen their school fields sold off, who have for so long been the poor relations of sports nations like neighbours France and Italy and Germany, still have the capacity to make great Games, where the achievements of an outstanding and, through circumstances, relatively pampered generation of athletes are equipped to win glory alongside a superstar like Usain Bolt.

The great cyclist Mark Cavendish, his relentless team-mate Victoria Pendleton, and athletes like Mo Farah and Dai Greene are among those who have proved that they have the ability and the competitive character to move a nation that might just step beyond the years of neglect.

This inevitably is the central drama of the year, one that will inevitably overshadow the not inconsiderable challenges facing Fabio Capello's England in the European Championship and the world's No 1 Test cricket team led by Andrew Strauss and magnificently directed by Andy Flower when they face the formidable challenge of South Africa.

England's rugby union team must look to someone like young Owen Farrell to reinstate the belief that they are equipped to deal maturely with the pressures of international competition – and perhaps re-educate themselves in the classic values of the world champion All Blacks and the inspiring young Welsh.

The Premier League? Who would bet against Manchester United's defiant belief that they remain the toughest kids on the block? Perhaps it is only the admirers of the weight of Manchester City's playing resources and the heart-warming flair of Tottenham Hotspur. At most, no doubt, it is a three-sided shoot-out.

When this matter is settled, the rather bigger question will emerge. Does London still have the nerve – and the heart – to handle the greatest sports show on earth? The suspicion is "yes" but it is still a little soon to be making any bets.