After the fireworks, the world is left to reflect on a tarnished ideal

Here in Athens last night, as the fireworks lit up the sky and in the afterglow of Kelly Holmes's extraordinary double gold, there was the usual Olympic stock-taking. It is a little bit like reviewing the conduct of an unruly, greedy child.

Here in Athens last night, as the fireworks lit up the sky and in the afterglow of Kelly Holmes's extraordinary double gold, there was the usual Olympic stock-taking. It is a little bit like reviewing the conduct of an unruly, greedy child.

What is the proper reaction to the devious, manipulative and sometimes sinister behaviour of this spoilt and sprawling institution, which every four years turns into a vast, money-devouring city state?

Often the instinct is to send it to its room and throw away the key. Think of the saving in money and vulnerable emotion.

The Greek bill has soared above the £6bn mark and will take a generation to discharge - and what is the product of this crippling parentage?

Here, on the eve of the Games, it was the national trauma of seeing your two great sporting heroes, the gold and silver sprinting medallists of Sydney 2000, Konstandinos Kederis and Ekaterina Thanou, running away from drug testers. It was a picture of corruption that could never be banished from these 28th Olympics, any more than the Pontius Pilate speed with which the Olympic officials returned the problem to the Greeks and athletic authorities.

A dramatic manifestation of the effects of that betrayal of the ancient meaning of the Games came a few nights ago when the crowd in the beautiful main stadium booed and hissed the American finalists in the 200 metres, one of the explosive events which used to be at the heart of the appeal of the Olympics. A protest against the imperialism of the United States? No, something much more basic to belief - or the lack of it - in the old integrity of Olympia, the ancient seat of the Greek sports culture where a Russian woman last week won the shot put gold and promptly tested positive for illegal drugs for the second time in her career.

No, the protesting Greeks were saying that the Olympics were operating a terrible double standard. The heroes of the host nation were hounded into their shame. The Americans, who through NBC television are the ultimate paymasters of the Games, were given a much easier ride.

Of course we could shut out such gnawing suspicion and, particularly if we happened to be British these past few days, we could be thrilled by extraordinary deeds. We could salute the magnificently consistent competitive standards of the great rower Matthew Pinsent and the sailor Ben Ainslie, who, starting as a 19-year-old in Atlanta in 1996, has made himself unquestionably the finest single-handed yachtsman in the world.

We could be warmed by the relentless pursuit of medals by the cyclist Bradley Wiggins and, on Saturday night, we could salute the resilience of Kelly Holmes, who, after spending most of her athletic life as a nearly woman, rose to the peak of Mount Olympus with her historic golden double in the 800 metres and 1,500 metres, a feat beyond the powers of even the great Sebastian Coe.

Admirers of Ian Thorpe and Michael Phelps, phenomenal swimmers from Australia and America, will tell you that only the Olympics can properly provide an adequate stage for their brilliant and often moving talent.

And where would we send the sensational young British boxer, Amir Khan, and all the Greco-Roman wrestlers who every four years emerge from the backwoods of Turkey and Kazakhstan and Wyoming and get the chance to show the world the result of their dedication and fierce competitive instincts? Would we lightly discard the beauty that comes in the gymnastic hall every four years, and nowadays without the stigma of the arrested physical development of girls as they approach womanhood?

Perhaps, you might say, if we take the best we also have to live with the rest? But at what cost to our sense that we are supporting something that is more about power and money and nationalism? This question will never have been put into such a sharp and troubling focus as it will in four years in Beijing.

China was awarded the Games despite opposition from human rights campaigners, but of course traditionally the Olympics have never worried much about the concept of life and values.

In Mexico City in 1968, the festival of youth went on blithely despite the fact that the blood of protesting students had scarcely dried on the streets. Four years later, the plutocrat American Olympic president Avery Brundage insisted that the Games must go on - after a perfunctory day's rest and respect - despite the slaughter of Israeli athletes and coaches in the Munich athletes village.

Until this day the IOC has refused to recognise officially the loss of those Israelis.

Will the martyrs of Tiananmen receive any more recognition at the dawn of the 29th Olympics? It is not likely. Instead will we see an astonishing example of Olympic giantism.

Meanwhile the Greeks, who organised the Games that last night closed as beautifully as they opened two weeks ago, will still be paying their bills. They will be able to take pride in their achievements as hosts of the Games they first gave the world. Congratulating themselves on their wisdom, however, may be an entirely different matter.

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